The Happy Entrepreneur: Staying Positive In the Face of Persistent Bad News

Chris Dixon recently wrote that the default state of a startup is failure. I agree.

In college I studied science and philosophy, so I spent about half of my classes in the hard sciences and worked in a molecular genetics lab. I wasn’t a business student, so I’ve always tended to think of business concepts mostly in scientific terms. As a result, I think about  this same phenomenon that Chris describes in a slightly different way. A startup, in terms of physics, is an organization disrupting market ‘inertia’ or “the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest, or the tendency of an object to resist any change in its motion.”

The point is that it is incredibly difficult to change the status quo. Changing a market means changing hundreds, or thousands, or millions, depending on market size, of people’s minds and habits. It doesn’t always matter – in fact, almost never matters – if you have a better way if doing something. You have to have a remarkably better way, so much so that you can alter the basic tendency of people and markets to maintain their current state. This, with a few very rare exceptions, takes time, money, and persistent effort.

The natural corollary to the above phenomena is that when you are fighting inertia, most things will fail. Most of your ideas and efforts will not work, or not work fast enough. The ideas and efforts that do work will most likely have little impact on changing the market right away. Even if your company can provide a product or service better, faster, or cheaper – or even all three at once – it still might not catch on, or not catch on before your company has ran out of money. Why? Because it takes most people a long time to change their minds and habits, and people make up markets. Thank God for early adopters, or else there would be no startups.

This is the harsh reality of being an entrepreneur. As a result, an entrepreneur will encounter more failure than success. This doesn’t mean that she is a failure, or that her business will fail; it just means that the day-to-day life of an entrepreneur is filled with more bad news than good. As a result, it’s really easy to get down on yourself when bad things keep on happening. So what is one to do?

We all know the old saw of the ever-persistent entrepreneur, or inventor, toiling away for years until she finds success. The Lean Startup movement (from Eric Reis, Steve Blank and Patrick Vlaskovits) has taught us all to pivot into a workable business model, but has not addressed a much more fundamental problem of entrepreneurship: how to handle the day-to-day rejections and failures.

I think there are many answers and tools to help, and I usually look to the work of an emerging movement within the scientific psychological community for answers: positive psychology, or to the the Buddhist tradition.  The most effective tool that I have found is one that Martin Seligman discusses in his latest book Flourish, which he calls ‘Three Good Things.’ It’s an exercise that I have incorporated into the daily huddle that we do at PaeDae, and will make a part of any company team I lead for the rest of my life. The exercise is simple:  every day in our morning huddle we go over a variety of things, like priorities, learnings, metrics, etc. We always finish with ‘Three Good Things,’ which is the short time at the end of our huddle when each of the team members recounts two positive work events, and one positive personal event from the previous day.

The two professional good things have the effect of reminding us that we are making progress, and that good things are happening in the face of rejection or slower results. Some days it’s easy after a big win like a new customer, or when a major funder comes on board. Other days it’s harder, and we have to dig deeper to find the good things that have happened. It may be as simple as one of our engineers finishing a big task in his sprint, or the sales team finally getting a call with the customer they have been waiting on for two weeks. By taking the time, even for just a few minutes a day, to celebrate and recognize that some things are going well, it keeps our spirits up and encourages us to look at the broader goal of finding – and then growing – a repeatable, scalable business model.  Lastly we go over at least one good thing that happened to us on a personal level. These ‘good things’ can range from getting engaged, all the way to a great band practice. They are constant reminders that our startup is one part, but not the only part of our lives. More importantly, it’s a moment when we all learn something about our fellow co-workers and deepen our relationship with each other. This leads to a more engaging and happier work environment.

What do you do to stay happy at work?