Everybody goes through a time where they feel unmotivated with their business. In this episode, Steli and Hiten discuss two types of plateaus that can get you down and not moving—the business plateau and the emotional plateau. They share tips and insights for how to identify the rut you are in, how you got there, and the steps and encouragement that will help you get out of that rut to move your business and self forward.

Time Stamped Show Notes:

  • 00:05 – Today’s episode is about how to overcome a plateau in business
  • 00:27 – Plateau means you have flattened out and don’t know what to do next
  • 01:02 – Steli thinks this is a topic that hasn’t been discussed enough
  • 02:20 – Hiten says you may be in a plateau if you feel unmotivated in your business
  • 02:33 – An emotional plateau is when you are not motivated, even as your business is growing
  • 02:40 – The other direction is when the sales are not growing
  • 03:08 – “Figure out why you have a plateau”
  • 04:03 – If the plateau is business-related, it’s just because you do not know how to improve it yet, so find the data that helps you improve
  • 04:55 – Even if things are going well, people will get emotional plateaus
  • 05:31 – The reason why you are plateauing is either because you’ve kept doing the same things or you’ve changed something that was working for you
  • 06:19 – It might be because you changed the wrong thing
  • 06:56 – You need to identify what it is and act on it
  • 07:23 – There are many options for what you could do
  • 08:29 – To break the funk, you have to be brutally honest with yourself
  • 08:45 – Hiten has people who says they break out by asking “what would Hiten do?”
  • 09:36 – A tactic is to write out what you are feeling and write it like a business report
  • 10:34 – Hiten likes to receive reports from start-ups because it shows their self-awareness
  • 11:40 – Steli suggests Episode 139 for how to do effective post-mortems
  • 12:07 – “Either you resisted change or you resisted consistency”
  • 12:31 – The hardest part is not wanting to get out of the plateau
  • 13:20 – You have to suck it up and make uncomfortable choices
  • 14:00 – It will also help to think about the other people of your team who are relying on you
  • 14:10 – Steli and Hiten want to hear from you, go to iTunes to give a review and rating
  • 14:43 – Also subscribe to the email list
  • 15:03 – Steli and Hiten enjoy doing this for all the listeners and because they also enjoy talking to each other
  • 15:14 – End of today’s episode

3 Key Points:

  1. A plateau can be an emotional plateau where you feel unmotivated in your business or a business plateau, where you’re stuck and don’t know how to improve your business.
  2. Identify the cause of your plateau by doing some introspection and act to get OUT of it—whatever the cost.
  3. You can get over your plateau by being real to yourself and stepping out of your comfort zone.


Steli Efti: Hey, everybody, this is Steli Efti.


Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah. And today, on “The Startup Chat,” we’re gonna talk about how to overcome a plateau in your business. And “plateau” basically means you’re flattening out. Your sales are flattening out, maybe even just your motivation is flattening out. But you’re basically at a place where you might not know how to grow the business, but you’ve built some level of the business, and you’re trying to figure out what to do next. And, you know, usually there’s a lot of emotion attached to this type of situation, so we wanted to talk about it. Both of us have had it in our own businesses and seen other folks, sort of, go through this, and help them out.


Steli Efti: Yeah, I think this is a super important topic. I know that’s there’s probably … I’ve seen a little bit about this topic out there, but it’s still, I think, an under-covered topic, because there’s so … It’s so much more sexy to talk about the early days when there’s nothing going on, and you try to get traction … And how to scale, and how to explore it and all that, and there’s a lot of stuff about, like, failure … Oh, man, you have zero traction, you’ve run out of money, you’re bankrupt. This didn’t work, that didn’t work. There’s a lot of teaching and talking about massive success and massive failure in the software world. But not enough about what probably the majority of businesses are going to experience, or are going to be in that phase. Which is that plateau phase where you’ve had some success, and some things work, but now you’re kind of in a funk. You know, an area where you don’t experience a continuation of that success, but it’s also not crushing. You’re just kind of, like, tiding along, and it feels like you’re not improving. Things are not growing as much. Things are just, like, stuck in a place. Which can be very, very frustrating … And it’s not as dramatic as when you have a crisis, but it’s kind of a death by 1,000 paper cuts type of a thing, if you don’t act immediately. So, first of all, how do you know that you’re even at a plateau? Is it the type of thing where once you realize it, it’s probably already late? Is there something to be, like … Is here a method to noticing your plateauing early? What’s your thinking on that? On, like, identifying even if you are in a plateau?


