In Episode 572, Rob Walling does another solo adventure to talk about taking responsibility for the outcomes of your business and the importance of putting in the reps as a founder. Bootstrapping a startup is a marathon, not a sprint and it’s important to enjoy the journey along the way.
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The topics we cover
[2:20] It’s not your fault, but it’s your responsibility
[8:35] It’s not the game, it’s the practice
[15:23] Dietary patterns Rob wishes he would’ve known 15 years ago
Links from the show
- Episode 551 | Task-level vs. Project-level Thinkers, No Such Thing as an Autopilot Business, and More (A Rob Solo Adventure)
- 11 Years to Overnight Success: From Beach Towels to A Successful Exit – Rob Walling – MicroConf 2017
- Thanks to Software Promotions for supporting this podcast! Learn more about their SEO and AdWords services
If you have questions about starting or scaling a software business that you’d like for us to cover, please submit your question for an upcoming episode. We’d love to hear from you!
Welcome back to Startups For The Rest of Us. I’m your host, Rob Walling, excited to be here this week. I’m back fresh from MicroConf Growth in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
We are moving things forward now, looking ahead to MicroConf Remote in a couple months, as well as the fact that we just crossed 10,000 YouTube subscribers after just about 18 months on our YouTube channel. That’s youtube.com/microconf if you haven’t checked it out.
We have a lot of folks watching videos both from live streams that we’re doing as well as the in-person MicroConfs over the past decade. We’ve now done 24 MicroConfs including the 4 that we ran last month.
In other news, we announced TinySeed Europe this week. This is a European timezone fund that is going to be investing in B2B SaaS companies across Europe as well as Africa, the Middle East, and anywhere in the European time zones in essence. We’ve been making great progress raising that fund. It’s actually been going faster than we expected.
Obviously, if you’re an accredited investor interested in diversifying into early-stage B2B SaaS companies, head to tinyseed.com/invest. If you think you might want to work with myself, Tracy, and Einar on the TinySeed team—you’ve heard both of them on this podcast—you should head to tinyseed.com/careers. We are hiring a European program manager, full-time hire, fully remote in the European time zones.
Today, we’re doing another Rob Solo Adventure. We’re going to cover a few topics that I’ve had the chance to think about over the past month or so as I’ve been traveling. I plan to cover three or maybe four topics today depending on time.
The first is something that I’ve not only been working on with my kids, but something that I’ve had to say to a couple founders over the past few months. Frankly, it probably needs to be said more often to folks who start their own company. The phrase is this: “It’s not your fault, but it’s your responsibility.”
Some examples of that are at our house, the dog knocked over a thing of glitter that someone had left out—one of my kids. I said, it’s not your fault that the dog knocked it over, but it is your responsibility to clean it up. That’s a simple everyday example.
The bigger one is when I hear founders complaining about things that are holding them back. They’re complaining not in a way of venting, moving on, tackling it, and taking action to fix it, but they’re complaining with the sense that they’re helpless. It’s a sense of helplessness, that someone else should come in, tell them what to do, or fix it for them.
We start companies because we don’t want a boss. We want freedom, purpose, and relationships, and to make money. There’s a bunch of reasons and motivations. Different founders do it, but one thing you have to realize if you’re going to go down this path is that you don’t have a manager anymore. You don’t have a boss to say you have to do this. You have to make some hard decisions about what to do next.
It can be easy to be trained by a system that always shows you the next step. You start in first grade and you know you’re probably going to second grade next, and then you go through eighth grade. Then in the US, you go through high school—ninth through twelfth—some people go to a trade school, some people get a job, and some folks go to college. Maybe you get post secondary education or maybe you go get a job.
I remember my first job. People told me what to do. I showed up for work and they said you do that task. I’ve talked about task-level, project-level, and owner-level thinkers. In the early days, I certainly was a task-level thinker. I think a lot of us are. But it’s easy to fall into a trap of saying, well, someone’s always going to tell me what to do next and to not take your own destiny in your own hands.
