I’ve been hesitant to write this article for a long time. Afraid that it will come across as a ‘sob story’ or an ‘aren’t I wonderful’ story – both of which would be far from accurate and work against the reason for writing this in the first place – to attempt to help those facing similar challenges.
I’m going to give you some insights into dealing with a particular illness and draw some parallels with challenges that entrepreneurs sometimes must face – at least in my personal experience. So here it goes.
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Apart from the odd spell of asthma, I had always been a healthy guy growing up. I swam competitively, was in the 1st eleven soccer team in my last two years of high school and was in the athletic squad for sprinting. Nowhere close to being an elite athlete, but a fit, healthy guy. During my 20s, I spent six years living in Japan. If we don’t include the beer and sake, I ate pretty well; and with public transport and walking being the main modes of transport for me over there, I lost weight and felt fit too.
Needless to say, a few years ago it was a surprise to be diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis and be put on large doses of methotrexate (a form of chemotherapy drug), 1000 grams of Naprosyn (fairly strong anti-inflammatory drug that can make you constantly drowsy) and leflunomide (this one affects your liver so rules out alcohol consumption). I also had to have blood tests and sessions with a specialist every month. For the first time in my life I was seen as the ‘victim’ whereas up until then these types of things only happened to other people.
The guy I thought I was – young, agile, healthy, sporty (well at some point sport transformed into nightclubbing three times a week) – had become “someone with a chronic illness”, “someone on serious drugs” and “someone to worry about”. I hated it.
The last three years have been very challenging. Not exclusively because of the impact of the psoriatic arthritis (although I was a little taken back the day I realised I could no longer click with my right hand), but also through the impact of the drugs (having to be careful about drinking and monitoring blood tests, etc) and dealing with friends and family who just want to help (I’ll never be comfortable with the worry this causes others).
All in all though, I feel like I have managed this situation in a way that I don’t FEEL like it’s a major issue. What I’d like to share are some of the methods I feel have worked for me in order to feel this way and in effect stay a happy, energetic and motivated guy – and show how in some way these approaches are similar to best practice lean startup and business methodologies.
1. Mitigate risks – protect what you love doing from being impacted
This one reminds me of managing customer relationships as an entrepreneur.
Circumstances for a startup may take a hit from changing market conditions. I’m remembering the horrible decision I had to make in winding up a startup I had co-founded in Japan and handing the reigns over to agent partners when the market drifted away to China. You have to put into place other measures to mitigate the risk of losing them.
In the context of a chronic illness, the things I found important to protect included (a) doing everything a normal, healthy husband and dad could do for his beautiful baby girl (my daughter was born around the same time this all started), (b) going out with friends and having fun and (c) be amazing at my job with no excuses.
Working out what I wanted to protect felt a little like confirming my life value proposition. The product-market fit was essentially validating that these three goals equalled something along the lines of ‘enjoying life’.
2. Innovate your ‘business model’ – make some major changes that impact your health in a positive way
In an entrepreneur sense, this is the equivalent of always being in networking mode. You don’t really know what will happen, but you know something will. It takes hard work, it’s hard to measure its value and prioritise, but being top of mind for people will pay off in some way or another. The example I think of here is many years ago when keeping in touch with old clients from previous roles proved to be a major factor in securing the first client for a boutique consulting company (InterCreations) I was running with a partner at the time.
Relating this to health, I’d historically been cynical when it came to particular diets or exercise fads but I believed I could counter the impacts of the illness and drugs by being a generally healthier person. Instead of DJ turntables or rare bottles of sake, for my birthday present in 2012 I asked my wife for a particular type of juicer (a ‘slow juicer’ for those interested) and from that day on I promised myself to make fresh vegetable and fruit juice every morning instead of coffee.
My former self would have laughed at the prospect of getting up early to cut up kale, ginger, lemons and carrots for a regular morning ‘hit’. But here I am, three years later and still juicin’!
3. Life hacks – become fitter than you were before this all started
When it’s time to renew contracts with clients after their first 12 months of using your service, nothing gives you more confidence that they will stay with you than a record of achieving good results for them and a new free service that you can throw in as a reward for their loyalty.
I may have overstated the ‘I was a sporty guy’ part earlier in this piece. I DID have a bench press in my garage which I used a few times a week but since the swimming, soccer and clubbing days there was about five years or so where I didn’t do any REAL regular exercise. I was happy bragging about my new juicing habit but knew it wasn’t enough. I needed to be physically fitter and stronger than before to make any new weaknesses less relevant.
I bit the bullet and signed up for a gym membership. I had been against the idea of paying to work out for as long as I could remember, but between work and fatherhood, I needed an extra motivator to start working out and to stick to it. I began making time for the gym, first twice a week then three times between 9 and 10pm. It was perfect as the gym is almost empty at that time and just like when I used to send late night emails to potential clients during sales gigs, I had the feeling I was getting ahead of the game while most people are winding down. I’ve got no doubt a big part of this being effective is psychological.
The gym late at night and magic juice early in the morning were two weapons that made me feel I had a competitive advantage over my former lifestyle and so now I have my radar on for other ways to feel like I’m more than on top of things.
4. Be aware where the value proposition is – appreciate what you’ve got and let everyone know
At UNSW Innovations we will be launching a world-first service for entrepreneurs on campus early this year and whilst we should receive some media attention for the initiative that money cannot buy, the more important value will be for the students and alumni who have access to this service (wish I could tell you more – watch this space).
Bringing this back to my story, I can say confidently that I am an extremely lucky person. I have an amazing wife, beautiful daughter, extremely close brother, parents who still spoil me, massive extended family and a few brilliant friends. I have (and I honestly believe this) a job I could not imagine leaving, a world class team and a pretty solid professional network. All of these things make life fun – but also make life easier. In being driven to protect this blessed set up, I’m also making the dramatic “chronic illness victim” story such a small detail in an otherwise wonderful existence.
As much as one can work hard to set up such an existence, it also has to do with mindset, attitude and being amazingly stubborn. I’m not sure how useful this article will be for others, but do hope one or two little anecdotes might be applicable to someone who reads it and it works for them as it has for me.
Joshua Flannery is Student Entrepreneur Development, International Education at University of New South Wales.