Founder Fear and COVID-19

  • March 15, 2020

In the last two weeks, I’ve spoken with nearly 50 founders about how they’re feeling about COVID-19. I thought it would be helpful for me to share some of the common themes and strategies that emerged from these conversations – below. Although I consider all YC founders to be professional fear mitigators, I’m observing that many of you are reaching the upper bounds of your skill in effectively tolerating anxiety.* And that makes sense: Although the predominant emotion in startups is already fear,** additional uncertainty around COVID-19 and its repercussions have injected a whole new vein of it into your systems. It makes sense that you would need to augment your default emotional regulation strategies to accommodate the possibilities and pitfalls of our new shared reality. Here we go:

The world is presenting you with an opportunity to become the Founder you’ve always dreamed about becoming, so be it – now.

The world needs strong leadership right now, and by being a member of this community you are it. Inherent in being a Founder (especially a YC Founder) is the responsibility of modeling for others how to respond to crises appropriately and effectively with integrity, trust, compassion, realism, hope, and strength. You are being presented with the chance to become the anchor that your company will loop themselves into for strength, reassurance, and focus – the time to emerge and come forward as your best selves is now.

To do this, imagine a leader or a founder that you admire – maybe famous, maybe not. Pull them into mind, then ask yourself: What qualities does this person have that I’d also like to possess? Then brainstorm actions you can take now that would immediately embody those values. How would this model founder respond to the problem you’re currently facing? Use this aspirational person as a guide for you in the sticky moments when you aren’t sure what to do or how to respond. Literally just imagine what they would do, and then do it yourself – immediately. No more thoughts, no additional consideration, no doubt whatsoever.

The deeper benefit of this practice is that if you develop a habit of responding to crises as if you’re the founder of your dreams, each of the inspired actions you take will accumulate and eventually crystallize as your true character. One day in the future you might pause for a moment’s reflection and discover that you’ve pulled into reality and consistently made manifest the exact qualities you once only daydreamed about occasionally demonstrating. Seed now the possibility that you make that moment real for yourself – and everyone else in your life.

Discern the wisdom in your anxiety, and use it to your advantage.

In my experience, the best founders harness their anxiety to play 5D chess with their environment. Fear allows you to reach into the future, to name potential threats to you and your company’s survival, and then to create contingency plans that can be enacted if/when necessary. It’s only when threats are known that they can be mitigated, and your anxiety is the muscle you use to peer into the distance and identify them. 

Anxiety can be deeply uncomfortable. 🙁 It pokes at you with to keep you aware, vigilant, and actively mitigating risk; this is a feature, not a bug. Founders who struggle to tolerate the discomfort of their anxiety long enough to hold it in mind and extract the information it carries often miss crucial data about how to best resource and position themselves in a sea of confusing, chaotic information. The fear and uncertainty a founder faces never diminishes (in fact both grow in lockstep with success) so rather than avoiding your anxiety or hoping that the next milestone will diminish it (it won’t), the best course of action is to sit with your anxiety and learn to use it as an asset and a tool.

Specifically, what this looks like is:

1. When you feel anxious, take a moment to tune into the data that emotion is carrying. What are you afraid of? **Follow the thread of your fear, fleshing out additional context about exactly how this threat might materialize, from where, when, and who/what other players might be involved.** If you’re new at this, your anxiety will initially feel like someone pounding piano keys all at once – an undifferentiated, painful cacophony. What you’re learning to do is to discern the chords that make up the disharmony, and then to identify each key note. ‘Growth’ here is akin to developing fine motor control of your feelings, learning to tease out the chords and notes so you can make better sense of them. Gather as much information as possible about how and when the threats your anxiety is flagging might actually play out. The more information you have, the more possible points of intervention, correction, and mitigation you’ll be able to find in step #2.

2. The second step is to take these threats, now much more substantiated, and to decide whether to respond to them immediately, to create a plan that would mitigate them eventually should they actually realize, or to discard them because they’re irrelevant, extremely unlikely, or outside your locus of control and therefore not worth spending bandwidth on. The output of this process varies but often looks like: developing appropriate action plans and contingencies, adjusting product/feature sets, recalibrating hiring plans or layoffs, allocating new resources or at least preparing for their eventual deployment, talking with mentors to adjust a fundraising timeline, creating necessary process/culture improvements to account for all-remote work (for example), mapping out scripts for upcoming level 3 conversations, etc. 

Actively ally with your Cofounders.

