Sent on December 31st, 2021.
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Companies don’t go out of business for any other reason than the founders giving up and quitting.
“We ran out of money and couldn’t continue” is never the reason. The reason is that you couldn’t bear to go through the idea of going back to a one-person company as all the team members and your co-founders had to be laid off.
At several moments, I was in this situation with my first company, Ironstar. Each time the money was running out, I had less strength left to go through the grueling, uncertain process of looking for the cash and then keep pushing on. When the last time came in the spring of 2011, I just said “fuck it” and closed down the company.
I was recently reading a book on Shackleton’s polar expeditions, and it reminded me of my moments a decade ago when coming out of these dire straits fundraises.
“As the chill permeated their bodies, they faced a constant battle to maintain their core temperature, their clothing all but useless in the face of the repeated katabatic gales. ‘It is neck or nothing now,’ Shackleton wrote. ‘Our food lies ahead, and death stalks us from behind.’”
The trouble with startups is that you don’t take time to recuperate from the troubling moments. It’s not natural to take time off. Your whole existence is being stressed to the limits, but you still show up every single day and get to work.
As an investor, I now know that the best remedy for founders going through the man-haul and the rough patches is to take an extended vacation. You have your team working, taking things forward, and the company will still be there when you return.
Founders must understand they’re allowed to take vacations. A reasonable amount, not days, but weeks, is expected. Mental health matters and the separation from the company for a few days won’t be enough.
Why do vacations work?
The brain is a muscle that gets stressed as any muscle does from working out. We don’t often think about recovery for our brain since we have invented the weekend break. But for founders, whose identity is the company, and the work, and the progress and the lack of progress, so it’s hard to break out of work-mode during a weekend two-day break. Mentally you are still working for those 48 hours.
Manchester United long-time coach Sir Alex Ferguson used a technique to measure the players’ stamina after a summer break: “One piece of information that I found useful crept into use during the 1980s. This was data gathered during pre-season ‘bleep tests’ – a series of short, 20-meter sprints used to gauge the players’ fitness. The bleep tests were brutal but accurate – and always useful for me and my staff. We used to measure a player’s fitness level at the end of one season and then, when we regrouped for pre-season training, we would test them again, so that we immediately had a sense for whether they had taken care of themselves during the summer break.”
As an investor, I would like to see bleep tests become something that you’d want founders to go through so that burnout could be prevented before it happens.
Another way to improve our rest skills is to share openly what we’ve done. Buffer’s founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne wrote about his burnout and how he recovered through vacationing:
“How I’d describe my burnout: I lost motivation. I didn’t care. I knew I cared deeply, but I had nothing left. I couldn’t get up in the morning. I felt very sensitive and emotional. It was like anything could set me off and make me well up. I cried a lot, by myself and with people close to me.”
“About three to four weeks into my break, I felt much better. I felt lighter. I got my energy and motivation, and excitement for Buffer back again. I vowed to be better about self-care and have made changes that I believe have significantly improved my self-care routine. I believe the burnout I went through is avoidable – and hopefully, this can help anyone who may feel like they’re potentially on the verge.”
They have now instituted a minimum vacation policy at Buffer:
“When you have an Unlimited Vacation policy, you introduce a significant amount of decision fatigue with taking a vacation. When you don’t clearly state the amount of vacation, you put that burden on individuals. At Buffer, I strongly pushed for us to get creative and think of new ideas instead of Unlimited Vacation.”
“The result was Minimum Vacation. It seems almost obvious now, but we could have easily reverted to the status quo at the time. I’m so glad we didn’t. Our vacation minimum is at least three weeks (15 workdays) of time off throughout the year, in addition to the public and religious holidays you observe.”
My stance on vacation is that you want to take time off as often as possible. The brain is a muscle that needs rest and anyone who is spending time working hard, with intensity or with long hours, needs a break.
I’ve noticed that my brain starts working better when disconnected from work for 24 hours, doing something that severs the tie with my work identity—being at the cabin, warming up the sauna, having nothing to react to. But I’m still learning; I still haven’t mastered the skill of rest.
“Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.” — William S. Burroughs.
Sponsored by Gameye
🎙 Podcast highlights from 2021
This was a big year for the Elite Game Developers podcast, with 53 new episodes going live. Here were the most downloaded episodes that came out in 2021.
I wanted to share my own highlights from the show from the past year and created a highlights episode. Most of the highlights came from outside the above mentioned ones.
You can listen to it by going here.
📃 Articles worth reading
+ How To Be A Great Games Company CEO — “Great football coaches carry success with them to different teams. If you are staking your livelihood with an organization, shouldn’t you consider whether the leadership of that organization has leadership that you believe in?”
+ The Best Leaders are Feedback Magnets — “Knowing what other people think about you can be life-changing. It’s the key to getting promoted faster and becoming the kind of leader people are excited to work with. On the flip side, not getting this intel is a silent career killer. You get passed over for new roles or special assignments without ever understanding why, never getting an opportunity to develop and prove you can do better.”
+ The Hiring Myth Startups Are Told — “One strategy I’ve found effective is asking people to write their own job descriptions from scratch. It shakes out what they are actually strong at and excited to do, and helps you avoid fooling yourself into thinking they will rock at something when they just won’t.”
💬 Quote that I’ve been thinking about
“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
― John Steinbeck
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Happy new year everybody! See you out there in 2022!