Hiten Shah: Usually, it’s really … You know … Where I see it hit, is that someone’s motivation about the business, about their business, is degrading. There’s some level, of, like, “I’m just not motivated.” That’s why I added the emotional plateau. Sometimes your business is growing, but you’re just not motivated.


Steli Efti: Yeah.


Hiten Shah: Right? You just feel flat about it. So, that’s one aspect to it. Another aspect to it is that sales are just not growing, revenue is not growing, you’re not getting more customers. Or you have a high turn, or something like that. So, you’re just, you know, losing all the customers you have. Or feel like you’re going to. So, you know, to me, like, what’s been really valuable in these scenarios … What happened a few times in my life – I’ve even helped people probably, like, on a monthly basis with something like this – is, basically, figure out why you have this plateau. And usually it’s a feeling, not anything else. Because remember, startups and businesses are created from nothing. So, in the beginning, it wasn’t even a plateau. Nothing existed. There was no plateau to worry about, right? Now, all of a sudden, you’re like, “I got this!” Right? You know, “And I’m growing.” You know, you and I have shared a bunch about, like, getting from zero to ten customers, 10 to 100, et cetera. And we talked a little bit, you know, and touched on this idea that, like, you just … Whatever you did to get to where you are, you’re gonna have to change something to get to the next place. That’s why it might just be your own motivation in finding … Maybe you’ve been grinding it out too hard, right? And you just need to step back. I don’t mean take a break, take a vacation … ‘Cause I’ve seen people get absurd with that thinking. So, I wouldn’t suggest that, but I would just suggest whatever you gotta do to take a step back, and basically look at the forest from the trees. That’s another approach that I’ve seen. But at the end of the day, you gotta figure out why the plateau exists, like, what is it? And usually, if it’s a business-related one, where, like, the sales are down, or turn-tied or something, it’s just some metric in there that you just still don’t know … Either you don’t recognize it, or you don’t know how to improve it yet. And then all these emotions get stacked around it, and people in your company might have different opinions. So, it’s about cutting through that, and getting to the data, you know? And some of that data is your own personal motivation, potentially. If everything’s fine in your business, but you’re just not motivated. It’s an emotional plateau. But a business plateau is actually, you know, pretty basic. Which is, like, “Hey, there’s a problem in our business ’cause we’re not growing. What do we gotta do?”


Steli Efti: I love that you brought the emotional component to this, because it’s such a big part, and people are in a funk. Right? I mean … And it can be the founders, but it could also just be, like, different people in your team as a start-up … CEO or founder, you’ll experience this over and over again, where even if things are going really well, maybe there’s a person or multiple people that, you know, after some period of time, they’re just in a funk. They’re just in a … They’re emotionally plateauing, and so they’re less motivated, less excited. And some people might use the word “burnout.” I love that you … I know that you, Hiten, will go, “You’re not burned out, you’re just bored. You’re just not excited enough about what you’re doing.” And words do matter, the way you think about the problem influences heavily how you’re gonna come up with the solution. So I love that you bring up that point. Is it fair to say … Would you say it’s fair to say that, just from pure business side of things … Or maybe even a personal and emotional side of things … The reason why you’re plateauing is probably one of two things. Either you’ve kept doing what you always did, and that’s just, you know, that has run it’s course, so you haven’t changed, you know, when you needed to. Or, you’re not doing what you had been doing, right? That you used to do something that worked, and then you stopped doing that. So, either you haven’t changed, or you changed the wrong thing. Is that overly simplified or is that a good mode to think about this?


Hiten Shah: No, it’s binary, right? Either you changed something and it didn’t work, and you don’t realize it. Or, you didn’t change anything at all. Right?


Steli Efti: Yep.


Hiten Shah: Right? And that’s about it. So changing the wrong thing definitely is something common. Not changing anything is common, and those are the two things. The third thing is just you change something and it worked, which means you wouldn’t be in a plateau. Right?


Steli Efti: Yes, that’s right. If you can’t-


Hiten Shah: Yeah, I like the basicness of it.


