A mindful startup – what is it and how to have one

Written by Andy
Photo by Tom van Hoogstraten

Photo by Tom van Hoogstraten

Here’s a summary of what I’m sharing in the article below

  1. How mindfulness has been increasingly popular in both life and business
  2. Reality : the 80 hours a week rule – minimise to the maximum if you want success
  3. The problem – Burnout, broken relationships, perfectionism and grass green on the other side
  4. The solution – Mindful startup. A few ideas how to build mindful culture in the startup.

Mindfulness everywhere

I’m a practitioner of mindfulness meditation. I was curious about meditation before, but it was a particular application called Headspace that made me aware of how it works in a truly beautiful way. I think Andy Puddicombe did an amazing job with bringing meditation to the masses.

It works for me because it does, in a way, let me take my mind off the problems – things that exist in the past (when i worry about what happened) or in the future (when I worry about what might happen). It lets me hear the sounds around me clearly and think about how good it is to be healthy and relatively well off. And this state feels really great plus it gives me a kick for the entire day and it’s so much more difficult for problems to take control of my thoughts and actions.

But how then do you work on a startup if you don’t worry? Well, paradoxically it’s only then that I can truly do a step back and observe problems from a distance. It’s then that I can make decisions based on calculation, not emotion. And in the end it’s always going to be ok. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end.

Mindfulness meditation did one more really, really valuable thing for me as it focuses your mind on being and not wanting. It taught me that if I only look at money in my startup, I will never create a great product that people will love. Love and money just don’t go together (No, they don’t. It’s an addiction you’re thinking of right now).

Startup reality

This goes tangential to what most of us have heard about entrepreneurship . We’re taught to work hard and be ready to take 1 step forward and 50 steps backwards all the time.

Startup life can be hard. Everything seems to be in constant flux, so one might get an impression, the more effort we put into irt the better result we can expect. I still remember a friend of mine saying with full confidence, that in its early days startup founders need to work 80 hours a week, constantly thinking about how to make the business successful.

Achieving goals is a great thing but it’s also very ephemereal. We’re taught to set up bold goals and make every effort to realise whatever dream we’re having. The problem is – if we do focus solely on the goal we’ll miss the entire journey. Time-wise it makes sense to say 99% of our lives is the way and mere 1% actually reaching our goals. Why waste that 99% for the sake of mere 1%? And I’m afraid a lot of people do. Compromising joy, relationships, conscious self-development and others just for the sake of a moment when we reach that imaginary top of the mountain only to realise there’s a higher peak in front that makes us again afraid, unhappy and tired. Realising the importance of a journey is nicely summed up in this article by the way.

Burnout and broken relationships

Why do people do startups anyway? Money would still be the top 1 goal, besides proving self-worth, independence or because it’s  fun. But money don’t solve problems long-term. It re-wires your brain so that it starts creating other problems. Many times much worse than when you were broke. It’s obviously an average of 9 months after you’ve won the lottery before you’re again unhappy and lonely.

This mindset that we learn to be relentless, hard-working and perfect leaves us greatly unsatisfied even if we do, in the end, reach the closest goal we set up for ourselves.

That’s how people get their burnout, how they give up their relationships for the sake of a “higher purpose” (eg. success as measured in the contents of one’s bank account). This striving for perfection is also what makes us deaf to great ideas called LEAN, AGILE or design thinking. It tells us WE have to create a perfect product or service A.S.A.P and best do it ourselves, because others don’t match our own skills, excitement and motivation. Perfectionism is a very nice shortcut to a depression. Another great article on the broader topic of startups vs depression is here.

The Mindful Startup

I have an alternative that has been working for me so far.  And it will make you feel more fulfilled and possibly help take better decisions almost every moment of the journey, no matter what you do. Here’s a bunch of rules worth following if you’re attempting what I have:

1. Stop, think, act

Trying to be everywhere and cover all bases all the time gives you a self-impression of hard work well done. But how do you know 90% of that work makes sense? In a startup you usually don’t. That’s why regularly stopping for a moment to re-focus and then carry on is important. The main question would be:

Are the things you are doing really that important right now?

For example it’s tempting to keep adding features to your product given everyone you talk to is likely to suggest something you haven’t thought of. But it’s a road to nowhere. If your prospective customers ignore the product but “would buy if you added this or that”, that means your core value proposition is not strong enough and perhaps you need to make a pivot.

What’s important is to focus and if needed fail fast, then do something else based on what you learned.

Timeqube is still simply a light-based meeting timer. We were tempted a hundred times to add sensors, make it squishy or playback bird chirp when time’s up. But every time we resisted that tempation and focused on the group of customers that were willing to buy exactly what we were selling. And the group is growing ever since while Timeqube is still that cool, analogue meeting timer that uses light.

2. Draw conclusions from past failures and move on

“We could have written a better founder agreement”
“We should have launched that campaign a month before”
“I should have never listened to you”

Yeah, but you didn’t. Since we cannot go back in time or stop time, it’s pointless to dwell on past events full of negative emotions and a sense of regret. What’s done is done. Learn from the past and do it better in the future.

3. Don’t overthink

A Greek friend of mine told me once, success in startup is 99% luck and 1% preparation. This might seem like a tough estimate, but actually the amount of variables in your startup is going to increase exponentially the moment you decide to start your own business.

That said you still have to plan. But rather than planning years ahead try to focus on the deliverables within the next couple of weeks. Of course you’ll need a solid financial model that shows your business is viable, but early on it will be numbers taken more or less out of blue. They will live on in the spreadsheet getting closer to reality, influenced by the variables you can’t initially predict, but will probably never be 100% real (until they’re made into a financial statement 🙂

Let yourself not know. Usually not knowing makes us feel guilty. And guilt is rarely a good helper. Practicing not knowing and ultimately even feeling accomplished by not knowing makes me much more relaxed and mindful. There’s always going to be things you don’t know and the only thing that can be done is to find pieces of information and connect the dots. With fair degree of healthy curiosity.

4. Be kind to people

No matter if it’s your teammates, customers or investors. Just stay human, be authentic, treat others as friends not enemies by default. There is a fraction of chance, someone will indeed take advantage of you, but if you fail to be kind, you’re likely to miss opportunities that, believe it or not, come as part of our karma. This mechanism works anywhere including startups.

5. Practice daily mindfulness

There are more and more businesses that begin to understand people are not only under pressure but constantly overloaded by information and emotional triggers that don’t necessarily make them deliver better results at work. There’s a visible, though very slow shift in organisations to move away from subject matter expertise as the holy grail of hiring towards importance of personality, authenticity and teamplay skills. Companies are introducing meditation rooms and even provide meditation sessions for their employees.

Mindfulness helps raise various types of awareness. While it won’t teach you how to code in Python, it will offer a step back to reflect on how much you really need or want to learn Python. I hope you’re seeing the difference here and how this logics can be applied to almost anything in our daily life and work.

Here’s three core practices I do regularly to help me do the

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