5 steps to pulling yourself out of entrepreneurial desperation

Emily Blomberg, founder of baby clothing brand Caboosee, says she cannot count the number of times she’s felt desperate during her eight-year entrepreneurial journey. 

When she’s in that place, she feels panicked, irresponsible, and embarrassed. 

“I feel like people are looking at me with pity, like, ‘Oh there’s Emily who thinks she can build a real business out of her silly idea for a baby clothing company. Why doesn’t she just give up and focus on her real job that she went to school for?’”

The entrepreneurial journey is a constant struggle, with ups and downs. Sometimes, we can shift into survival mode without fully realizing what’s happening. The fear and the pain of these moments can swallow us up and stall our business. 

What does the Survival Mode look like for entrepreneurs?

When we start operating in survival mode, we begin focusing on very short-term issues. We can’t see much more than what’s right in front of us. We lose our ability to organize our thoughts and sequence our tasks. We begin thinking any action = good action. As one entrepreneur shared with me recently, “I just thought, ‘at least I’m doing SOMETHING!” 

Because we are in survival mode, our timeline is SHORT. We need things to work RIGHT NOW. We expect immediate results and when we don’t get them, we move on to the next thing and the next thing…and the next thing. 

In our frantic search for traction, we try anything and everything, regardless of how it aligns with our brand, and we don’t give any approach enough time to come to fruition. We’re so confused and tired that we start looking for a magic bullet that will make our venture instantly profitable. We can become vulnerable to predatory “solutions” that require huge up-front investments and promise unrealistic returns. 

We are moving so fast, our supporters can’t keep up. And, we get pissed. When we email someone and they don’t get back to us right away, we feel ignored and maybe even abandoned. We start this dialog in our head, “They say they care, but when the going gets tough, they can’t be found.” When in survival mode, we have trouble understanding other people’s timeline. We can’t see that our sense of urgency doesn’t match theirs. 

Any bad news begins to feel like a death blow to our business. An Instagram ad campaign flops? An event doesn’t sell out? You lose a pitch contest? With each effort that doesn’t achieve our goals, we label ourselves a failure. We can easily slip into a downward, self-fulfilling spiral.

Let’s be clear, regular day-to-day entrepreneurial behavior can sometimes be mistaken as survival mode. Entrepreneurs are moving fast. As the saying goes, “We are building the plane while we’re flying it.” So, it is important to recognize the difference in our behaviors and attitudes when we are in productive mode vs. survival mode.

Survival Mode v. Productive Mode

A helpful chart to evaluate your activities:

chart contrasting Survival Mode with Productive Mode

For our ventures to succeed, we need to learn to recognize the things that trigger our survival instinct and frenetic patterns of behavior so we can pull ourselves out. Here are five pieces of advice I share with entrepreneurs who find themselves in survival mode. 

Return to your strategy

When you’re in panic mode, you’re tempted to take on work and make decisions that don’t align with your brand. 

Sagashus Levingston, founder of Infamous Mothers, a technology, education and media company focused on mothers at the margins of society, says that for her, desperation looks like going off-brand to make money. 

“That means I am hustling, but I am doing so in a way that does not honor my company or the niche we serve,” she says. “Desperation looks like anything associated with selling out the brand, the vision, the plan in the name of we have to eat now.”

To pull yourself out of that panic mode, you need to take a step back from the immediate crisis and refocus on the long-term vision. Look at where you want to be in three years. Are you going to get there doing what you’re doing now? Or are you throwing yourself into distractions? 

This is one of the most important reasons for developing a strategy and action plan. It is too easy to get lost on the entrepreneurial journey. Without a strategy, it is hard to evaluate the opportunities and challenges you encounter. We look at each one independently with no criteria or reference point. A strategy, even one that is evolving, creates guideposts for us so we are less likely to veer off course. 

Through Doyenne’s Evergreen Fund, entrepreneurs can apply for a $5,000 grant. In the application process, we ask entrepreneurs to present a plan for how they’ll use the money to scale up their business. We are looking for strategic uses of the dollars — not casual or survival uses. We want to see a plan for things like entering new markets, purchasing new equipment, or creating prototypes. The application process itself encourages the entrepreneur to really think about how the dollars will propel their venture forward. Then, once they are funded, we work with them to further develop their plan. A small $5,000 grant, combined with the community and technical support, can be transformative.

Listen to Your Customers

Most startups pivot at least once in their first year. Many pivot three or more times. The clarity we need to set the new direction our business comes from running good experiments that test how well our products and services actually match what customers want and need. These experiments are a normal, healthy and necessary part of the entrepreneurial process.

