Burnout is a scary thing. It creeps in when you least expect it. And it usually takes longer than usual for you to realize it’s even happening. Let’s back up a few months.
In September of 2018, I took a road trip with my husband for a “fun” weekend getaway. I was excited to take some personal time and allow myself to decompress. Only a few hours in, I began to feel the pressure building up. From what? Everything, maybe. The next thing I remember was getting off at the next exit, stumbling out of the driver’s seat, and crying. It felt like my world was falling apart and I didn’t have the slightest clue on how to fix it.
Could I be the only Founder who has 2-year burnout?
No way. In fact, it’s pretty common. Founders go into their businesses with open eyes and fire in their hearts, aiming to change the world. That intense desire to create a flourishing business fuels our engines for about a year. It all feels new, and even fun?—?working with people who feel like your family, being your own boss, controlling your own destiny. It’s easy to recognize the advantages of being a founder without taking into account the severe difficulty and stress that lies ahead.
After that fuel from the first year runs low, real life begins setting in, along with the stress it brings. You want to grow your business, so you hire. You take on more than you can chew. You realize you need to raise money and that people are depending on you. Everything seems to be getting harder. Why couldn’t everything just remain as motivating and fun as it was during that first year?
Maybe your original idea is a bust; maybe the technology changes and you need to adapt. It’s easy to focus on all the difficulties of building a brand new business. But, challenging yourself to overcome such difficulties is the reason your business will succeed. If only I could have told myself that in the car on the side of the highway.
Stress is real. And you have to learn to deal with it.
In the beginning, I didn’t deal with stress well. It seemed as if I was making mistake after mistake. As a strategy, I chose to follow the money (payroll is real and very scary!), but not in the way that you’re thinking. For Lightning AI, this simply meant bringing on enterprise customers and acting as an agency. Lightning AI began working for large companies who took up 25–35% of my time, which took away the focus from my original goals. But, I needed that money to pay for other people’s salaries.
As my strategy took hold, Lightning AI was bringing in money and we were close to breaking even. Instead of taking a step back and looking at where we were and what we were doing, I continued down the same path. Over and over I reminded myself that the company was straying further and further from my original goals.
We spent tens of thousands of dollars on marketing at conferences, events, dinners?—?and at the end of the day, we just weren’t bringing in enough money. Perhaps if I’d built a Facebook-style report for my business, I would have seen the gaps and holes developing. And then employees started asking for leave: vacations, medical, disability… you name it, it was happening. So, it turned out it wasn’t just me crying on the side of the road; we were all burnt out. My entire team was crumbling right before my eyes.
It was time to face the music, literally.
Looking up at the other cars getting off the exit, my face in my hands, it seemed like I had completely lost the past six months. Where was the business I wanted to create? Was it even possible to get to where I want to be? For a long time, I had convinced myself that it was fun to travel all around the country, meet new people, and work on sales. But, that wasn’t working for me or for my business. I wasn’t happy.
That’s not me. So, it can’t be good for my business. Right?
At the end of the day, no matter what I tried to tell myself, I just didn’t have the stamina to work for 60+ hours a week anymore. Not only that, but to work on something that had changed so drastically from what I originally sought out to build; I just couldn’t do it anymore. Plain and simple.
Sometimes, a good cry puts things into perspective when you least expect it. Everyone ended up taking some time off, and then we had to let some employees go. To this day, I believe that there are few things harder than looking at your employee in the eyes and saying, “I failed, and I have to let you go because of the consequences of my own actions.” It was an extremely tough time, to say the least.
Now, where do we go from here?
In a twisted way, after we got through the toughest of it, it started to feel like a new beginning. We went back to our original values and determined what goals we wanted to achieve both short-term and long-term. We went back to the drawing board with the simple question “What are we trying to do here anyway?”
From the get-go, our vision had always been to create an app so simple that anyone could create paid ad campaigns and run them with no superior experience required. We wanted to create an app simple enough that a dog walker, a plumber and even a school teacher could use it. That was always our goal from the start.
I pulled myself up by my bootstraps (bootstraps by the name of Lexapro anti-depressants), and, with my Co-founder, we began to strategize. First, we had two enterprise deals that were almost finalized. We closed those two contracts and vowed that those would be the last we would bring on “just for the money.” But going forward, we decided that we needed to test the self-serve product that we originally wanted to created.
Our entire business shifted.
If you’ve been reading my startup story for awhile now, then you know we completely pivoted away from enterprise sales to self-serve. Now, we sell a product and not just account management. We use product-led growth, not enterprise marketing tactics. We work on projects and products we enjoy, and delight in having small businesses create and manage ad campaigns through Lightning AI.
Listen, I can’t finish this article by saying that we’re 10x-ing month over month or growing like wildfire. But, we’re making twice as much as we did last year, and we’re only spending a third as much. We act like a real business and we’re so much happier for it. We work less than 40 hours per week (most of the time) and we take Friday afternoons off. This is the company I wanted to build, the job I wanted to have, and the life I wanted to lead.
We’re still a startup and sometimes it requires extra hours here and there, but we’ve finally gotten to a place where we are very intentional with our time and energy. If you’re feeling stuck or “burnt out” early on in your startup, know that you’re not alone. We’ve all been there and I’m living proof that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.