There’s no reason why you can’t get involved with early-stage startups later in life provided you are willing to put in the effort and temper your expectations. As we grow older, our lives become ever more complicated and our responsibilities expand. Most people choose job security as time goes on, in order to focus on what is really important to them (e.g. family, retirement goals, etc.). Some people choose startups, and a small fraction of us actually prefer early stage ones (handful of people, little or no capital, etc.). If you understand these types of environments they either terrify you or invigorate you (or both). I personally cannot get enough of them – having moved on from a company I co-founded years ago after helping to evolve it into a larger organization, I immediately found myself at home working with a couple of maniacally driven entrepreneurs focused on seriously disruptive technology – this time as an early stage executive rather than a co-founder. But nonetheless, early stage is early stage, and if you’re in it, you know that it’s a whole different ballgame than anything else out there. And it can put serious pressure on your family, livelihood, and health.
There’s no question you had far more time and effort to give when you were younger and unattached to anything other than your work. But you have one critically vital advantage today that you didn’t have 10, 20, or more years ago: Experience. It’s what helps you work smarter, not harder, get things right the first time, and maintain equilibrium.
The one thing you must do in order to succeed is to maximize your productivity at all times. Just as small companies win when they out-smart, out-produce, and out-maneuver their larger competitors, you must do the same at an individual level to win. Most of this is mindset and determination, but I have found 3 key elements that help tremendously.
Control your Blood Sugar Level
As with all creatures, humans are genetically programmed to survive. One of the most fundamental survival instincts is to find food when we need it. Sure, food is abundant today and we don’t have to chase after large game for days to produce it, but even a few minutes of low blood sugar can distract your brain from the task at hand. A good strategy is to maintain steady blood sugar levels throughout the day. This means what food you eat, and when you eat it, really matters. Do it right, and it has the added benefit of keeping your body healthy as well. I’ve personally found that eating high protein meals and avoiding sugars is what works best for me. More generally, eating foods with a lower Glycemic index means your blood sugar levels spike less after meals. Since “what goes up, must come down”, your body doesn’t “crash” as quickly when your blood sugar did not rise too much to begin with. In practical terms, you don’t feel like you’re starving an hour or two after you finish eating when you avoid foods with high GI’s. Your body takes longer to metabolize what you consume, and your blood sugar levels vary far less, letting your brain know that you’re not going to starve and can therefore focus on more evolved tasks. I believe any form of diet can be altered to avoid sugars, including strict vegetarian ones. If you’re pretty open-minded (and don’t think saturated fat is evil in all contexts), take a look at what the Bulletproof Executive has to say. Note: I have no affiliation with this, just find it an interesting resource.
Exercise Every Single Day…
…or at least almost every single day. Everyone knows that regular exercise helps keep your body (and especially your heart) healthy. But what about your mind and spirit? Let’s face it, when you’re doing an early stage startup and balancing family life all at once, there is not much “you” time left. You need to set time aside each day where you are the only thing that matters in the entire universe. This is not selfish – this is a necessity. I find that combining physical exercise with this “me” time works wonders. No matter what discipline you follow, exercise demands focus in order to be effective. Focusing on your movement, balance, and breathing is all about making yourself the center of the universe… for at least 20-30 minutes per day. Which brings me to an important point: avoid choosing fitness programs that demand too much time commitment. This of course varies per individual, but think about fitness disciplines as something you will do for the rest of your life. Is 2 hours at the gym every day for the rest of your life sustainable? For some it may be, but for me it’s not. I’ve found that 30 minutes is the magic number for me – I prefer short, very intense workouts to longer “endurance” ones. Your mileage may vary, but pick whatever makes sense for you – and be honest with yourself. This is not some New Year’s resolution that you will give up on by mid February – it’s a vital element of your health and professional success. Get it right, and you will realize tremendous physical and mental benefit. And don’t forget to account for the “commute” time and effort to and from your exercise facility. Personally, I exercise at home, where there is no such commute, and by extension, no excuse.
Avoid Passive Activity
Just like your muscles atrophy when you don’t use them, so does your brain. Yes, most brain atrophy is related to disease or even aging, but there is increasing research that you can maintain cognitive reasoning through stimulation even as you age. And since cognitive reasoning is critical to your early stage startup success (among many other things), you might as well start stimulating sooner rather than later. I avoid “feeding” my brain information, and instead, ask it to work for it. Try reading more rather than watching television, as a trivial example. One of my all-time favorite sayings is “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Of course you need sleep, but when you’re awake, make sure your brain is too. If you look forward to “vegging” out, then early stage startups are not for you. First, you probably won’t have time to. Second, when it comes to your brain, either “use it or lose it”.
Early stage startups are really difficult, especially when you have to balance “grown up” life with your work. Thankfully, following a few simple steps can help make this process easier, and also translate into increased success for your venture (and your life at large).