The Trough of Despond – Startup Nightmares

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I have no f%#king idea what I’m doing. There’s a hundred thousand things I need to be doing to make this work, and I’m struggling to get any of them done.

Bear with me for a moment, I’m going to get a bit whiny and sorry for myself.

My apps interface sucks, my marketing campaign is foundering. People arrive at my site and just go away again. People I talk to love the idea, think it’s great, but don’t want to buy it themselves.

Trough of Despond
The Trough Of Despond. It’s not what they teach at Harvard, I’m sure.

I launched about six months ago, and it’s got gradually worse ever since. Every day I work out what I should do that day, and most days I do it, and yet the pile of things that need to happen never gets any smaller. The lack of progress is horrible: I get distracted by other projects that look like they might be easier or better. I work on them for a bit, but then realise I’d need to spend a couple of months properly working on them to make them fly, and if I put that much effort into the thing I’m already doing it would also fly, and probably fly further and longer. Which is great, because I still love this idea and see the potential for it, but terrible because that means I need to hack away at this mountain of shit again.

Don’t get me wrong; I love what I do, and I genuinely want to succeed and build something that finds an audience and creates value. But waking up every day to the crushing pile of stuff that needs doing is really f%#king hard. I’m not blaming anyone either; this is what I chose to do, still choose to do, freely and of my own will. I can stop any time I like and just go get a job and a regular salary and all the crap that goes with that. I read the articles and get advice from people who’ve done this, and it’s good advice given with the best of intentions from a genuine desire to help, but it’s slightly different from previous advice, and so each time I go back to look at my project with the new advice in mind there’s something I need to change or fix, and so the mountain gets bigger not smaller. I’m hard at work every day, yet the mountain grows.

Deadlines are great for cutting through the perfectionism and getting things done so they’re “good enough”, but they’re also nebulous, movable. There’s no penalty for moving a deadline, except that it means there’s more to do between now and getting something ticked off the to-do list. And “good enough” means that the next time I talk to anyone with an interest in that area they’ll have a host of tips for me to improve that area, and so the mountain grows, the deadline recedes, things that were ticked get unticked.

Pilgrims Progress
I’m not the first to document this journey – The Slough of Despond is a well-known step on the way

I’m told that having a team would help; other people can tackle bits of the to-do list and I wouldn’t be in on this on my own. But finding a team is hard; lots of conversations with people who might or might not be any use at all. More work, more mountain, less ticking. Even if I ignore the amount of  baggage that everyone carries and assume there’ll be no co-founder drama, then each person comes with their own viewpoint, which is great but it’s different from mine, and different from the other possible team-members. Incorporating all these visions into one coherent product is going to take a lot of talking and steering; a lot of work. Work that isn’t building the product which is what needs to happen right now. And ongoing work to keep the team focused on that coherent vision and working together. Work that I don’t have to do if I don’t have a team. Work that involves managing people rather than building stuff, and what I need to do is build stuff.

It also all sounds so easy coming from people who aren’t sat where I am, looking at this mountain of work, so I think it must be me. I’m not “crushing it” so there must be something wrong with me, it must be an innate problem that I have, some terrible defect in my personality that stops me from doing this so easily. But then I hear from Hacker News, posts and startup friends that this is a common phase, that this is part of the process of building a startup, that it’ll get better as I get better at doing what matters and ignoring the rest. Which is great, and I can’t wait to get to that bit, and thanks for letting me know it does get better, but at the moment it’s like someone posting snaps of their four-course meal while I’m hungry and stuck on a long walk. Uphill. In the rain.

When they said that building a startup is an emotional roller-coaster I took it with a pinch of salt and a “yeah, yeah sure”. I’ve survived depression and wear my battle scars proudly; I can cope with anything a simple startup can throw at me. Yes, I can, but that doesn’t mean it’s not tough.  It’s not all cruisey days in my pyjamas coding in my front room: there are days that the security of a regular salary seems like heaven, even with the crap that comes with that. Let’s try to be honest about this, as we’re being honest about all the other things that startup involves.  Startup is emotionally hard, and as founders we need ways of coping with this.

If you’re in a sharing mood, let us know how you’re coping in the comments.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Hey Marcus, nice post. It sounds like you are struggling to keep your head above water. Everything you described made me smile. I’m sure we all have empathy with you. Some days or weeks where feel like you are climbing mount everest without an oxygen mask. Its really, really hard if you are a one man business. I’m lucky to be in a startup with some great people so its easier to keep motivated on those darker days. The best advice is to keep in touch with other startup people, even if it is just for a whinge, it will help your sanity. The other piece of advice is there are a couple of books that stood out for me and might be helpful with looking and prioritising goals and work. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries is awesome and an absolute startup classic, I’ve reviewed it here on our company blog https://selz.com/blog/lean-startup-5th-10-must-read-startup-entrepreneur-ebooks/ . It is a must read. The other book is by Guy Kawasaki called the Art of the Start https://selz.com/blog/art-start-10th-must-read-startup-entrepreneur-ebook/ . It is another one that helps you dig yourself out of the reeds to see bluesky. Feel free to get in touch with me if you want. Keep plugging away and keep smiling.

  2. I’m totally there too at the moment. Good luck, I’m one of those who loves your idea and wants to see it succeed. Hopefully catch you next time you’re in at Spacecubed or similar…

  3. There’s a lot of literature to help along with this. I could name dozens of books, but I think Brian Tracy’s “Millionaire habits” might the best to get started. The phase to beware of most in start-ups, and I’ve seen many, who originally ‘took off like a rocket’ self-destruct on these cliffs, is what entrepreneurial research calls the phase of adolescence, when a company becomes so large that new staff are not recruitable e.g. from close or distant friends anymore but have to be found on the market and advertisement has to evolve from relying on personal relationship and word-of-mouth to more “anonymous” sources of leads.

    • Dermot, I’d love to have that problem! Getting so large I have to recruit strangers. Luxury! So yes, there are several dark places on this road and this is just the first. Well, actually the first was pre-launch when trying to pin down the idea to something that would stay still long enough for me to bloody build it was the problem. Hence the huge high at launch because I’d finally worked out what the bloody hell I was actually building. Now to find out what makes people like or hate it… and that’s the mountain I’m climbing now.

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