Steli Efti: Yeah, if you keep doing the basics that work and that still work, you’re in a good place. And if you change the way that’s better than what you used to do … Yeah, you can’t be in a a plateau if you’ve changed in a way that works better than what you used to do, typically, right? Typically, that will mean that there’s a new stimulus for the business to be grown. So if it’s one of those two things, you just need to identify what it is, and then act on it. Now, both are, you know, always a little harder to do than to say. But I would say that going back to what you’ve already done successfully is probably easier than realizing that you haven’t changed. And what you’ve always done and always worked isn’t working as well anymore, and you need to change, because a lot of times, there’s gonna be many options. Like, whatever, let’s say you’ve always just done whatever … I don’t know … Email marketing and that has been kind of the source for growth, and now you have this massive list, and whatever. Let’s say you’ve run out of ways to do email marketing … Which is hard to believe, but let’s just say. And that pure, kind of, distribution channel isn’t working anymore in terms of, like, growing as massively. So now you have to find another distribution channel. If you have to do that, that’s typically harder, right? Because there’s so many options and you have no experience in what’s going to work and what’s not, and how to make it work. So, how do you deal with that when you’re in a plateau, and you realize that you should’ve probably started changing and experimenting a while back, and you haven’t, and hence why now the stuff that’s always been working isn’t working anymore, and you need to now change the company. How do you go about that? How do … I mean, you have advised many people to go through this process. Is there any patterns that you’ve seen that people that break through the plateau successfully … What do you they have in common? What’s the formula they use to get out of that funk?


Hiten Shah: Be real. Can you be brutally honest with yourself? I mean, look, it’s terrible, and I’m gonna say it like this … Nut, like, the number of times that I hear people who I’ve had an impact on now tell me, “I just think about what you would do. What would Hiten do?” I know it’s like the “What Would Jesus Do?” and all that, like, I hear that. Like, even today … Like. the other day, a person on my team was just like, “Yeah, I just … As long as Hiten helps me decide how to fix my problem, I’m good.” I’m like, “Okay, great. Just be ready for the answer.” So, my advice on this one, personally, is just, like … I’m just brutally honest and direct, and I try to cut through the emotion as much as possible when I talk to a founder about this. And I don’t mean to do that not in a compassionate way, it’s out of compassion. Out of a lot of love for what they’re dealing with, and all that. But, like, at the end of the day, it’s, like, get through your crap! Like, can you … If you were somebody else from the outside, looking at your business like a business person, can you explain what’s going on? And if you can just write that out, and explain what’s going on, after you remove the emotion, that’s the key. So, a tactic. And, you know, maybe it’s tip time. Maybe you’re gonna through more tips. But, to me, like, write it out. Like, write out, with emotion, what you’re feeling about the situation, and in that, somewhere, will be the reason why you’re plateauing. And then, write out a version that’s very business-oriented, like a business report about your business. It’s sad, but, like, people don’t do this. Honestly, this is one of the reasons why, like, when I get updates from founders about their business … Whether I’m an advisor, or whether I’m an investor, or just a friend to them, or they just asked me if they can send them to me, I always say yes. It doesn’t matter what kind of involvement I had, and many people are like, “Oh, Hiten, you’re just trying to get data on start-ups.” Yeah, I always, but that’s not like point. Right? Like, I want more data, I love data, I love information, I’m hungry for it, but that’s not why. It’s because if someone is willing to give me an update about their business, right? That gives me an opportunity to respond to them and help them out. But that’s not even it. What it is is, it shows this, like, self-awareness that people don’t realize. Because sending an update about your business to all these people, and doing it at a regular cadence – whether it’s monthly, sometimes weekly, maybe bi-weekly, or even, like, quarterly … I get all the different cadences … It just shows this self-awareness. It shows this ability to get away from your emotion … Because, yeah, you know, being in business, being a founder, whatever. They say it’s emotional, it is. I agree. But, like, that concept itself is probably what I would recommend if you ever want to just avoid a plateau. So this is about plateau avoidance. Because then, people can pull you out of it. People will give you their thoughts … And don’t send crappy updates … But that’s probably for another episode. But, like, that’s the key to me. Write it out, and then take the emotion out of it as if you’re writing an update to your best friend, or whoever …. You know, a business partner, or your mom, or whatever you want to choose, about your business, without any emotion. And if you need to add the emotion first just because it’s easier and quicker to write – usually it is – start there. That’s my biggest tip for even just getting through the plateau. Ideally, even avoiding it would be just doing that on a more regular basis, and holding yourself accountable to other people.


