Managing Emotions Under Pressure

I got the following note the other day from a friend: After reading your latest post on Board Room Rules, I started thinking about the pressures that entrepreneurs experience starting, growing and managing start-up companies (whether it’s their first company or their fifth.) So I wonder if you as an investor/board member/partner/cheerleader have ever had to counsel your entrepreneurs on this topic and if so what advice did you dispense?

I’ve been helping create companies for 20 years (basically my entire business career.)  I started when I was 19 and was way too young to have a clue.  At times, I felt immense pressure, especially when we had no money and I had to make a payroll in three days.  As an investor, I thought I’d never feel more pressure than in 1999 as I spent virtually every waking hour working.  Then – 2001 came along.   Ponder – for a moment – how you feel at the end of a really shitty day.  I take a shower, crawl into bed, and think to myself that “tomorrow will be a new day.”  However, By June of 2001, I’d realized that every day was worse than the previous day.  So – that night as I crawled into bed, I thought to myself “tomorrow will be worse – no matter what – until one day when it isn’t.  In the mean time, I’ll just deal with it.”  And – I did.  And – it eventually got better.

I’ve seen a lot of emotions in my 20 years in business.  Lots of anger, lots of sadness, lots of joy, lots of depression, lots of enthusiasm, lots of euphoria.  I prefer the joy, enthusiasm, and euphoria, but I know that the anger, sadness, and depression are part of the experience.  One of the challenges of being an investor is having companies (and entrepreneurs) in different states simultaneously.  On any given day, I’m likely at a meeting where the people around the table are in a happy place and then at a meeting where the people are in a not happy place.  Repeat.

My simple advice – for all entrepreneurs – is “don’t take it personally.”  Today, when someone yells at me or acts irrationally, I’m simply amused.  I listen.  I try to be constructive. But I don’t take it personally.  I learned this from Amy – whenever she yells at me, I grab her by the shoulders and start jumping up and down and making funny loud noises until the dogs join in.  While I rarely do this in a business context, I do the “business casual equivalent” of it.

A close friend once told me in the dark, dank, dismal depths of 2001 – “all’s well that ends.”  It always does – eventually.  How you deal with it while it’s in process is up to you.

  • Brad,
    I have been reading your blog for over a year now and this post is by far my favorite. As a startup entrepreneur (this is by fourth rollercoaster ride) I empathize deeply with the turbulence and intensity of the startup experience. I think this post really captures those feelings. Thanks for writing it and the rest of the blog. You have been doing great work.


  • Absolutely good advice. I also led a struggling software company during the bubble burst, and it’s human to get upset – you just have to get over it and get back to work. Especially if it’s your job to motivate everyone around you, not to mention assuring that your team’s mortgages are paid and their kids are fed. There’s no stress like founder stress…

  • I’m debating whether or not to clue my husband in on your method of distracting Amy (especially the dogs part 🙂 ).

    Personally I’ve used lots of different methods for dealing with high negative stress moments, and agree that thick skin is the best. In those rare times when things build past that point, I’ll usually call a time out to myself, focus on what all the worst possible outcomes of the current situation might be, accept the fact that if they materialize I’ll deal with them, and then more easily re-focus on working for a best outcome.


  • andrew callen

    I agree with Zach. Although I have not been reading your blog as long, I really enjoyed your post. It’s nice to see we all have the same roller coaster. I know I haven’t always dealt with tough situations well but in the end you need to step back and find the humor in it….you can’t ever take yourself too seriously (which is what i think you’re saying)

  • He who has a “why” to live can endure any “how”. (or something like that, by Nietzsche)

    If you are pursuing a life of meaning, you can endure rough stretches.

    More in a post I’ll do soon.

  • This advice definitely transcends the startup realm — it is pertinent to all aspects of life. Agreed on all counts; I think there is something to be said for the learning curve of going through rough times, but at the end of the day I think the greatest learning comes when you can train yourself to keep a smile amid the most arduous of circumstances. It’s all about conquering fear and seeing the big picture. Stellar post.

  • Excellent post. All of us running startups experience enormous personal pressures, but know full well whinging won’t help. It’s great having something outside to keep everything in perspective (in my case, wife and kids).

    Cool to contemplate that plenty of other people operate in the same position. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Interesting that you used Amy — your closest personal relationship — as an analogy. It’s a good analogy for a whole host of reasons.

    With my Amy, I have from time to time reminded myslef, “Hey, I didn’t marry her because she was [insert gripe]. She’s fabulous, just not necessarily in that area.” You can imagine how many times she says the same, regarding me.

    So it goes with entrepreneuship. I often find myself saying, “Hey, I didn’t join this company because it was [secure/predictable/whatever]. This is a fabulous opportunity, just not necessarily easy.” And so it goes.

    Btw, I’m on board with Zach’s comment. It just struck a chord.

  • Great advice. As a young investor I often get caught up in the emotional aspects of the game and take it far too personally. I’m getting better, but a good reminder is always welcome.

  • Wonderful advice. “Do not take it personally” is valid in any business context irrespective of whether one is an entrepreneur or not. thank you for this advice. I have to learn this to progress.

    You mentioned that you will handle difficult circumstances in a different way in a business context. Can you please tell me how you handle it?