Stress In Startups: 5 Pitfalls That Can Kill Productivity
Are you stressed? Whether you’re a founder, salesperson, dev, marketer or intern at a startup, chances are you’ve said yes to this question at some point. But stress isn’t all bad.
The Bowery Capital family ended our CTO Summit yesterday with a different kind of talk from our friend Gagan Saksena.￼ Gagan is the CTO of Martini Media, a network for wealthy influencers online. He was previously the founder of startup Ideascopic, and has held product leadership roles at Google, AOL and Netscape. Gagan spoke to us about how to reduce stress in our lives to improve performance, drawing upon his experience leading technical teams. One of the most interesting takeaways was that we should stop thinking about stress as something to be eliminated; it can be a motivating force too. Per Gagan’s overall theory (shared and posited by many including Stanford’s Kelly McGonigal) there’s an optimal level of stress that both keeps the fire under us lit while keeping productivity high. Think of the classic Laffer Curve from Econ 101; just replace the Y axis with Productivity and the X axis with Stress Level.
So what productivity killers or relevant to you? In Gagan’s view, there are a number that relate to technology. Here, I tried to paint a more generalist view of startup stress pitfalls, paraphrasing various elements of his talk:
1) Inability to Detach
Detachment can mean a 5-minute break to walk outside. It can also mean something along the lines of Google’s 20% rule (where that time is spent on personal-interest projects). Research shows that there is an optimal level of detachment. Sometimes, overall productivity will be increased by a break!
2) Ill-Invested Time
More productivity means more time means an improved ability to balance work and life. The more contingency planning you do, the less surprised you will be about things in your life; and that includes the most minor work task up to planning en entire week. Gagan spent nearly an hour with his team teaching them keyboard shortcuts, and they hated it. But after a few sessions, the entire time became noticeably more productive.
3) Ignoring Long-Term Stress As A Decision Factor
Should I build this or buy it? Should I rent it or own it? These are impactful from both finance and time perspectives. But stress is a very real third consideration here. An overly complex / thorough approach may make you happy and “satisfied,” but it may lead to a lot of stress in maintaining it, or in the time it takes away from other projects.
4) Incomplete Utility Theory
Utility is an economic theory, but it boils down to usefulness. The concept, as Gagan illustrates it, is that for example, a $5 cup of SBUX coffee yields you more than $5 worth of usefulness (enjoyment, happiness, sustenance, etc.). But research shows we’re not always rational. And happiness is inversely proportional to stress. So we often optimize our decisions for utility without thinking about stress.
5) Don’t Measure Everything—Measure Properly
Measuring itself can be a source of stress. KPIs and OKRs are very useful. But you need to be prepared to pivot these metrics. Ask: are we measuring the right stuff? Cases of companies or teams measuring worthless things are commonplace. First, just measure what you can control (e.g. you can’t affect macroeconomic indicators. Second, understand your measure deeply before committing to them (e.g. aggregated statistics may have many root factors, some of which may not be impacted by efforts). Third, don’t suffer from testing biases (e.g. number of questions answered by a customer success rep, which should go down if he and others on the team are doing really well).
To finish off here are my quick 6 takeaways from Gagan’s talk. Whether a PM, dev, salesperson, CEO or marketer, I think you might find some of these useful in taming unproductive stress.
- Wake up 30 minutes earlier
- Validate approaches to decision-making before starting on them
- Take breaks!
- Check your email only so often (say every 15 or 30 minutes)
- Most importantly: enjoy what you do; do what you enjoy
Thanks again Gagan for joining us at the Summit and (hopefully) keeping us at our optimal level of stress and productivity! And don’t forget to check out @vreeland’s thoughts on the same topic at the Bowery Blog here.