Entrepreneurs & Stress

Entrepreneurship and stress go hand in hand. Having led a VC funded SaaS start-up for 5 years, I've learned a lot about stress and how to manage it effectively.

How bad is stress?

You've probably heard that stress does physical harm to your body, that the vast amount of cortisol works like acid on your brain, killing your short-term memory and that the heightened blood pressure negatively impacts nearly every part of your system. But you probably didn't know that stress kills a lot of people. Denmark is a small country with a population of just 5.5M. In 2019 we saw approx. 1200 people die with COVID. In the same year, we saw approx 1400 die of stress. If that's not enough to make you take stress very seriously, then consider the fact that those who died are just the edge cases.

Stress is a deadly disease and you should treat it as such. If you're stressed for a day or a week every once in a while, fair enough. Our passion tends to drive us to that point where we perform at our absolute peak and that peak is only reached by having a bit of stress. But if stress has become a regular part of your life, you're doing something wrong and you need to fix that ASAP.

My trip down the hole

I won't bore you with too many personal details, but just to let you know that I do have some experience with stress here's an outline of what happened when it peaked. In our 3rd year at Sabre I had worked 100 hour weeks for 18 months or so. There were Monday mornings when I drove to work thinking I would not live to see the following Sunday. Constant headaches, ringing of the ears and an insufferable insomnia that drained what little energy I had left. A temper that was increasingly difficult to control and worst of all: A myriad of uncontrollable thoughts about work, which led my family to believe that they were now the 2nd most important thing in my life. Ironically, the only reason I wanted Sabre to grow to unicorn size was to secure their future financially. That's what I kept telling myself when I attempted to power through project after project, when the reality was that I had already sacrificed the very people I was doing all of this for.

My story is more fortunate than that of most entrepreneurs I know. I did manage to re-prioritize my life, I did walk away with my health and I did manage to keep my family together. The number of friends and associates who slaved away for their families while working themselves into a divorce is longer than I care to list and too long to be coincidental. Suffice it to say, I've tasted the worst of stress without having to pay the 3 biggest bills: Health, Family, Life.

What doesn't kill you make you weak

Those who have it the worst, die. The rest live in a heightened state of awareness with their Fight/Flight instinct running a full steam 24/7. If you look down and don't see your legs moving very fast, you're probably in combat mode. This can potentially damage every meaningful relationship in your life. Being in combat mode means your fuse is short and its lit. It means things that you would usually laugh off or answer with a understanding smile, now get anything from a roll of the eyes to a full blown temper tantrum. At least that was my experience.

I recall in a board meeting some years ago, a member of the board made a suggestion that would not only make my life difficult but also add significantly to the stress I was already feeling. I told him plainly that it was a poor suggestion and that it would never work, so I saw no point in discussing it further. The discussion moved to the next topic, but this dear member (who I value and appreciate even today) kept running the scenario in his head. He actually thought it could work out to our benefit, so he made the same suggestion once again. I held on to the table to table and said with the utmost intensity "You've made the suggestion for the last and final time". I had put every effort into containing the rage I felt which unfortunately made me seem all the more like a ticking bomb and the room got real quiet.

Its a small thing I guess - Cost of doing business some would say. For me its one of those things I look back on with equal parts shame and disappointment in myself. And I guess if you asked those closest to me, they'd say it was one of many instances where they didn't understand why I went from calm and collected to furious in the blink of an eye.

You probably know someone, who's done something stupid while drunk and excused it by their drunkenness. The apology is valid only if they avoid alcohol going forward. Its the same thing with stress. You can excuse any angry word spoken, but if you're sincere you'll rid your life of the cause of that anger.

Losing your cool - Losing a train of thought - Losing a nights sleep - Losing yourself in thought at dinner time and time again. Its all weakness and it makes you weaker. Stress will temporarily make you feel overpowered and hyper effective, but don't let that fool you. I read an article from a doctor once, who claimed that being stressed removes your ability to make good decisions. Imagine that's true - You put so much effort into making every decision count, but its all a roll of the dice, because your brain is on a cortisol acid trip.

Going through the stages

Most articles you read about stress will mention the various stages you go through. Some are small indications that you're getting stressed while others are flashing red lights. Let me tell you the red light I spot right away: I can't sleep.

Even though the signs are easily spelled out, they aren't easily identified while you're in it, because you're stressed. If I ever hit the pillow after a long day and I can't sleep within the first 10 minutes, I know its time to reassess. Figure out your main indicator and commit to redesigning your life/work balance as soon as you see it. Make sure its something you can't miss. For me, losing sleep actually comes quite late in the game, but its the one thing I never fail to notice.

I won't cover all the stages because its been done many times before, but I recall reading a danish article written by a guy who had lost it all. So drowned in stress was he, that he ended up in the hospital. Following his admission, it took 2 months to regain the ability to speak and 6 months to function normally (not work). I remember chills going down my spine when I read "A week before the final crash, things had gotten so bad that I could no longer endure the radio while driving" - When I read that, my radio had been off for a month.

Killing stress

Either you kill stress or it will kill you. Or it might not, but don't take chances with your health. If you've been feeling stressed for a while, treat it as seriously as you would any other disease. Don't trust your intuitions, stress will have ruined them by now. Many of my failed attempts at "managing stress" had half-measures like "I'll plan better", "I'll add a buffer", "I'll outsource this bit which stresses me". Half-measures that yielded zero results, stress just caught up with me at the next turn. Put simply, I was fooling myself.

Stress needs to go - completely. Your mileage may vary but for me the solution came in the form of a book: Essentialism.

