This is a guest post by Wyatt Jozwowski. Wyatt is the co-founder at Demio.com, a smart webinar platform on a simple mission. He’s sharing the wins, losses, and hard-learned lessons on the journey to $100k in monthly recurring revenue. You can follow the Demio journey here.
Most entrepreneurs never see it coming.
They think they’re immune to burning out, that they can hustle forever.
Maybe some can; I knew I thought I could, but I was wrong. I’ll be sharing how I burned out later in this article.
The current state of entrepreneurship revolves around promoting hustle, 18-hour workdays, sleeping at the office, shunning friends and family, and putting your happiness on the back burner.
This works temporarily, but it never lasts. What most beginner entrepreneurs fail to realize is that building a real business takes real time and incredible patience.
Creating a product is step one, getting ten customers is step two, getting one hundred customers is step three, and this continues on and on. There is no end. There is no finish line.
If you start with an “exit” in mind before you even get started, you’ll never make it there. But the fact that there is no “finish line” is not a bad thing! If you build your company the right way, you won’t want things to end.
Burnout can happen to any business owner, and it can happen at any time. If you wait until it happens to address it, it will be too late. That’s why it’s important to practice sustainability now, so you can prevent burnout from happening altogether.
What Is Burnout? Is it a Myth?
Burnout is a point where, simply put, everything falls apart.
Your body finally collapses from the 10,000-lb weight on your shoulders. You don’t want to work anymore. You lose touch with why you started in the first place. You can’t think clearly. Every area in your personal life is affected, and any hope you once had is completely gone.
The only reason you continue doing anything is because you feel trapped, like there’s no way out. And the whole time, you’re just looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, which will never come.
Burnout is not a myth. The real myth is thinking you can work in an unsustainable manner for a long period of time. By definition, you cannot. In absolutely no way should it be a “badge of honor” to work yourself to death.
Yet, this is an actual slide in a keynote presentation from a “well-respected” venture capitalist:
How, in any way, is losing touch with your wife and kids doing the job? What job is that exactly?
Your business is not your baby; it’s your business, and it should be treated as such. It shouldn’t control you, it shouldn’t affect your personal relationships, it shouldn’t affect your appetite or cause rashes on your skin.
The real badge of honor should go to those who can build a profitable business that lasts for years, or even decades, while enabling freedom at the same time.
The Demio Story
About one year ago, I was just going through the motions.
It had been two years of brutal product development, multiple Beta phases, almost running out of cash at every turn, hiring, firing, going in circles, and never gaining an ounce of momentum.
I was stressed, overworked, and always on edge.
I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to make Demio successful, partially because of the amount of personal money I put into the project and partially because everyone on our team had dedicated two years of their lives to this company.
We were always on the verge of hitting $0 in our company bank account. David, my co-founder, and I took on multiple side projects in order to continue generating enough income just to keep Demio afloat.
This meant more work, more hours, more stress. It meant me lying on the floor feeling like there was that same 10,000-lb weight on my chest that I mentioned earlier.
On the technical side, we continued to go in circles. Between that and almost running out of money, we had multiple conversations at the local coffee shop about shutting Demio down. These conversations were extremely depressing, and we constantly asked ourselves why we picked such a hard technical challenge without having a drop of technical knowledge.
Somehow, we always managed to figure it out. The obstacle became the way. If we had to solve a certain problem by Friday in order not to shut down the company, we would manage to solve the problem on Thursday. It was strange.
We finally made it back to Beta for the second time after shutting down the first round of Beta, and it was completely free for people to sign up.
Things Got Worse
Our strategy was to stay in Beta for a few months, improve the product, gain some initial traction, launch at discounted prices with the help of affiliates, and then build upon that foundation. Overall, it worked. We ended up getting over 400 customers from that initial launch.
However, I would be lying if I said that Free Beta wasn’t stressful.
David and I were single-handedly running the entire customer support operation. We had, and still have, a built-in live chat. With over 800 Beta signups in such a short period of time, our support blew up.
On top of that, we were offering personal demos to anybody that signed up. This is what our calendar looked like:
We were doing interviews, podcasts, and demos from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. It was a grind, and it was unhealthy.
David and I were rotating every demo, and in between we were getting hammered with live chat customer support.
This doesn’t even include everything else we were doing before 9 a.m. and after 10 p.m., such as writing blog posts, recruiting affiliates, getting ready for the launch, doing team meetings, working on the product, working on side projects, and almost running out of money.
It was hell.
