Who ordered the scrambled brains?

Irreverent. In every sense.

Stress and the pre-launch vision cycle

A friend recently pointed me to this article by startup connoisseur extraordinaire Paul Graham.

…the most dangerous traps now are new behaviors that bypass our alarms about self-indulgence by mimicking more virtuous types [of behavior].

So true and applicable to startups, yet so ambiguous. I have struggled at length with this one; as both the “engineer” and the “creative/product guy”, I can find ways to justify almost any activity. Right now I’ve resigned to accept that all decisions may be influenced by self-indulgence, and that it’s a necessary cost of being a solo, pre-launch founder. Maybe it’s a cop-out, but the alternative seems to be a paralyzing spiral of self-doubt and less meaningful product visions. Lucky for me, my funding outlook (the ultimate deadline) and other (artificial) deadlines have pretty strong chilling effects on my activity planning. I’ve learned to acknowledge any enjoyment I could get from a potential activity, which triggers a counteracting impulse of flexibility and self-restraint. I figure I’m okay as long as I say “not right now” to enough questionable things to allow me to stay on target to get the minimal viable product out the door in a timely fashion.

I’ve observed a recurrent cycle of doubt, cognitive dissonance, and renewed confidence in the vision. Sometimes the dissonance is resolved by debunking the original basis for the doubt, but other times it’s resolved by altering the vision. Over time, this strengthens confidence in the vision, which serves as a bedrock to foster steady-handed execution and motivate me even when specific activities appear on their own to be self-indulgent or distracting (e.g. exhaustive tweaks to the UX or retrofitting to use a new framework, both of which can feel worthless if not for confidence in the underlying vision).

I think this is the underlying pattern that will always be true pre-launch, where one has no market/user feedback data to go by, only speculation. Being a solo founder has an advantage in dealing with this. While it’s true that a co-founder can share in the research, customer outreach, networking, brainstorming, product development, building, and, in general, The Work, this person also brings a potentially limitless source of friction to tweaking the vision/strategy. Thus, when a founder experiences self-doubt, it’s harder to resolve the cognitive dissonance because of the friction to negotiating changes to the vision. Instead, a portion of the doubt must be internalized and carried on, compounding itself into increasing amounts of stress.

I’ve got a “healthy” amount of stress myself just working against a budget, but just writing about the potential pre-launch stress of being hamstrung by co-founders has me counting my blessings. Like the ability to freely change margins from 7px to 5px.

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