A lot of us then go to start a company or we start a side project, whether it’s to make a little bit of money on the side or whether it’s to gain, ultimately, that freedom, purpose, and relationship. The hard part is making the mental shift from someone’s always going to tell me what to do and someone else will take responsibility when things go wrong to the buck stopping with you because the moment you take that plunge, things happen that are not your fault.
Google comes in, sideswipes you, or knocks you out of existence by accident without even noticing. You build on a platform like Shopify or Heroku. They come knocking at your door and they say, we want to take X% of your revenue or we’re gonna put you out of business. We just shut off your API access. Or a competitor comes along who doesn’t even really know what they’re doing, but they’re good at raising money. They raised 10 million, $15 million. You’re basically a bootstrapped and mostly bootstrapped company.
None of these things are your fault, but it’s your responsibility as a founder or as someone who owns the company and is driving it forward to figure out how to make that work.
When things go wrong and bad things happen, you can absolutely be set back. You can absolutely feel that. I’m not saying be impervious, be a Superman or Superwoman, and never feel the pain, the anxiety, or the stress of it. But then take that step back and decompress.
Take a deep breath. That deep breath may need to last many days if this setback is large. Like when one of my apps’ HitTail was completely decimated 3 times in 24 months by Google purely on accident. Every time, it was devastating when it happened. It was an eye roll. It was like, why do I still own this business? I’m focused on Drip, and it’s growing so fast. I don’t have time to deal with this.
It wasn’t my fault, but it was my responsibility. Each time, I took a step back and I took a deep breath. Again, that deep breath sometimes lasted six hours as I was trying to not be so mad, not just throw in the towel, and just shut this whole thing down. Then, I say, all right, how do we fix it?
This is something I also think you should be thinking about instilling into people on your team because this is not something I remember being taught. It was a painful lesson that I learned over the course of growing these companies.
No one’s coming to save you. You’re the founder, and the buck stops with you. That’s something I think more of us can hear.
Like I said, whether it’s teaching your children, whether it’s communicating this to your team, some things will come along that may not be your fault in particular—support person, customer success person, or salesperson—but we have to take responsibility for things at this company.
Obviously, I’m not saying you shouldn’t get outside counsel or that you shouldn’t have advisors, mentors, or even a community like MicroConf Connect, The TinySeed Batches, or a mastermind group who is along with you on this journey, giving you input and insights, and serving as a sounding board and a sanity check for the ideas and thoughts that you have, but no one else will have the context of your business, your industry, and your space like you will.
Ultimately, these hard decisions do often come down to coming up with options and presenting them to your advisors, your mastermind group, and anyone else who you consider your outside counsel. But then it comes back to you as the founder. The buck does stop with you, and the decision ultimately rests on you or you and your co-founders as the case may be.
We have a new sponsor this week. If you’ve attended a MicroConf in the past or seen one of our YouTube videos, you’ve likely seen one of the founders of Software Promotions. Dave Collins has spoken seven times at different MicroConfs.
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They’ve worked with a lot of folks in the MicroConf community, they know what they’re doing, and they consistently produce results. You can head to bit.ly/tamegoogle or look in our show notes for a link to softwarepromotions.com.
The second topic I want to cover today is this phrase that occurred to me during the Summer Olympics this year where I saw an injured gymnast sitting on the sideline essentially not able to compete.
One of my sons asked me, even if you’re injured, couldn’t you pull it together for this one event? Couldn’t you go and do how many vaults you do in the Olympics total? It’s not that many compared to how many she’s probably done in her life.
What I told him was, it’s not the games that are hard on your body. It’s the practice. Because showing up for the game, the meet, or the competition is a brief moment compared to the number of hours that you practice.
I ran track for nine years. I was a hurdler. I ran in high school and then in college. In the 400-meter hurdles, the race is about 50 seconds long.
It’s not the race that beat up on your body, destroyed your knees, and hurt your hamstrings. It was the two hours plus of practice six days a week for four or five months before that to get in shape to play in the games. A lot of people don’t realize this.