Steli Efti: Yeah, I love that. You guys might want to listen to episode 139 of “The Startup Chat,” 1-3-9. “How to do Effective Postmortems.” If I, like … Once you realize that you’re in a plateau, actually sitting down and doing a postmortem of, like, what happened? Why are we where we are? What were the roots of the problems that caused us to be in this situation? You could do this about, like, business reasons, you could do this for yourself. Do an emotional plateau postmortem. Why do I feel the way I feel? What were all the things that led up to me being in the place that I’m in right now where I’m not happy? And, like, understanding the root causes of why you got where you are is the first step. Like, realizing you’re in this, in this stage, is step one. Step two is analyzing how you got here. Step two, and the step three is, you know, coming up with a remedy or solution on how to, you know … What to do now to change this and turn things around. So, I love that, and another … I talk about this a lot, but it’s one of the most popular episodes that we’ve put together, and concepts that we teach for both of us when it comes to, like, start-up teams, is the episode 65 on how to become more self-aware and how to have self-aware startup teams. So knowing if you’re-


Hiten Shah: Steli are you there?


Steli Efti: Yes. Can you hear me? Hey, Hiten, can you hear me? Hello, hello, hello? This is the challenges of doing podcasts remotely-


Hiten Shah: Can you hear me?


Steli Efti: Yes, I can hear you, can you hear me? Sounds like you cannot hear me,


Steli Efti: but I can hear you.


Steli: Sorry about that. So, what I was saying – it was my bad connection that dropped – What I was saying was that people should check out episode 139 – one-hundred and thirty-nine – How to do effective post-mortems. Right? Because once you realize you’re in a plateau, you should sit down and write down what happened – what are all the reasons why you’re there – And using the framework that we taught on how to do post-mortems I think is a super valuable and effective one for people out there. And then, I think, honestly, what it boils down to is that whatever reason you resisted – either you resisted change or you got too excited about changing things and you resisted consistency. So, there’s a good reason why you are where you are, and if you want to get to a different place, you’re going to have to fundamentally change what you do and how you feel and how you think about things. And I think that’s really the hardest part. I think a lot of times people realize they’re in a plateau with their business, they might even be able to articulate why that is and what they probably would have to do to remedy that, but they just don’t want to do it. It’s kind of like me saying, “Oh shit. I’ve added 10 extra pounds,” or whatever it is, “20 extra pounds. I kind know how I got here. I was eating a lot and I wasn’t doing any training anymore. And it’s not rocket science, necessarily, on what I need to do to get off all these extra pounds, but it doesn’t mean that I want to do what it takes to get back in shape, and it doesn’t mean that I’m going to do it.” And I think that that’s really the difficult part. I think that people tend to over-complicate what it will take to break through the plateau basically because they don’t want to do the thing that they need to do get through it. So, just realize that you’re going to have to suck it up and make some uncomfortable choices maybe in the short term to get back to a really healthy, exciting growing place again. And that I find often times being a bigger challenge than the tactical, “What do we need to do?” THat’s usually not that hard to figure out. Worse case, you reach out to an advisor or somebody out there to give you some feedback. But then, the doing it – the stepping into action – that will usually involve some discomfort and you have to embrace that if you want to break through the plateau.


Hiten: Yeah, no. Totally agree. You have to. I mean there’s no choice, right? Otherwise, usually you have team members and other people that are relying on you, and sometimes it’s just helpful to think through that, not just think about yourself – just as a tactic. Which it like, there’s people that rely on you, so it’s important for you to figure this our for them and yourself.


Steli: Also, I think that this is it from us for this episode. Hey, everybody out there, if you enjoyed that startup chat – and we do get a lot of your emails and tweets – and I know I do and you probably, too every time I speak it …


Hiten: Yep.


Steli: people come up and thank us for the podcast – Which is awesome. We want to hear from you. Make sure to go to iTunes and give us a review. Give us ratings. That is really highly appreciated from both of us. It gives the podcast more exposure, which means more people will find it and more people will listen to it and hopefully we can create more value. And then make sure to go to thestartupchat.com and subscribe to the email list if you’re not already on it. started taking ownership over our email list and started sending a lot more stuff, so it’s gonna be really valuable to be on our email list, so if you enjoy the podcast, make sure to get on there ASAP. That’s it from us for this week.


Hiten: Yeah, and I’ll add a quick bonus here. We’re doing this to help all of you. That’s the #1 reason we’re doing this. The number two is we like talking to each other. But that’s about it. So, if you can generously provide a review, sign up for the email list, that would be awesome, if you’ve gotten any value from the podcast.


Steli: Awesome. Thank you so much.


Hiten: Bye.