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Want to Start a Company? Welcome to the Roller Coaster

May 18, 2016 – Scott Meyer

Here's the second in my series about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

Start-ups are roller coasters. Sometimes you’re cheering and throwing your arms in the air. Other times you feel totally out of control and want to puke.

evidon-rollercoaster-scottfamily

A few years ago we went to Disney World. Space Mountain, of course, was our top destination. Looking at the picture here, our young son is obviously terrified. My wife is cheering. When I look at myself, I’m not sure. Sometimes, I see calm in my face. Other times I see anxiety. I have a love-hate relationship with roller coasters.

I’ve never really loved getting shaken around just for the thrill of it. This cautiousness extended to most of my choices after college. I worked at a big company, went to grad school, and got a job with predictable promotions. The path was clear. And yet, I always felt like there had to be something more.

I wanted a new challenge.

Looking back, my decision to leave The New York Times and start a company, at age 38, when we had two kids in diapers, was an “interesting” choice.

Let me repeat what I said before.

Start-ups are roller coasters. Sometimes you’re cheering and throwing your arms in the air. Other times you feel totally out of control and want to puke.

On the best days, a reporter writes a glowing review of your company. A salesperson signs a huge new client. A developer solves a vexing challenge.

On the down days, a prospect wavers. The new product is late. A blogger favors your competition. A key team member quits. The investors want to know what’s going on.

Start-ups are never a straight line. These ups and downs are unavoidable. So if you want to start your own company, think about whether you can tolerate this type of path. How will you handle it? Can you set a good example for the rest of the team?

I think the only way to survive this is to come up with a “seat belt.” What structures can you put in place to make the highs and lows less stressful?

I divide all of this into two buckets:

  1. What can you do for yourself?

  2. How can you help the team?

YOUR SEAT BELT

Check Your Personal Finances: Everybody needs a financial plan, no matter how old you are and where you work. But if you’re starting a company, this is sometimes different. Compensation isn’t always in cash. So ask yourself some hard questions. Does your family need two incomes? Can you really afford to buy a house? Are you saving for college tuitions AND retirement? For my family, we found a financial planner whose support has been invaluable. He’s our reality check, confidante, and voice of calm.

Talk to Your Family: If you have a spouse, do not make this decision alone. Your choices will impact everyone. I thought I had talked to my wife about it and that she was on board. And yet, her response when I quit the predictable corporate path was, “I knew you wanted to do this, but I didn’t think it would really happen.” The conversation was actually a little longer than that. To make a long story short, we actually put a quarterly review in our family calendar. Yes, you read that right!

Take Care of Your Health: It’s really easy to get burnt out when you run a company. Nobody can fly 150k miles a year and still run the Ironman. So I’ve had to make a real effort to stay in shape. If I’m traveling, I go to the hotel gym. At home, I play, what the kids fondly call, “Old Man Soccer.” And I’ve even embraced yoga stretches and a meditation app that I listen to on train rides. You can all thank my wife for that.

Be Present: There’s so much to do, so many emails to answer, that you could literally work around the clock and never finish. I’ve had to set time limits on when I’m working, and when I’m off the grid. It’s hard. Sometimes, like when I’m coaching a lacrosse game, I get it right. Other times, I have to leave my phone in another room just to keep it out of my reach.

THE TEAM’S SEAT BELT

When you start a company, your team is right there with you, on that same up and down ride.  So how do you keep everyone calm, focused, and engaged? Here are a few thoughts.

Embrace Core Values: Roller coasters have rules for a reason. So do companies. At Evidon, we really focus on our core values: They are here on our website and are posted all over each of our offices. The principles are, “Transparency, Selflessness, Success, Courage, Communication, and above all: Take your job seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.”

Know the Mission: Everyone needs to clearly understand the company’s mission. What are you building, what problems do you solve for your customers, and why do they need your product? How is your business unique from competitors? You all have to know the elevator pitch cold. When a business evolves or pivots, that can be hard. At Evidon, we’ve spent a ton of energy on this recently and it’s paying off. Everyone on the team understands our unique value proposition.

Be Honest About the Good and the Bad: Everyone celebrates when things are going well. But what happens when there’s a problem? It all comes down to being fully transparent. In our offices, we have an up to the minute scorecard on all our revenue and bookings metrics on display. We do a company-wide stand up every 6 weeks. Even with all this, there’s no substitute for the CEO being visible and checking in with people, even for 5 to 10 mins. If you don’t, people will read into things and make assumptions. Don’t leave people guessing.

Create a Fun Culture:  If you’re going to spend so much time together, you might as well enjoy the office. We try not to take things too seriously. Our team photos are goofy. Pets are welcome. And we have typical start-up trappings—food, ping-pong, and foosball. But all this is balanced with the need to get our work done and deliver to our customers  Pro tip: Foosball and ping-pong games never last more than 20 minutes. Video games can last for hours…

As for that Space Mountain photo above, we keep it in a collage in our kitchen at home. It’s always staring at me. And over time, I’ve come to realize it’s ok to be scared and thrilled at the same time. Whether it’s a real roller coaster, or a start-up adventure, you can embrace both emotions when you love what you’re doing.

Just buckle up and enjoy the ride.