Startup to Scale up: Managing Stress

Growing your own startup can be the most fulfilling and exciting career experience, but the growing pains are real and impact can be personal.

In this episode of the Startup to Scale Up series, we sit down with Parkable Founders Brody Nelson and Toby Littin, to hear about their experiences with startup stress and how they’re learning to manage and prioritise their mental health within the race.

Have you always had to deal with stress and anxiety in your work lives, or has the startup experience been particularly stressful?

TL: “Startups are an extreme version of stress and anxiety, and it tends to come and go. You have these huge moments of elation and happiness that are surrounded by moments of terror, fear, stress, anxiety, and it is relatively new in a startup context. You know, when you’re working in a corporate or government as my prior life was, it wasn’t the same level of sustained stress. It was pretty defined roles, pretty easy going. But running your own business - different story.”

BN: “Yeah, I agree - I think it’s different when it’s your own business. Jobs can be really stressful, and being a salaried employee and working for someone else can be really stressful, but to a certain extent when you leave the office, you can switch off and do your own thing. And weekends and evening are your own mental space. But I think that when you’re the founder of a business you never really switch off, or it’s much harder to. Generally when I get home from work and after I put my daughter to bed, I’ll open up my laptop and I’ll work until I go to sleep. Which is, you know, not super relaxing.”

TL: “On the other hand, running your own business, to a large degree, you’re in control of your own destiny. When you’re working for someone else there are a lot of things you have no control over and you can’t have as big a direct impact on what’s going on around you. And so for me a big motivation for starting my own business was being able to be in charge of my own destiny, but coming with that is the stress.”

When you first started Parkable, what did you think the experience would be like? Did you expect the stress to eventually go away once you passed the initial startup phase?

BN: “I felt like I went into it eyes wide open, knowing that it was going to be really difficult at the start - there’s not a lot of money washing around, you’re just trying to make things happen on no budget, or a shoestring budget. What I didn’t realise is that as you grow, it doesn’t get easier, but the challenges change. The stakes are higher. If you’re an investment-led startup like we are, you’re trusted with shareholders’ money and to do the right thing with it, and they expect results. The more money that’s put into the business, the more pressure to perform, and so the stress just kind of changes.”

TL: (laughs). “I guess I’m the optimist here - I always thought it was going to hit a point where it was going to level off and it was going to be pretty easy. In the early days I thought it would just be the first two or three months that were really stressful and hard, and then we would get some extra people around us and it would get easier. Then I thought it would be the first six months, and then the first year, and now here we are and it’s been relatively consistent in that the stress just ramps up to a boiling point, and then you just have to find the mechanisms to deal with it, and it becomes a part of your everyday. You know, you need to use it to motivate, rather than using it to freak out.”

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What practical techniques do you use to manage stress?

BN: “I guess one of the things is to try and really enjoy your work. I try to really be positive in the office and enjoy the journey - it’s stressful, but if you can enjoy the journey it doesn’t seem like this arduous thing that you have to endure, you can kind of make it fun, and one of our core values is to have fun. We try to create an atmosphere where, yes, be serious and do the hard work, but where people can also enjoy themselves. And I think it starts at the top as well, like if you’re running around like this really stressed out frantic person, that really trickles down to the rest of the organisation and people pick up on the energy that the management bring. That’s definitely something I try to be cognisant of, that my own approach and energy in the office can be contagious, and so I try to keep it positive and upbeat. Another thing is that I try to remind myself that it isn’t life or death - in IT, most of the time, worst case scenario, you release a build of the software and it goes out to the public with a bug in it, and that’s the extent of the issue, and that’s not great, but it’s just trying to remind yourself that we’re building a parking platform, that no one’s going to die necessarily. And just try to keep things in perspective, because it’s easy to get really frustrated and lose your perspective.”

TL: “For me it’s all about exercise and distance. So, recently, we moved into a new office, and as part of that I try to walk around the block whenever I feel particularly stressed out, so I use that to get some distance from the office. In terms of outside of the direct work environment, for me managing stress comes in a couple of ways. It’s really about exercise and personal well being, so making sure I eat well, making sure I’m sleeping well, making sure I’m exercising. And to do those things, I need to plan for it. I’m not a natural planner, so that’s a difficult thing, but without taking an active role in managing stress, you let it get on top of you. Burn out is this term you sort of hear about, when people are doing too much, and I think it’s very real, and I think it can take anyone by surprise, and that’s why you need to get in front of the stress. You need to make the time to manage it. Those people who don’t are the ones who suffer, and I speak from experience of being in prior businesses. And that’s not fun, and not successful.

“But, you know, it’s difficult. Eating well, exercising, sleeping well - that’s just good, basic stuff that everyone reads about but that’s really hard to do in a startup, because in a startup the buck stops with you. Everything needs to be done, everything is urgent. I’m working really hard on the power of no. It’s really easy to say yes to things - ‘Oh yeah, yeah, I’ll do it’ - and in a startup you’re responsible for doing everything. And now I’m practicing my no - like ‘No, I can’t do that. No, it’s not going to happen. No. No.’ And that sounds quite blunt, but it’s giving myself more realistic deadlines. Making sure that my to do list is manageable means that each day I can tick things off, and that lets me go to bed easy. It’s also working really hard to get something done, but if it isn’t done when I wanted it to be, it’s telling myself that’s okay, it’s still fine.”