In moments of intense fear, survival instinct kicks in and founders tend to see other people as either allies or adversaries. It is difficult to trust the world right now, and many of you will internalize this uncertainty and unwittingly project it into your closest relationships. This is not the play – now is exactly when our actions need to flow out of a place of trust, not fear. Please consciously remember and actively behave as if your cofounder is your greatest ally. This looks like regularly asking questions like, “How are you feeling? What are you needing right now? How can I support you? What can I help you think through? How are you taking care of yourself? Can I help you prioritize everything that’s on your plate? There’s a lot of things up in the air right now; let’s make sure we book recurring Level 3 Conversations to make sure you and I are always aligned.” It also looks like you repeating sentiments like, “We’re in this together. We will get through this. I’m here for you. We will figure this out. I’m here to help. I trust you. I’m glad I’m in this with you.” 

Founders’ external behavior and communication will always reflect the internal distinction they’re making of others as friend or foe. The failure mode is when founders shift into ‘adversarial mode’ for an extended period of time without catching it. Founders who see others as adversaries are more likely to blame others for real or perceived failures, to micromanage or be overly controlling, and to be more demanding, harsh, and critical. If you notice yourself in the previous sentence, let me provide you with a reality check: If you continue to allow your fear to control your behavior in these ways on a regular basis, it will win and you will fail. It’s okay to be afraid that your company might not survive – that’s entirely reasonable, human, and justifiable given how much we don’t know right now. But if you take that fear and unconsciously inject it into your relationships by communicating that you don’t trust the others who are in the best position to help you succeed, it will push them away, along with their creativity, motivation, loyalty, and ability to help. This is how fear insidiously becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, functionally disintegrating the resources that would otherwise put founders in the best position to succeed. Please develop self awareness so this doesn’t happen to you, and listen to your cofounder(s) if they give you feedback about coming across as controlling or micromanaging. Remember that they your ally, and you are theirs. They are protecting you from the worst-case scenario I just outlined; join with them in finding a solution and keep moving forward together.

Ground, soothe, and breathe.

Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling that pulls us forward into a scary future. As helpful as this emotion can be, it can also disrupt our health, sanity, and relationships if we remain in it for too long. Anxiety pulls us in the future, so we need to practice bringing our full awareness back into the present moment – this is called ‘grounding;’ the practice of being here, now. Fear communicates that you need something else in order to feel safe; grounding communicates that you are safe now. Tracking our breath (count to 4 or 6 as you inhale and again as you exhale, repeat in sets), digging our toes into the floor beneath us, exercising, being in nature, turning off notifications to have a quiet period of rest, asking a loved one to tell us that we’re safe, connecting to ourselves via meditation or to friends/family via intimate and vulnerable conversations, developing a soothing sleep routine, taking a bath, and trying to drop back down into the physicality of our bodies are all ways that we can ground into the safety of what exists in our lives right now. The world is going to assault you with chaos, and your anxiety will need to operate on overdrive as a result. This will be tiring. Find calm. And when you do, allow it to soak into every cell of your body. Remember the felt experience of this moment so you can more easily recall it the next time you need peace.

Like all emotions, anxiety is a tunnel that has a beginning and an end. Sometimes the tunnel is short and terrifying. Other times, the tunnel is longer and the ache of it feels more dull. We’ll never have enough information to know the length or quality of the tunnel we’re in but we can trust that the tunnel will always end. Time is an arrow that is always moving forward; we trust time and so can trust that it will eventually bring with it the end of this emotion and the beginning of another. If the tunnel you’re moving through feels very bad, use a daisy-chain of breaths to viscerally stitch yourself to that arrow, letting it carry you through a series of moments. Track your breath as it goes into your nose, your lungs, your belly, and then out. Then again. And again. Time passes with each breath so you know you’re getting through it. As long as you’re breathing, remember that you’re safe, you’re alive in this moment, you’re connected to others, there are options and you will find them soon. As tunnel ends, it brings an opportunity to feel differently – now loop yourself back into the first theme I mentioned here and we start again. 🙂

(*) I use ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’ interchangeably in my work. ‘Uncertainty’ is a milder form of either but still synonymous.

(**) Fear that you won’t hit your next milestone, fear that you won’t land this client, fear that you won’t raise your next round, fear that you don’t know what your product is and won’t figure it out in time to survive, fear that you can’t get the team to align, fear that you aren’t moving quickly enough, fear that you don’t know what your role is, fear that the market will shift and you’ll die, fear you won’t be able to make this key hire, fear that you don’t know what you don’t know, fear that you aren’t capable or competent, fear that you’re making the wrong decision, fear that you don’t have enough time to get everything done, fear that you won’t meet expectations, etc. Founders experience more fear over the course of their morning coffees than most people do in a year

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Amy Buechler

I've worked with thousands of the world’s best startup founders as Y Combinator’s first Batch Director and only embedded Founder Coach.

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