But, when we’re panicking about how we’re going to pay next month’s rent, or how we’re going to afford our son’s school tuition now that we don’t have a regular paycheck, we end up trying a lot of things — marketing campaigns, new products, or new employees — and abandoning them if they don’t take off instantly. We begin to flail. And, the noise in our own heads is so loud we can’t hear what our customers want.

Entrepreneurs must learn to distinguish between running experiments that gather meaningful data vs. the “try anything” Hail Mary flailing that moves us away from our customers. When we feel ourselves slipping into survival mode, we can reach out and connect with the customers we are most trying to reach — the ones whose opinions, engagement, and dollars matter most to us. If we listen, they will steer us in the right direction.

“The experimenting and the data gathering piece moves the work of the company forward in a clearly defined, measurable way,” Levingston says. “It aligns with the goals of the mission, the company and where we are in that moment. And it honors where we are trying to go in a way that allows us to build relationships and maintain integrity.”

Stabilize Your Finances

Financial insecurity is one of the biggest stressors that drives entrepreneurs into survival mode. And financial insecurity means different things to different people. For some entrepreneurs, it’s having $10 in the bank. For others, it’s $10K. And for others still, $100K. People have different perceptions of risk. 

I find that when people perceive themselves as more financially stable (whatever that means for them), they are better able to evaluate opportunities and make decisions that are in the long-term best interest of the company. 

For some of us, this means staying in day job while we build our business. It can mean gradually gearing down our day job as we ramp up our venture. It can mean switching to a new job with less stress and demands, so we have more energy to focus on the business we are building. For those who have made the leap, it may mean taking on part-time work to relieve the financial stress and instability of an early stage venture.

It doesn’t mean we’re a bad entrepreneur if we need to work part-time in an unrelated field to make ends meet while we chase our dreams. It just means we’re human — and in good company with the 99% of the world that isn’t independently wealthy. 

That said, if we do take on work that doesn’t relate to our venture, we need to put careful boundaries around it. We can’t let it take over our lives. If we choose to wait tables, we need to stay involved in the entrepreneurial community, and avoid getting sucked into the late night lifestyle of the service industry. We shouldn’t take on a consulting gig that will eat up 60 hours per week of our time. We need to find a position that will make us available to meet with coaches, partners, and customers during their optimal hours. 

We must be clear about the difference between the band-aid gig that is addressing immediate, short-term needs and the longer-term vision and strategy of our lives and companies. Both are needed, but they are not the same. If we confuse the band-aid with the strategy, we will build the wrong company and be more likely to live forever in survival mode.

Build Your Community

Entrepreneurship can be an extremely isolating experience. If you’re not actively seeking out the company of other entrepreneurs, you may find yourself surrounded by people who don’t understand the journey. Well-meaning friends and family members will constantly ask how it’s going, and you may feel shame about explaining why you’re not succeeding yet. But when you speak with other entrepreneurs, and hear them talk about the ups and downs of their journeys and their own battle with desperation and anxiety, you’ll know you’re not alone. 

It is sometimes hard to self-diagnose your own slide into survival mode. You are feeling it happening, but not recognizing it for what it is. If we have people who understand the entrepreneurial journey around us, they might see it before we do. They may be able to bring it to our attention and help us navigate through it.

Often, we pull away from our friends and colleagues at the very time we need them most. So, reach out again and again. Don’t hide away. Even if you need to re-group, find a few trusted mentors, colleagues, or friends who can give you meaningful, entrepreneurial support.

Care for Yourself

Any entrepreneur can slide into Survival Mode. I don’t think I’ve met a single entrepreneur who doesn’t relate to that feeling of spinning your wheels, fighting off panic, searching for quick solutions. 

My goal in writing this article is to help name and give language to something I see entrepreneurs experiencing. Many entrepreneurs aren’t able to recognize or understand what’s happening and they feel like they are the only ones who go through this. My hope is that we are all better able to identify what’s going on, have a common language to explain it, and strategies for navigating a way out. 

Much of this requires us to stay attuned to our own well-being. It means paying more attention to where we are cognitively, emotionally, and physically. And investing time into caring for ourselves. 

Emily Blomberg says one of her best coping strategies is journaling, because it helps her stay focused on the vision and track her progress. 
“Looking back at the goals I set and seeing that I DID achieve those always helps me,” she says. “I remember that I have overcome many obstacles and should never be embarrassed about where I am at in my roller-coaster ride.”

Doyenne develops & funds women-led ventures.

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