One of the most limited and important resources founders have is emotional energy. I think of this emotional energy as a rope. The longer the line can stretch, the further you and your company can go.
Imagine you are given a length of rope and asked to stretch it as far as it will go. What would that look like? You would secure one end, smooth out any ups and downs, kinks or knots that shorten the rope and then pull it tight. A straight line allows the rope reach the furthest.
The job of a founder is to take the emotional rope you have, tie a group of talented people to a vision — and then pull like crazy. When the best leaders begin to pull, the rope gets tight — it rises from the murky depths and creates a straight line between the team and the vision. It may strain and creak, ringing
saltwater out. But it stays straight. No length is wasted.
A straight, even line gives you the best chance to achieve your goals before you get to the end of your rope. But staying even is hard when your company is going through the extreme ups and downs of starting up.
When I started my company, I felt like my rope would never run out. I was obsessed and the hours, the pace, the challenges, were all exciting. I did have a ton of rope — so much it felt infinite. But it wasn’t.
As I started to traverse startup life, I went where the company went — and that was a bumpy ride. I lost sight of the fact that the world will try its best to whip your rope around, and one of your jobs as a founder is to keep it as straight as you can. I ended up using a lot of rope going up and down rather than forward towards my goals.
The progress on product or partnerships came in bursts of joy and relief. But, no matter how hard I worked, there was always another challenge or disappointment around the corner. When the downs would out number the ups, I would compensate and hype the wins to make my highs feel as intense as my lows. The peaks and valleys got more extreme and they also got closer together — coming with increasing pace and force. I was at the end of my rope — but not because I needed another length or two. Leading a start up turned my rope into a whip and the lashes were leaving marks.
Instead of a straight line between me and my vision, I was in knots. Tied to the promise of the opportunity and my desire for success. My attachment to the way I wanted things to be started to pull me apart. The searing heat of judgement hurt everyone I worked with but I saved the most vicious flaying for myself. As the knot got bigger, resisting facts I didn’t know how handle took all my energy, forward progress ground to a halt, and I capitulated to the rope as I reached the frayed end.
I will always wonder what would have happened if I had been able to maintain a straight rope, tied to the vision rather than the inevitable daily swings. If instead of being attached to the success I believed was due, I had been open to the moments as they came — ready to make decisions quickly and with some level of detachment — I would have been better. What if the judgement had been replaced with understanding and acceptance? Instead of searching for the source of “my problem,” I would have spent my energy collaborating to solve “the problem.” The knot could have loosened and the length of rope might have stretched to the horizon offering my team a clear path to follow.
Working in startups is often described as a roller coaster, lots of high highs and plummets to very low lows. Leaders have to survive this and I encourage founders to find resources and support. Don’t carry the emotional weight of the company and amplify every rise and fall. You will run out of rope. You can’t stop the company from the up and down, but as a founder you can work to stay even.
This isn’t just for your own sanity. Finding support early is a good thing for your company. It leads to stronger, founder led companies that have larger impact on their industries and better financial results for everyone.
Thanks to Jack Altman for the conversation on the topic and feedback on this post