At age 26, Josiah Humphrey has a career many would be envious of: after co-founding his startup as a teenager, Appster is now a multimillion-dollar international company.
But the Silicon Valley-based Australian entrepreneur admits stress, anxiety and the pressures of being a founder have all played a role in his startup journey.
Launched in 2011, Appster has grown to a team of 400 across offices in Melbourne, San Francisco and Gurgaon, India and has an annual revenue of $19 million, but Humphrey admits that despite this success, he still hasn’t mastered the art of eliminating anxiety or stress from his daily life.
“I’m not some monk that lives in the hills and is a zen master,” he tells StartupSmart.
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In fact, the Hot 30 under 30 alumni admits dealing with the stress of startup life in Appster’s early days left him feeling isolated and anxious: a feeling many other startup founders often share.
“Initially I wasn’t very good a dealing with stress so it would actually really eat away at me,” he says.
“I didn’t have a good mechanism for dealing with it.”
With time, Humphrey came to accept that in the startup game, there are things that are out of a founder’s control — a realisation that helped him let go of negative experiences and ultimately learn from them.
He advises other startups against falling into the trap of thinking, “things are going wrong so we must not be doing the right things”. Instead, he says is important to “accept that bad shit happening is just a reality of life.”
Humphrey says these times of adversity are actually when startup founders can learn the most about themselves and their business.
“The way I like to flip it is a lot of these horrible situations we get put in are the times we truly learn and grow about ourselves,” he says.
“When there is a really crazy market downturn or things are just going wrong, that’s where a lot of those greatest ideas come from — being put in that situation and having to innovate.”
Re-framing struggle as an opportunity to learn and improve is a great way to manage times of intense stress, Humphrey advises, seeing it not as a negative but as “an opportunity to improve and get through a hard time”.
Humphrey himself has struggled through hard times in the early years of Appster, when the startup consisted of a broken vacuum and some crumpled up McDonald’s wrappers. Looking back, he says he’s still thankful for the lessons this taught him.
“I’m really thankful for the challenges and adversity — it’s made me a stronger person and you get a different sense of confidence,” he says.
This confidence comes from falling down and getting back up again, ready for the next trial, and Humphrey assures founders that preparing for tough times gets easier when you’ve overcome challenges before.
“I know I’m ready for the next bad thing that happens, and you don’t get that if you don’t go through these tough times,” he says.
“I thought I must be the only person in the world this was happening to”
With its constant pressure, late nights and unsociable hours, the entrepreneurial road can at times be lonely and isolating. This is why Humphrey says having support networks within the startup ecosystem is crucial when building a startup.
“I think an important thing is having a support system — being able to talk to people and not thinking you’re alone,” he says.
“When this sort of stuff started happening to myself I thought I must be the only person in the world this was happening to.”
In times of stress and anxiety, Humphrey says talking to other founders who may have been through similar challenges can be a vital pillar of support for entrepreneurs.
“I thought, ‘How are other founders having it so easy?’,” Humphrey says.
“When you make friends you realise you’re not a special snowflake, and everyone has their own challenges and struggles.”
Humphrey recommends founders also have a network of friends, family or like-minded entrepreneurs to run ideas past and alleviate the stress of making business decisions in difficult times.
“Have people you can lean on in the tough times — you’re not thinking soundly when you’re in those situations, so being able to bounce thinking off someone helps.”
Re-frame your setbacks
When times are good it can be liberating to be a startup founder, being able to pay your own wages, set your own hours and build a business you’re truly passionate about. But when things go wrong, founders are often a startup’s first line of defence.
Just as founders can enjoy the glory of a big capital raise or a major partnership, if a launch tanks, sales go down, or a big deal falls through, founders are likely to be the first ones who don’t get paid.
This is a huge amount of pressure to sink or swim, but Humphrey says even when things are looking dire for your startup, “it’s all about how you re-frame” setbacks as positive challenges.
“Everyone can consider themselves a victim, but we’ve got thought leaders that have changed history by overcoming tremendous adversity,” he says.
“They didn’t see it as a bad thing, they saw it as an opportunity to create something awesome.”
“It’s all about perception: you can say, ‘it’s awful’ and ‘how bad is this?’, or you can say, ‘this is a great opportunity to grow and come out the other side stronger for it’.”