the founder spiral

by farza — aug 28, 2023

Note: this is targeted specifically at startup founders. But, same things apply to anyone who’s brave enough to create something from nothing — creators, musicians, physics researchers, etc.

I wanna talk about why companies die.

And, why most people quit.

Specifically, a reason no one really talks about.

When I got into startups, they told me: “most company’s die either because 1) the founder couldn’t raise or 2) the co-founders had internal problems”.

Hm. Simple enough.

But, reality is different.

While these are two very real reasons company’s die, most of the companies I’ve seen die around me aren’t these two reasons at all.

I wanna add a third reason early companies/startups/initiatives die:

The founder simply ends up in a downward spiral, and can’t catch themselves.

It’s pretty straightforward:

Somehow, the founder ends up in a negative or dejected mental state.

And, while they’re in this negative space they can’t properly solve the day-to-day problems they encounter at a startup. In fact, the problems bring them into an even more negative space.

The spiral begins.

For example, let’s say for 4-6 days in a row you’re:

  1. Sleeping 5-6-hours a night on average.

  2. Not eating proper meals throughout the day.

  3. Working very long stretches, with little movement.

For most people this will likely put them in a very tired mental state.

And, that’s where it starts.

Now, you’re tired.

All of a sudden — you have new problems arise. The latest growth experiment didn’t work, you’re running low on cash, the product you thought was great, isn’t.

Back to the drawing board.

But, you’re tired.

You don’t have the patience or mental strength to solve these new problems.

You begin to get annoyed at your teammates. Annoyed at loved ones. Your fuse becomes shorter. The annoyance brews, it turns into sadness. Now you’re blaming yourself for not being good enough.

And, this spiral continues through to many different emotions.

You go to bed.

All of a sudden, you wake up, head back into the office, and put yourself through it all over again. You endure a new set of problems that you aren’t able to solve, because you can’t even seem to solve the ones inside your own head.

So, you keep spiraling for 3-6 months.

And then you quit — and the company or initiative dies.

The end.

It’s always been really surprising to me that no one told me about this.

Perhaps it just isn’t as cool to talk about as other things in the world of startups.

I don’t really have a solution to the “founder spiral”.

We’re all so different, and, I’m not a psychologist or therapist.

I can just tell you what works for me.

Ideally I never spiral, but hey I’m human.

So what I do is I’ve just gotten very good at catching myself when early on in a spiral. Often in the first 7-14 days.

I usually catch it pretty fast because I start to 1) get annoyed at others much faster 2) have really low energy. I also journal every day, and I even ask myself “am I spiraling?” a couple times a month just to check in.

When I realize I’m spiraling I:

  1. Stop everything.

  2. Admit to myself that I’ve lost to my emotions and am spiraling — and that’s okay.

  3. Go home.

  4. Spend 1 day doing things that bring me energy — for me it’s watching movies in theatres, running, sitting in a sauna/cold plunge (most effective for me), or hitting a sensory deprivation tank for an hour.

From there, I get back to a solid routine of eat, sleep, and exercise.

The longer it takes me to recognize the spiral, the worse it gets, and the harder it is for me to muster the energy to get out of it.

My worst spiral ever lasted nearly 2-years from ages 18-20. I can’t believe I made it out of it to be honest. But, back then — I discovered a deep love for programing, and that energized me enough to get out of a very dark place.

My last bad spiral (one that lasted more than 45-days) was over 5-years ago. And, for that one I remember I just spent 2-weeks straight doing nothing but exercising really hard, eating right, and watching movies.

Been nearly spiral-free since.

Again, I’m not a therapist — so I don’t have great, general advice.

I can only tell you what works for me.

I still spiral here and there, but, it’s almost always caught in the first 2-weeks.

As a founder, you gotta remember that you are very susceptible to spiraling and getting very sick from it. Your days are long, your days are hard — they are full of problems from outside pressures.

So, you need to build that internal system that protects you.

Don’t let your emotions rule you.

Don’t spiral.

If you’re reading this and find yourself in a spiral right now, take a step back today/tomorrow and be easy with yourself.

You’re kinda like a car that’s overheating, so, first slow down.

Then, do some things that energize you or you just get joy from. You’ll feel a little lighter — and from there can make some space to create a plan that helps you get the spiral to slow down.

Hope this helps someone out there on the interwebs.

See yah in the next one homies.

Keep building.

- Farza