But it didn’t stop there; I also had every notification enabled on my phone. Every slack message in every channel, every Intercom message, every Trello notification, and more. I’m having flashbacks just thinking about it.
I remember having to keep my phone plugged in constantly, otherwise it would die in a couple hours from all the notifications. I was torturing myself, and I thought it was necessary to make Demio successful. It wasn’t. It was either made-up, self-applied pressure, or it was the consequences I was paying for because of choices I made at earlier stages of the journey.
David, my co-founder, suggested more of a work/life balance. I ignored it. We were in survival mode, and I didn’t think we had the luxury of not working every second. I put happiness on pause, hoping that it would come in the future, but it doesn’t work like that.
He was right. I was wrong. But I was CEO at the time, so things went on like that.
Somehow, we survived. We made it to launch, but not without doing serious damage to ourselves.
The launch went well, and it allowed us to put enough money in the bank to give us at least 6 months of runway. This was huge, and it took off a significant amount of stress. Finally, Demio had a real chance.
The mistake I made, however, was thinking things would change. They didn’t. And they never do, unless you work to actively create change.
We were just getting started. Now, it was really time to grind. The demos kept going, the customer support increased, new challenges were introduced.
And that’s when I lost hope.
I was working in an unsustainable manner, and there was no finish line. There never is, either.
I Officially Hit Burnout
There was no way I could continue at the current pace.
I started to make excuses like, “I’m not even passionate about webinars … Why are we building this?”
I was just looking for a way out.
In the meantime, I continued to go through the motions. It felt like a job, a job that started at 8 a.m. and ended at midnight, 7 days a week. I wasn’t doing good work. I wasn’t focusing on my talents.
Finally, I brought up the conversation with David. I mentioned the idea of him taking over as CEO and me taking a step back. I told him I just couldn’t do it anymore. I hung on for as long as I possibly could without completely losing my sanity.
I really wanted to help with the product, with vision, but I couldn’t continue with the day-to-day slog we were going through.
When the transition happened, things got better for me almost instantly. My notifications were turned off on all apps; I put my phone on silent. I started to read again. I became creative again.
It saved our company. It’s the reason we’re still alive today.
I developed an outside perspective on Demio, and you know what? Things looked pretty great from the outside. Demio continued to grow, and I was able to talk with David about strategies, about product, about vision for the company.
There’s no doubt David was stressed, but he managed. He did a much better job than me of setting time aside — time for relaxing, time for focused work, time to spend with his girlfriend. He made time, even if it was for only an hour each day.
I felt like I let the team down, like I let David down. But it was for the sake of my sanity and my health. It seems selfish, and it was, but I think I had to do it. I don’t regret it.
Sooner rather than later, I began to really miss being in Demio day to day. I started to bring up the idea of me coming back into Demio full-time at our weekly lunch meetings. I began to spend more time thinking about Demio, thinking about the product. I thought about how things could be different.
I thought a lot about sustainability, about doing good work, about making things work for the long term.
Eventually, after spending months in this significantly reduced position, David and I figured out a way we could make it work. I came back full-time. But things were different this time around. Much different.
A New Outlook
I became focused on the long term. My goal was to make things work for years to come.
We were officially out of pure “survival” mode, and now we just needed to focus on growing the company in a sustainable manner.
David remained CEO, and I was able to focus more on product, customers, and the things I loved to do.
I controlled my notification settings from day one, and I set major boundaries between my work life and my personal life. I stopped working on the weekends; I set aside time dedicated to working out at the gym for at least an hour almost every day; I kept reading books; I started spending 30 minutes a day learning Chinese.
I was more focused on doing good work, not just busy work.
We reduced our demo schedule to 5 days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and David and I now rotate every other day instead of every other demo. We also have help with support, and we’ll be hiring more help soon. This gives us days during the week dedicated to pure focus. It gives me time to sit in coffee shops and actually write articles like the one you’re reading right now.
It’s sustainable and enjoyable. We’re no longer looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, because we find joy in our daily work.
Of course, we want to build Demio into a large, successful company, but we also have other goals. We want to create a great place to work for everyone on our team; we want to continuously simplify every aspect of our business; we want to continue to build a great product for our customers.
As time goes on, we become more passionate about Demio. I’ve learned that passion is built over time through winning and through momentum. You become passionate about your customers, your great product, solving problems, your team, etc.
For us, webinars are just the vehicle to do that. It’s our WHAT, but it’s not our WHY. And that was an important distinction for me to make.