Essentialism - The disciplined pursuit of less teaches you a few tools, which help you reduce your life to the most essential elements. The elements that make you profoundly happy. You'll need to read the book to learn how exactly, because it sounds much simpler than it is in practice, but here's the core: Say no to good things in order to make space for great things. I had a client coming out of 2020 who was good. Great company, great product, great tech stack, but the founders were stressed and in that stress, became increasingly demanding. They would often send me emails late at night or over the weekends and after my Christmas break, I knew I had to clear my calendar for a great client. So I phoned them up and let them know that I couldn't offer my services anymore.

That's a painful move for any entrepreneur. You're saying no to money, to work. You're risking them telling a one-sided version of this story to their entire network, but if its not great its not good. Stress levels reduced by 80% overnight.

At one point I did a lot of Wing Tsun. The class was fun, working out is always good and does wonders for your health. But it wasn't great. I've been doing martial arts consistently from the age of 6 so its always been part of my life. But taking another look at this habit from the view of essentialism, it wasn't great. How about getting some equipment to train at home 9 out of 10 times and instead of the time spent on transportation, I could just lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling pondering the big questions. I still work out 5 - 6 times per week, because that is truly great, but now I can do it without any time-pressure.

I had a potential client late 2020, with whom I had some good initial meetings. We had scoped an entire project, everything seemed absolutely great except for the chemistry between me and one of the core team members. I knew that member was not going away anytime soon, so I had to ask my self: Do I take this job now or wait a couple of weeks and find another where all the stars are aligned? I retracted my offer and the very next day I met a Great prospect. But even if I had to go a month without work, I still think that would be preferable to starting on a "good project".

Once you start making these hard choices, you start killing stress left right and center. You can expect a lot of pushback from the world, its important you resist that. People try to sell your their ideas of Great every day, you need to make sure you fundamentally agree before accepting. For instance, I was invited to a birthday party a few years ago, big party. I was very flattered to have been invited, I like the host very much. But at that time, a big group of people would have drained energy from me, not given it. So I declined in order to keep stress at a minimum (remember, its a deadly disease). The host was insulted and let me know that. A relative of the host called me up and scolded me for rejecting the invitation. But ultimately, You have to look out for You. Nobody knows your situation as well as you, so make the hard choices, let the world respond as it will. And maybe in a few months when your head is clearer, you'll attend another party and be the center of attention for all to enjoy. But if you don't think its a great time now, pass, and find something great to do with your time instead. After I explained my perspective and given a little time, all was forgiven and I got invited the year after as well.

Stress is contagious

If you accept the premise that stress is a deadly disease, then you should be aware that it spreads. For the purpose of this post I'll divide Stressors into 2 groups: Those you can ignore / Those you can't. If your boss or closest co-worker, or even primary contact with a client is stressed, they will attempt to stress you too. Unwillingly of course this is just a symptom of the disease.

It goes something like this:

  1. They have more tasks than they have time to resolve
  2. They attempt to solve everything by increasing tempo
  3. They start failing and become frustrated
  4. They attempt to compensate by making everyone else increase their tempo

The "Everyone else" in this case could be you. You might succeed helping them catch up by increasing your tempo. That's the best-case scenario but even here, you are now working at an increased tempo. You might also fail in which case you will be blamed and attempt to compensate in other areas. Now your tempo is increased and you're frustrated. Either way: Stressed colleagues will add stress to your life.

If its a client - Tell them that you are now aware of this dynamic and that it is unsustainable. If they do not correct their attitude, wish them the best but leave them. If its your boss, quit. If its a co-worker, distance yourself and be very clear with them about the dynamics, ie. that you will not assume responsibility for their failure of planning / over-confidence in accepting tasks. Don't be afraid to pull out of a bad situation, the only way to make space for great things is by getting rid of anything and everything less than great. The race is long, you don't have to win every day.

Keep in mind that the actions I recommend are for a continued stressful environment thats gnawing at you. If its a day or week people usually work these things out themselves without your input. Working very fast periodically is not uncommon and not something you should shy away from - I'm strictly talking about situations that get so stressful that's its impacting your health and happiness, but in those cases: Act to resolve.

Regardless of your situation and circumstance I advise you to make stress the Main Thing so that you can focus your efforts on what's actually the Main Thing. Failure to do so will

  • Impair your decision making
  • Negatively impact your health
  • Reduce your quality of life

Work is important - We all work hard and create value. But its not important compared to your health and quality of life. What good is owning a billion dollar company if you're miserable? What good is it to be able to travel all the world, if you're stuck in a hospital bed? Your health and mental state need to be the Main Thing before anything else can be.

Final practical bits

In addition to the above, let me just add a few things which has helped me keep stress out of my life.

If you can: Pick 2 days for meetings (physical ones). I don't have 2 specific days, the first client who requests a meeting get to pick the day of the week. Any subsequent requests for meetings get put into that day or one of the adjacent days. The remaining 3 days are work/code/whatever days.

Working long hours is subject to the Law of Diminshing returns. You may think that 16 hour work days will yield double the results of 8 hour workdays. In my experience that is never true for more than 4 days or so.

When you're under pressure, relaxation can feel like a huge waste of time. Like walking in the woods for an hour, or even working out. Its not, even though you're doing nothing productive, you're adding fuel for the next burn in the office.

And finally, I've committed to always having the following: A full nights sleep. Time to work out. Healthy food and drink. I think that's the bare minimum you need to stand a fighting chance in todays competitive markets.

Best of luck Entrepreneurs!

Return to list

About the author

Lau B. Jensen is a danish tech entrepreneur who has run been active in the start-up scene for over a decade. With a strong background in Webdevelopment/Functional Programming, he has taught Clojure all over Europe and worked with numerous startups and Fortune500s.