Time off as an Entrepreneur: The Struggle is Real (and necessary) / by elton rivas

In January I left the helm of one of the companies that I co-founded and served as CEO through our first three years of growth, One Spark. To me, the blessing of One Spark has always been demonstrated most through the amazing talent of people that were brought together (employees, volunteers, creators, city members, investors, students and so many more) supporting a single mission: to help people with great ideas get connected to the resources they need. We attacked the pain head on by creating what turned into the world's largest crowdfunding festival, but more importantly for our city and beyond - a movement that inspired thousands to create.

During those same few years, I also founded other businesses, advised dozens of startups, traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, met my wife, got married, spoke at conferences, gave a TEDx talk in Frankfurt, did hundreds of media interviews, completed an ironman distance triathlon (but not the blog), a couple half-iron distance races, moved three times, ran a few marathons and ultimately exhausted myself. I can still feel the physical and emotional ailments again just writing that list. Fortunately, my wife encouraged me to take a couple of months off before diving back in to any new entrepreneurial ventures. For that, I'm eternally grateful.

The past 6 weeks I've spent time volunteering a couple of days a week, taking time to read and getting outdoors a bit to hike. I've baked my wife a cake from scratch, made meals that I've wanted to make and enjoyed the simplicity of things like washing our cars at home on a nice afternoon. These things may seem so simple, but in the heat of a startup launch, they are items that I hardly ever got to experience during the past 5 years. As founders, we often forget the benefit of taking time away from the grind... taking time away from running experiments... time away from the 24/7 brain capacity of working to steward growth... time away from the media... time away from the pressures of being a founder/entrepreneur/CEO.

Sure, the simple items above have been wonderful to experience, but make no mistake, it took nearly 4 weeks to even slow down enough to be able to appreciate them. It wasn't until after that that I began to experience the tension of wanting to build something new and not knowing what it would be. I keep a running list of ideas for new companies to help solve certain pains in the market, but at the time I didn't feel any burning passion towards them. In that moment, it's difficult to realize that it's okay to step away. These questions kept looming in the distance and repeating themselves each day: What will I do next? How will I get started with another company? What's the right team to pull together? When should I get started? Over and over like the sound a train crossing guard makes as it's going down. I couldn't get them out of my head.

This tension that other entrepreneurs may be able to appreciate ( I say this in hopes that I'm not the only one with this struggle!) is the tension of time <--> production. It's one that we fail to keep at the forefront of our minds and hearts as entrepreneurs. Personally, I think that's mostly because of where we find our worth as an entrepreneur. As a culture entrepreneurs are generally evaluated in metrics that relate to production: profitability, conversion, operational efficiency, return on/of capital, customer satisfaction, net promoter scores, and on and on. The issue with that is that there's not a decoupling of the entrepreneur and the actual business metrics. Should there be? That's a discussion for another post in the future.

It really hit me recently as I was giving a keynote talk at Startup Week in Tallahassee just a few days after transitioning from One Spark. A student asked me a wonderful question:

How do you deal with the emotional pressures of success and failure in a startup?

The room went silent. Eyes shifted to the front of the room as heads nodded... yes, that's a tough question. After taking a moment to process the question, the first thing that came to mind is something that I firmly believe in...

An entrepreneur shouldn’t tie his or her identity and self-worth to the success (or failure) of a company. Rather, we must find our identity in something outside the company and do great work from that self-worth versus the metrics on a dashboard.

There has to be something more important than those metrics in your own personal identity that allows you to do good work out of it. For some that could be their family, for others it could be their passions or their faith. Regardless of what it is, the bottom line is that if you directly tie your self-worth to the ups and downs of your company, there is a real risk of not being able to endure hardship. Founders are in a position that always puts odds terribly against them when creating something new. The statistics show that depending on the circumstances, somewhere between 70% and 90% of startup companies fail. The long road of being multi-time entrepreneur requires us to find self-worth in other ways if we're going to get through the ups and downs to create things time and time again. 

The next major breakthrough was forcing myself to just get away from offices for a bit and do things that I enjoy. To that end I had a couple wonderful backpacking adventures. One solo on Cumberland Island for a couple days and the other with my brother-in-law out in Big Sur. The time to completely disconnect and read and enjoy nature was another big piece of the puzzle of allowing passion to come back through towards the desire of doing great work.

As I begin the process of starting new projects (more on those in the weeks/months ahead), I am thankful for this time off and the reminder that the norm isn't always pushing 12 hour days for metrics. Nor should it be.

Rather, as entrepreneurs we must respect the real tension of time off and then allow ourselves to take the time to enjoy little moments along the way with those people/places/things/beliefs that give us our true identity.

Would love your thoughts/feedback? Do you find similar struggles? How do you cope?