It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
It’s easy to get caught up in the initial excitement of a new business idea, but that short-term excitement is not going to be the reason why you keep going when things get tough. It’s not going to be the thing that you keeps you going through year three, year four, or year five.
So, when it comes to building a real business, it’s important to have a long-term outlook from the very beginning.
You should understand why you’re actually building the business, why it’s important to you, and if it’s something you’ll still want to be doing in two, three, or five years from now.
It takes time to build a great product, and it usually takes even more time to get traction. If you’re not committed to the long-term success of your company, you’ll become impatient when things don’t click instantly and you’ll be tempted to give up.
There’s a fundamental shift that will happen when you start viewing your business as a marathon rather than a sprint. For starters, you’ll never work to be “done” but instead, you’ll work to make progress each day. You’ll stop working late hours just because you think you should and instead, you’ll give yourself much-needed breaks so you can come back later and truly do your best work. You’ll stop feeling pressure to get results right away, and instead, you’ll focus on taking small steps forward in the right direction.
Most importantly, you’ll actually pace yourself so you can maintain happiness while your business grows.
The reason why this perspective matters is because it will influence all of your important decisions. When you look at business as a sprint, you make decisions that are solely based around growth at all costs, without considering things like time, stress, complexity, etc. When you view things from the other side, the long-term perspective, you take everything into consideration. For example, you stop hiring people that you don’t want to be around just because they’re talented. You start making decisions that will benefit you in the years to come, rather than only benefiting you right now.
How To Prevent Burnout
Preventing burnout is something you constantly have to work at. As soon as you stop worrying about it, it will start to creep up on you. You should actively be working on implementing sustainable work habits into your life.
In practice, this means setting limits, setting boundaries, and setting aside time for yourself.
It doesn’t mean avoiding hard work. It doesn’t mean things won’t get tough. It doesn’t mean you’ll never have to “grind.” There’s a time and a place for this stuff, and it’s bound to happen.
Creating a sustainable work life is about changing and moderating what you have control over. It’s about constantly reassessing what you’re doing on a daily basis and only focusing on what matters. It’s about coming to work in the right state of mind and always aiming to produce your best work. It’s about removing any unnecessary, self-applied pressured. It’s about separating your business from your personal life.
Every time you’re going to make a decision, you should propel yourself forward a few years with the consequences of that decision to see if you’d still be happy with it.
As a founder, CEO, or leader in your company, your actions will mold the culture of your company. By actively working to take breaks, go on vacations, and simplify your work life, your employees will feel compelled to do the same. On the other hand, if you preach hustle and “no days off,” then your employees will feel guilty for taking time off, even if your policy says “unlimited vacation time.”
The other side of things is recognizing where you find passion in your work. Of course, you’ll have to make sacrifices and you won’t always be able to just work on things that you love to work on. That said, you can and should optimize your time to allow you to work on things that keep you excited. For me, that means working more on product, design, customer-facing features, writing, and other similar areas. Doing things like 1-on-1 sales demos and customer support are less exciting for me; they’re very important, but I know these will be the first areas that we will fill with future hires, which will allow me to spend more time on the work that I’m truly passionate about.
Not only will this adjustment greatly decrease the chances of burnout, it will also allow you to produce better work.
Lastly, you can prevent burnout by creating a great work environment at your company. By hiring great people you actually want to be around, you’ll be happy to come to work each and every day. When there are bad culture fits or negative attitudes on your team, it will spread like a virus. It’s never worth it, even if they are very talented. These are the people you will be around for a large percentage of your daily lives, so you should hire carefully with the long term in mind.
Workaholism is an addiction, and like all addictions, it’s unhealthy.
The irony is, you’ll produce better work and be more productive by working less and by taking breaks and vacations. It seems backwards, but it’s actually quite logical. The mind, just like your body, needs time to rest and recover. In a world of distraction, being able to focus intently is a huge competitive advantage.
People have been saying it for 2,000+ years:
“The mind must be given relaxation—it will rise improved and sharper after a good break. Just as rich fields must not be forced—for they will quickly lose their fertility if never given a break—so constant work on the anvil will fracture the force of the mind. But it regains its powers if it is set free and relaxed for a while. Constant work gives rise to a certain kind of dullness and feebleness in the rational soul.” ⁓ Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind
Remember, it’s not about how much time you spend at work, it’s about how you spend your time at work.
Your business is your business. Don’t forget it. There are other things in life that are important, and they deserve your full, undivided attention.