I remember getting injured. I would hurt my knee. I would hurt something. I wouldn’t be able to race. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get out there and run one race. It was that I couldn’t practice for the two or three weeks before that. Therefore, I was not in any type of shape to compete.
The reason I’m bringing up this sports metaphor is that startups have a major similarity in that we see these brief moments. We see the Product Hunt launch of a new SaaS app. We see that something made it to the top of Hacker News. We see that something got a great PR mention, a writeup on TechCrunch or Inked Magazine. We see someone just crushing it in their outbound sales. We see a blog post summarizing their content marketing efforts.
You sit there, read it for 20 minutes, and you think, wow, everything’s going well for them. We feel like building and growing a startup is just these brief 20-minute, 30-minute, or 6-hour moments of what we see on the outside, but it’s not. It’s the hundreds and thousands of hours of practice that happens in the weeks, the months, the years, and sometimes decades before those moments happen.
I did a talk at MicroConf a few years ago called 11 Years to Overnight Success. I talked about selling Drip in 2016 and being able to retire at 41 or 42—however old I was then. I talked about how that wouldn’t have happened or how I couldn’t have personally done that without the 11 years of entrepreneurship building up to that moment. Those are the 11 years that most people don’t see.
Today, if you come across this podcast, you read an essay, you read a book, you see TinySeed, or you see MicroConf, you might say, they really know what they’re doing. They’re executing well. They have a great community. I could build this too. This doesn’t look that hard.
Usually, people who are making it not look that hard are either really good at what they do or they’ve had a lot of practice—years, if not decades.
I’d like you to take away two points from this. The first is don’t be confused or fooled into thinking that building and growing a startup is all pivotal in these little moments. Sure, these little moments come along and sometimes, you do very rarely launch that one feature that changes the trajectory of your startup, but it’s not usually the case. Usually, it’s months and years of building towards that.
Even if you do finally launch that one feature, it’s because you launched 100 before that, and you launched 100 after that are actually building the business. It wasn’t like you could shortcut it and do that just because someone makes it to the front page of TechCrunch or the top of Hacker News, just has some big, flashy launch, or product of the month on Product Hunt. There was a lot of hard work, luck, and skill that probably went into that.
In your mind, we think in terms of years, not months as bootstrapped and mostly bootstrapped founders. In addition, this has to then mentally prepare you to go on this marathon. Do not treat it as a sprint and do not get discouraged when you try the silver bullet hack of the week that you read about in a startup SaaS email newsletter put together by XYZ random venture capitalists content marketing company that they’ve hired.
That doesn’t change your trajectory. That’s where you have that managing-your-own-psychology moment of this isn’t working and it’s never going to work. This stuff is bogus, I can’t do it, or this isn’t real. There’s all manner of thinking that you can go down that isn’t true. It’s just a long journey. Some stuff is harder than it seems, and some stuff is harder for particular people than it seems.
I have heard a few people say, I tried AdWords and it just didn’t work. It doesn’t work. I don’t think AdWords works anymore.
That’s a preposterous statement. AdWords is absolutely working for certain companies in certain spaces with certain budgets and certain lifetime values who invest a bunch of time. They put in the hard work, they gain the skill, and maybe get a little lucky. I don’t know if luck applies to AdWords actually.
Same thing with content marketing. Content marketing is […] just too crowded now. Yes and no. Yes, it is crowded. No, it’s not too crowded.
It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to want to think of wins in terms of weeks, that I want things to change next week or next month. But really, this stuff just builds and snowballs over time, and you have to put in the reps. Don’t show up to start a software company if you’re not willing to put in the hard work, to try things that are hard, to try things that are likely to fail, and then to double down on them and triple down on them.