How does stress manifest for you in your work?

TL: “The stress generally builds, in my case, in my world, towards a big outcome - I’m working on something large. As a result of working on that big thing there’s a lot of stuff that’s not getting done, that I’m not crossing off my list. In fact, the list is just out of control to the point where you just stop writing it, you just don’t know how to deal with it. So an example of that is that recently we’ve been capital raising for our startup, and it was crazy - it was meeting with investors, it was negotiating terms, it was dealing with the legals and the financials and all of the staff impacts and budgets and recruitment and all of this stuff, the pitch decks and travel. That meant really really long days and really really long weeks, and for four months there were zero weekends, there was zero family time. Exercise fell off a cliff, diet fell off a cliff, because all of my focus was around capital raising. As a result my to do list got longer and longer, a lot of my regular stuff in the business I was ignoring or not aware of. But, we’ve gotten through that capital raising now, and secured the investment and got a whole lot of supportive people on board, got a whole lot of new staff joining the business, and that’s the time that I take the satisfaction and the release from the stress, that’s where I come out the other side.”

BN: “But you also learn from that experience and can make improvements for next time. There are things you can do.”

TL: “Yeah, definitely. The first time I went through a capital round, I didn’t use those coping mechanisms and I didn’t plan, or build in any of the stuff that I need to manage my stress and anxiety levels, whereas this time round I still actually managed to exercise twice a week, I told my family before we embarked on this journey that for the next three months, that I would be really difficult and I needed to plan family time, and that’s new concept for us. Usually you just have family time, and it’s good, and so building in those coping mechanisms was really important and it also meant I got a lot more support at home, that my partner might otherwise not have understood, so that helped as well.”

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Does stress bring anything positive to starting a business?

BN: “I think so - it’s scary to make the jump, to go from that highly paid, executive job in a corporate, to leave that safety net and just jump into the business. But it was quite a marked difference when that commitment was made, in terms of our growth. So at some point you just need to make the plunge. A friend of mine who’s an entrepreneur has a metaphor of having to have a cornered rat mentality, and you just have to kind of gnaw at anything that comes by. You don’t have that sense of desperation if you have that cushy 9-5. So when you take that safety net away, yes, you’ve got all that anxiety spiking up, but so does your motivation to solve the problems and actually find a solution.”

TL: (laughs). “I prefer the expression cornered tiger than cornered rat - yeah I mean that’s true, and in the context of stress, you need a certain degree of stress to motivate you. You know, you’ve got to be a bit worried - if you go out and you’ve got a well-funded startup or you’ve got a startup that’s making plenty of money, and therefore has heaps of resources, heaps of people, heaps of computer equipment, good office space, all of that stuff, it can be quite easy to become complacent. And that’s great - there’s no stress - but it’s not great for driving a high performing startup. So stress isn’t always a bad thing, and I think Brody’s absolutely right - we joke a lot about the cornered rat kind of environment, and we created that environment because we all gave up other jobs to come and run a startup, we gave up salaries and reliable income and reliable hours and all that kind of good stuff to come and run our business, we chose to introduce more stress. But yeah, it’s a good motivator.”

Any advice for people who are starting a business?

BN: “I think just go in eyes wide open. It is an emotional rollercoaster, some days you think ‘What am I doing?’ and then the next day you think ‘Oh wow, I’m on the verge of building a 100-million dollar company, or an even bigger company, this is fantastic’ - and those emotional extremes can be really close together, you know, can be like same day, so just go in knowing that. I think choosing your co-founders is really important. In Parkable we have three co-founders, and you need those people that you can really talk to openly and support each other throughout the process, because there are going to be really tough times. So having people that you’ve worked with before, and that you trust, and that you know in conflict situations you’ll be able to work together is so important. I can’t imagine doing that as a single, lone founder, I think there would have been too many hard times, and that would have had a negative impact on my relationship with my wife, because that would be the only person I could feel like I could talk to.”

TL: “Yeah, and surround yourself with supportive mentors or advisors or people who have been through it before. We’ve got one guy who sits on our advisory board, and he has been amazing to me for the last nearly two years. Every time things are getting a bit heavy I pick up the phone and I talk to him and I say this is what we’re going through, and he has a really great habit of putting everything in perspective for me, and reminding me that it’s all just part of the journey, reminding me of the coping mechanisms, checking in whether I’ve booked in my exercise. So having people around you that you trust is a really important piece of coping with stress and keeping it in perspective. And plan the management, don’t just assume that you’ll stay disciplined. Those would be my two bits of advice. Because if you plan to manage your stress, then invariably you can deal with it a whole lot easier.”

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