It’s hard to describe your first business, but many relate it to having your first child. Something that ends up defining you personally, professionally, something that you’d do anything for…even if it means putting it before yourself at every turn. I’m here to say that after 6+ years building Sustain, and now running the business post-acquisition, I think this is a dangerous framework that doesn’t set you or your business up for success.
I’ll be honest with you, if I came across an article with this headline a couple years ago, I would have rolled my eyes and kept scrolling. In early 2019, 5+ years into building Sustain, a brand of all natural sexual wellness and period care products, I was running on adrenaline, often waking up at 5am to check my email, and celebrated the idea that I was fully addicted to work. At the time, I would do anything, at any hour of the day, to move my business 1 inch or 1 mile forwards — the idea of balance, self care, if I’m being honest, was something I looked down on.
I earned my stripes and valued myself based on how much I worked on the weekends, I commisserated (or was it celebrated?) with other founders about how nonstop things were, and I truly got high off on late night calls and fire drills. I was running on adrenal fatigue, couldn’t have been more passionate about the work I was doing, and was always on the edge of burning out.
One morning in April 2019, I remember sitting at the dining room table in my apartment screaming about some email I had received at 7am. My husband groggily walked into the room asking if I was OK. He looked concerned. I started recounting to him what had just happened, how frustrated I was, and on and on. He, as he always does, listened to me intently. Then once I was done, he asked me if I thought this was sustainable. At first, I didn’t really understand what he meant. He clarified, was this nonstop, high intensity, work situation sustainable. The answer that morning was of course, yes, the answer a few weeks later when I got some more challenging work related news was, no.
A couple things came to a head around this time –– Sustain was in need of additional funding, which meant I’d have to go out and fundraise, which is a very intense and trying time period on founders, teams and your business. And, I was exhausted. I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t exercising, I wasn’t eating well. I’d had moments like this previously, but 5+ years in, and people close to me for the first time expressing some concern, I realized that in order to keep going, I had to take a step back.
So, I did one of the most self indulgent things I have ever done. I impulsively signed up for a week long phone-free ayurvedic retreat. I was terrified to leave the business, it was not an ideal time to be unreachable for a week, but I sat my very supportive COO down, explained why I was going and empowered him to run things while I was out. I knew I needed a change and some perspective.
I spent that week totally alone, taking an inventory of my life. I was 31 years old, I spent 95% of my energy on work, I was incredibly high stress, anxious, and probably not the easiest person to be around — both personally and professionally. At the beginning of the week, I had a laundry list of what I needed to change – more water, more exercise, more healthy food, meditation daily, only working one weekend day, more time with friends and family, sign up for pottery class, learn a new language….you get the idea. But, by the end of the week, I narrowed my list down in order to make it achievable, something that is critical when you actually want to ignite change in your life.
Here are the four things that I committed to that week that I am still living by today. I truly believe if I hadn’t made this shift, and rebalanced myself and how I spent my time, the Sustain acquisition of August 2019 may not have happened, because I wouldn’t have been able to bring the energy, focus and thoughtfulness it took to get it over the line.
Move your body
- It can feel impossible to make time to exercise when you’re running or starting a business, but I promise you the benefits will outweigh the 45 minutes you’re off your email. It sounds obvious, but I found that without really making an intentional commitment here, I was easily able to find a reason to cancel/skip a planned workout.
Create work boundaries
- Set hours. I decided I would commit to leaving the office between 6-6:30pm every night and even if I had more work to do later, I’d do something in between for an hour or two – take a bath, make dinner, go to the grocery store, meet a friend.
Spend real time with friends and family each week (and don’t talk about work the entire time)
- Friends and family are the people who pick you up off the ground when things get hard, and maintaining these relationships is what got me through building Sustain. It’s hard to remember that life is more than work, and I’ve found spending quality time with people close to you helps give you perspective and keep another part of your life thriving.
Learn to say no
- This is probably the most important thing I’ve been working on over the last 10 months, and once you learn how to say “No,” it becomes incredibly powerful. Weekend calls with external partners, getting on a call that you’re not really needed for, speaking opportunities across the country — at the time it can feel like if you don’t say yes, the world will fall apart. But guess what, it won’t. You are a great judgement of what’s truly important, and what feels important. Empower your team to take on more, and empower yourself to pick and choose how you spend your time, so that you have more bandwidth to recharge, do some self care, and spend time with the important people in your life.
Of course, urgent things do come up, things get in the way, but I found that by setting these intentions I was able to easily get back on track.
So, if you’re thinking of starting a business, or building a business, be kind to yourself, and prioritize doing what you need to do to keep yourself healthy — mentally and physically — because I truly believe that burn out can burn a business down.