I can’t tell you how many months I spent messing around with Facebook Ads before I got them to work with HitTail. People were telling me Facebook Ads don’t work. They’re too expensive. Maybe they wouldn’t have worked. Maybe I got lucky. But I built an incredible lifestyle business on that. It was because I just wouldn’t give up. I refused. I was brute-forcing that approach to make it work.
I’ve digressed a little bit from my point that it’s not the games that are hard on the body. It’s the practice. But I want you to go away thinking that this is a long-term game.
If you’re going to be unhappy during the journey, if you’re going to be unhappy today, next week, and next month, then you’re not going to be happy if you exit. You’re not going to be happy when you hit $1 million or $5 million ARR, or you sell for $20 million. You’re still not going to be happy. You have to be mentally prepared to put in the time for weeks, months, and years, and enjoy the journey while you’re doing it. It’s easier said than done, but I think it’s a good reminder for all of us.
Lastly, I wanted to cover a couple things that I’ve discovered about my own dietary patterns that I wished I had known 10 or 15 years ago because some of them negatively impacted me as I was building these companies and basically building the dynasty, so to speak.
These are some simple things that may or may not apply to you, but what I learned was the advice that I was reading in books on physiology, the advice you see on the Internet or hear in podcasts, whether it’s the 4-Hour Body from Tim Ferriss, the keto diet, or whatever diets. We’ve seen paleo. All these things come and go even within our family. I would look at things that Sherry was reading and doing and were helping her. Then, I would try them, and they wouldn’t work for me or they would actually make me feel more tired.
Something that really hadn’t occurred to me was how much body physiology, your body type, individual genetics, and all that can play a factor in it.
I have five bullets that I had responded to in a private Slack I’m in. Someone had said, what are some dietary things that you’ve adjusted?
Maybe some of this has happened as I’ve gotten a little older, but to be honest, I remember that the first one is I really stopped drinking coffee. I like coffee a lot, but I stopped drinking coffee about two or three years ago.
I remember a lot in my 30s while I was growing Drip that I had really high anxiety often. I would feel my heart pounding. I was like, oh, I’m so stressed.
It turns out I would drink coffee—again, which I love. I would drink ½ cup or drink ⅓ of a cup because if I drink a full cup, it would just send me to the moon. My body reacts very sensitively to caffeine.
Eventually, I found out that black tea doesn’t have that impact on me. Not only does it have less caffeine, but then I don’t crash afterwards. If I drink a cup of coffee in the morning, about three or four hours later, I completely crash and I need to go to sleep.
It’s great that caffeine has its impact on me. I would say I’m lucky. But if you’re out there, you are having yourself feeling high anxiety, and drinking a lot of coffee. I wish that I had discovered this sooner because it definitely had a negative impact on my quality of life and probably on some of my decision-making over many years because I just didn’t think anything about it.
I was tired so I drank coffee because that’s what everyone else did. That’s what was around the house. That’s what Sherry had. We had an espresso machine at the office. Again, I enjoy the taste of it, but now that I’ve switched to black tea, my ability to stay awake for the whole day, have a high energy level, and all that has really changed dramatically.
Second thing is I don’t drink any caffeine after about 1:00 PM. I think it is pretty common knowledge. I know most people don’t do it, but I have found that drinking after that, while I can still go to sleep, impacts my sleep quality.
The third thing is I tried skipping breakfast because people talk about intermittent fasting which I know is skipping breakfast. People joke that it’s just skipping breakfast. It really didn’t work for me. I’m pretty sure that’s because of my body type. I’m more tall and lean.
But what I found is that eating carbs in the morning—any type of carbs—makes me tired so I have to try to drink more caffeine which would then make my heart pound.
What I found is for me, it’s high protein plus tea in the morning. It happens to be two eggs and maybe some bacon if we have it most mornings. I’m fine with having a relatively boring diet. I don’t need a bunch of change.
Even when I was at MicroConf, I could order whatever I wanted at the Hotel Palace in Dubrovnik. It was an omelet and some baked beans. I love that European-style breakfast. Then, I feel great. I have amazing energy and I don’t get tired in the afternoon.
