All founders know those early, honeymoon days at the beginning of launching a company. It’s a time of pure optimism as your startup launches, filled with adrenaline-filled daydreaming, from ‘we are going to IPO’ to ‘by then we’ll be on a million devices.’ Unfortunately, it’s a time that may not last forever.
Instead, your focus soon shifts back to the present and the grind of day-to-day-to-day-to-day operations. As the startup honeymoon evolves into a long-term commitment, it’s easy to lose that initial spark and burn out — especially now, during a pandemic. This is when founders need to remember why we fell in love with our startups in the first place. Keeping that spark alive beyond the honeymoon requires perspective, great people, and plenty of positive prompts, all of which can energize our motivation throughout the marathon that is entrepreneurship.
Here are three hacks that I proactively use to re-engage with the initial thrill of launching my startup, MD Ally.
Founders are naturally optimistic and strategic leaders, but not robots. While there’s an ever-present need to be energetic and happy and to provide inspiration for others, founders should give themselves permission to operate and think in neutral as often as they need. Let me explain what I mean by operating “in neutral.”
Last year, Russell Wilson shared that his secret to staying focused under pressure is to remove the pressure to constantly be positive and energized and instead shift to neutral before he crashes. This can actually be the hardest part because we, as founders, do feel a lot of guilt when we make a mistake, succumb to pressure, or let negativity get to us. However, the trick is to train your mind to engage in the present by quickly learning and moving on from mistakes, even if you don’t yet feel happy about the outcome.
The next time you're under immense pressure, overwhelmed by stress or guilt, commit to shifting to neutral and focusing on what you can control in the present. One way to do this is to proactively schedule alerts on your calendar that pop up at the end of the week. Have them remind you to move on from that week’s failures and re-focus on present execution for future opportunities. You may end up ignoring or dismissing half of them, but I guarantee you some will show up when that message is just what you need to hear.
Another great hack is to figure out what gets you motivated. I pay attention to the times when my brain is really excited about something or when I'm in that run-through-walls mode. Then, I use outside influences to try and recreate that.
One good example is Alexa. This handy device can be programmed to not only remind you about your schedule, but also chime in with inspirational quotes and motivational speeches. It’s awesome because I can hype myself up, and Alexa can hype me up as well! For example, I’ve programmed Alexa to play speech clips that inspire me in the morning. It could be something like, ‘Hey, it’s time to get out of bed and take on the world,’ or ‘You’re going to IPO, but only if you get out of bed right now.’
Whereas I would say these kinds of things to myself once or twice, it works even better when something outside of me is programmed to consistently support my mindset. It can also help founders who feel guilty about going to sleep. You can program your Alexa to say, ‘It's your job to sleep so that you’re mentally prepared for your meetings tomorrow.’ Really, it can be anything, from famous quotes to ambient soundscapes. Find what motivates you and, right on time, every morning or evening, it can be positively reinforced.
It’s true that being a founder can be lonely. Many of us are constantly striving to motivate others, but we can’t inspire ourselves all of the time. This is where the people around us come in. In a solid team, you need others who can take that role and contribute to motivating the team, founder included, towards the end goal.
In my startup, MD Ally, we have time in our daily standup that speaks to the vision of why we’re doing what we’re doing. I find it incredibly inspiring to have others around me speak about our collective goals. The more we as founders share out the vision, especially while it's still vibrant, the more it echoes back.
This human element is also what makes accelerators so important and helpful. Techstars offers an entire community of people who understand exactly what every founder is going through. The other founders in a cohort often prove vital to hyping up or helping out those around them in an honest way.
When it comes to the mental management of the post-honeymoon phase, success or failure to stay on track has a lot to do with how you engage with your original vision. It’s important to stay connected to that vision in order to stay energized. Keeping that spark alive is a constant challenge and one that you must approach regularly and proactively. Seriously: start now.
Of course, you’ve got to find what works for you. While I love Alexa yelling at me like a drill sergeant, I completely understand that you might not. You’ve got to find your own ticks and triggers, and then implement those personalized motivators. Figure out what gets you energized, helps you stay focussed on why your startup matters, and gives you a fresh perspective — for the long haul.
Shanel Fields is the Founder and CEO of MD Ally — a public safety telehealth company that enables virtual patient care for emergency dispatching and response systems. Prior to getting her MBA from Wharton Business School and launching MD Ally, Shanel led enterprise inside sales and marketing teams focused on National Health Systems, Payers, and independent healthcare entities. Shanel is the newest member of Techstars’ Board of Directors.