Startups, health and you


Your startup dies with you — but you shouldn’t die with your startup. — Jesper Reiche

I’m not sure whether I can actually claim that quote — but I could not find it elsewhere, so until proven otherwise — I plant my flag. As simple as the quote may sound it’s worth repeating and remembering. In that sentence lies two very important pillars of a successful startup no matter the idea, sector or market potential. Your startups health is not just about the business plan.

In a time of relative peace in the world, entrepreneurs wear their relentless work ethic and lack of sleep as a badge of honour. Whether you looked into the closet of an entrepreneur or fitness junkie you’d find the same slogans printed on the t-shirts.

Setting the scene of an episode of the TV-series “Who lives here”:

The host: “Let’s have a look inside the closet to see what type of clothes our secret guest wears.”

The lifestyle guru: “Let me see, what does this t-shirt say… ‘Unless you puke, faint or die — keep going’ Hmmm… Oh here’s another ‘Obsessed is what the lazy call the dedicated’… Yes… This might seem like an easy one, as the obvious answer would be fitness-junkie…. BUT it could actually just as well be the less obvious; startup-founder. They can be really hard to tell apart!”

Cutting back to reality. While these slogans do look good on t-shirts and might make you feel more special and hardworking than mere mortals who doesn’t beat themselves to death trying to accomplish some arbitrary goal, they aren’t necessarily helping you achieve your goal. The quotes and the thought behind them may even be detrimental to both your progress and health as well as your startups health and progress, which in this game is very closely related.

The startup game is filled with adversity especially when the company is still considered new and not yet generating any substantial revenue. You have some OK days — a lot of bad days — and very few “best days”. If you are of positive spirit you probably pretty early on decided to call anything that hasn’t caused you to go out of business an OK day. This puts an enormous pressure on the founder(s). You are forced to do a hell of a lot of work especially while no one is watching — the kind of work that never really gets appreciated.

This outrageous amount of grinding is almost part of any early stage startup. It’s often characterised by being very strenuous and indefinite in amount. You can always do more. This is where the “Get fit/rich or die tryin’” comes into play. Founders takes the work/life balance and replaces “life” with “more work” — work/”more-work-balance”…

And YES you do have to work very hard, you do have to give your absolute everything to succeed. 9 out of 10 times startups are absolutely no walk in the park. It will take tremendous sacrifice and a lot of saying no to normal life stuff. BUT and there is a very big BUT — while you working very hard on your startup is very, very good for your startup — you not working for periods or you not working at all is very very bad for your startups health.

Whether you are a single founder or co-founder, your startups health becomes deadly wounded if your mental or physical health starts to deteriorate. You being healthy means that you can give your everything to fight or wrestle your startup in the right direction. Once a founder goes down, the success of the startup is almost surely going the same way. Your health should be as high a priority as the success of your startup and your startups health. They are two things that go hand in hand. Sure you’ll have periods where you sleep and eat less than optimal to meet an important deadline or the like. But recognise when you are pushing yourself hard and when you are pushing yourself too hard. Allow for periods to recover.


Constant sleep deprivation may seem to give you more hours to work on your startup, but the quality of work sharply declines. What’s more important; hours of work or things done? They are not the same. As this very interesting sleep deprivation article describes [LINK] “The sleep deprived brain can mistake friend for foe”. If you can’t tell friend from foe how will you be able to distinguish good from bad decisions?

There has actually been done some very interesting studies in the military on sleep deprivation. To quote from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s awesome book “On combat”:

“There was a study conducted by the US Army on an artillery battalion. The troops suffered terribly, so perhaps we should pay attention. The battalion was divided into four batteries, and then conducted fire missions(artillery exercises) for 20 days straight, every waking hour of the day. The first group, Group One got seven hours of sleep at night, Group Two got 6 hours, Group Three 5 hours and finally Group Four really suffered with only 4 hours of sleep at night. At the end of the 20 days the numbers came in. Group One who had gotten 7 hours of sleep had fired at 98% of peak efficiency. Group Two had fired at 50%, Group Three at 28% and the poor guys who only got 4 hours of sleep in Group Four; they had fired at 15% of peak efficiency. The 4 hour group was not only useless, they were dangerous!”

If there is a more convincing study of why you should get your sleep to perform at your best — I haven’t seen it.

Push hard in periods, make sacrifices, but acknowledge that you are more than a founder, you are also a human being, a friend, a son/daughter, a parent. The amount of effort you can put into your startup will fluctuate. You will have periods where you can and should push hard followed by periods where you can’t push as hard. Times where you need to recuperate and both get and give some energy into “normal life” whether that means going to play basketball twice a week with friends, helping your daughter or perhaps your mother each day. Don’t try to convince yourself that you can catch up with one or two weeks of vacation in a year. While being a founder may be your top priority you are still a human. Embrace that fact and listen to your body.

There are no awards given for being able to work yourself into depression or bad health. It is bad for you and it is bad for your startup. Push yourself all the way to the edge, but not over. Your health as well as your startups health is in your control.

“Your startup dies with you, but you shouldn’t die with your startup”

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