Two more things before I sign off. One is I realized the negative impact—I’m still trying to sort it out if it’s gluten or if it’s carbs—that gluten and carbs have in terms of my energy.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m older, but good grief. I love myself a good turkey sandwich slathered in mayo, mustard, and guac. It has some cheese, lettuce, spinach—just all the things. I eat and I basically almost need to go to sleep within an hour after that. I don’t remember this happening when I was younger. Maybe I just had a bunch of energy.
Again, I’m trying to figure out lately—if I had French fries which are gluten-free, is it just the carby nature of it that makes me tired? It’s not that I don’t eat carbs or don’t eat gluten anymore. It’s that when I do, I know that I’m going to be tired later and I’m basically biting the bullet. It’s like having a big dessert and being like, well, I’m not going to feel great, but man, it’s going to taste good. That’s something I’ve been really trying to attune to in my own energy level as I’m managing that.
Last thing is a hack I learned six or eight years ago that someone had mentioned to me. I think it was a doctor at one point that said, oftentimes, it’s not how much alcohol you drink in the evening. It’s how late you drink it. The later you drink it, the longer it takes to get out of your system and the more it disrupts your sleep.
I have my own personal rule that I don’t drink alcohol after 10:00 PM. It’s very, very rare that I break this. When I do, I almost always regret it the next morning. Not necessarily with a hangover, but oftentimes, I’m just a lot more tired than I should be based on how much I consume.
Since implementing this whole post 10:00 PM thing, it’s been extremely rare that I’ve had any type of negative impact like a hangover or something the next day.
Some people like rules like this and some people don’t because it feels constricting and they want to have fun. That’s awesome. But for me, when I know that my whole day can be ruined if I wake up super tired, I can almost fall into a temporary depression. I can have this outlook that everything’s going to […] just because I’m tired.
That’s something I hadn’t realized 10 years ago. But now, when I wake up that tired, I don’t make any long-term decisions. I noticed that in myself and I’m able to manage that. I either take a nap because I work from home. I take a short nap if I really need it, which doesn’t happen very often anymore because of these things that I’ve implemented. I’m able to just do the work and come back another day when I feel perhaps more focused, more high-energy, and more motivated to do things.
Those are just five quick things that I wanted to throw out. Like I said, I’m not saying that these particular things should or shouldn’t apply to you, but what I’m saying is be aware of your energy levels and your moods based on what you’re eating and how you’re sleeping.
There are all these patterns that are so important that we don’t think enough about whether you’re a software developer or an entrepreneur. I was always so focused on growing the business. I wasn’t paying attention to a lot of things like this.
These are things that I really only had time to discover after leaving Drip. Then, I had all this headspace to start realizing the impact that these things had on me.
From someone who wishes that he had discovered these things a little earlier, I hope that you might take a moment to think about them in your own life.
Thanks so much for joining me this week on another Rob Solo Adventure. I appreciate you tuning in every week to Startups For The Rest of Us whether it’s been an episode, a month, or a year. I’ll be back in your earbuds again next Tuesday morning.
Thanks to our sponsor, Software Promotions. Software Promotions has been managing Google Ads and Google SEO for clients for 22 years if you can believe it. They’ve worked with more than 600 businesses. They’re no nonsense and have a lot of transparency.
One of the cofounders, Dave Collins, has spoken seven times at MicroConf, so you’ve likely seen his videos if you’ve checked out our YouTube channel. He’s also spoken at Business to Software and countless other conferences around the world.
If you’re looking for someone to help you with your Google Ads, whether you’re just getting started, whether you want an expert eye, or whether you want someone to manage that for you as well as SEO—from audits to getting down and dirty with organic search—Dave and Aaron know what they’re talking about. Those are the co-founders of Software Promotions.
You can head to bit.ly/tamegoogle to learn more about Software Promotions, or head to softwarepromotions.com and let them know you heard about them on Startups For The Rest of US. Thanks to David and Aaron for sponsoring the show.