Puking On The Emotional Startup Rollercoaster

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A version of this article previously appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Startups are an emotional rollercoaster; moments of sheer terror interlaced with bone-crushing, mind-numbing and highly addictive exhilaration.

However, if unmodulated, the highs can become too high and the lows way too low. Long-hours, uncertainty and the never-ending pressure to survive can cause you and your team to overreact to wins, as well as setbacks.

As Capitan of the startup rollercoaster, you must manage your company’s mood swings, while doing your best to not puke (at least not while your team is watching).

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You might be tempted to smooth the highs and lows by maintaining a stoic, unemotional demeanor. However, a more inspirational approach is to create a tempered, judicious culture of celebration.

Draw Upon Your Inner Flight Attendant

When an airplane experiences extreme turbulence, all of the passengers’ eyes are drawn to  the flight attendants. If one of the attendants expresses signs of apprehension, the passengers know that the situation is unusual and potentially dangerous.

Not surprisingly, flight attendants are trained to calmly smile and walk down the aisle without showing any outward concern. Startup leaders must also cheerfully walk down the halls of their venture in a manner that reassures the other members of the team that “all is well” when their company is experiencing severe turbulence.

Little Wins Add Up

One of your most important duties at your venture is to communicate and celebrate your company’s small wins. Your team will face innumerable trials and tribulations along the way to their success. If you do not pause and recognize such accomplishments, you forfeit valuable opportunities to add fuel to your team’s morale tank.

Just because a deal is small in absolute terms does not mean it is insignificant. During your venture’s early stages, each partnership, fundraising round and new customer results in incremental revenue, capital and greater propagation of your company’s technology.

As your company matures, the relative impact and excitement associated with such deals decreases. For instance, at Expertcity (creator of GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting, acquired by Citrix), I recall running down the hall high-fiving members of my sales team while yelling, “Booyah!” after closing a $10,000 deal. Approximately a year later, the company’s revenues had grown significantly and there were no chest bumps after we finalized a multiple six-figure sale to Oracle. Thus, take advantage of the excitement derived from closing small deals while such accomplishments still matter.

For What The Bell Tolls

To celebrate our wins at Expertcity, we installed a large iron bell in our tiny kitchen, which was comprised of a filthy microwave, an ancient espresso machine and a dorm-size refrigerator with a broken door handle. The Bell rules were simple. Anyone could ring it at any time. However, if you rang the Bell without merit, you had to supply breakfast for the entire company.

After you rang the Bell, you then sent an email to the entire company explaining the accomplishment you were celebrating. It was fun to watch everyone’s reaction when the Bell was rung; people would rush to read their email in order to learn about the company’s latest feat.

The Bell was not my idea. In fact, when we initially installed it, I was concerned that it might be viewed by the employees as a cheesy, faux motivational tool. These concerns were entirely unfounded. Over several years, the Bell created a genuine feeling of community and shared purpose, and proved to be an effective means of communicating and celebrating the company’s victories, both large and small.

There is nothing magical about a bell. The modality you choose to celebrate your venture’s victories should be an effective communication tool based on your team’s physical proximity to one another. We used a loud bell because it could be heard throughout our office. If your team is virtual, an online method of celebration might make sense.

No matter how you do it, be sure to celebrate your company’s small wins as validation of your venture’s progress. Inch-by-inch it’s a cinch, but yard-by-yard it’s hard. Thus, one way to manage your company’s mood meter is to accomplish tasks by the inch and consistently celebrate them by the yard.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I’ll never tweet about self-induced puking or that killer burrito I am about to devour – just startup stuff.

Image Credit: Roller Coaster designed by Luis Prado from the Noun Project

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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  • Austen Barnes

    You make a very important point. Yet new ideas are the markets of the future. As an investor you have the tough job of assessing whether crazy inventors (like me) are skilled enough to bring their products to global markets, and effectively negotiate with multinational corporations. Few inventions are really good, and they need careful market assessment followed by an assessment of the skill mix to promote and market and produce. Startups should be market driven, and the investor must acquire enough expertise to measure up the planned strategy for exploiting the invention.

  • ScottRobinett

    For those small startups, I think it’s important to find mentors and business counselors that can fire you up and cool you down. Having steady hands around you can keep you within the zone and keep you from assuming to much, or too little.

  • John Greathouse

    Scott – I totally agree. I have written a lot about Mentoring in the past 6-months. Someone who has already come out the other side will have an invaluable perspective.

  • John Greathouse

    Austen – we need inventors like you! The key is to team up with business savvy entrepreneurs who can help you commercialize and innovate on your inventions to ensure a profitable and sustainable product / market fit.

    Best of luck to you.

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