Seed Stage CEOs and the sensory deprivation chamber
They say when you go into a sensory deprivation chamber you feel calm and panic; you clear
your mind and are overwhelmed by distraction; you feel the expanse of endless space and the claustrophobia of an impossibly small space. As a founder, this sounds very familiar.
The other day I asked a really experienced, successful, multi-time founder how it was going. They said,
Leading a startup is like being in a sensory deprivation chamber
They said even when you have built companies before, it is really hard to know how it’s going in this company right now — because you are still doing it for the first time at this company.
No matter how many companies you have started in the past, when you are just getting off the ground, you lack context and data to really give you a sense of progress and pace in the one you are building today. Are you going fast? It feels faster than last time, but maybe it’s not fast enough this time. Is the solution scalable? It looks like it is, but maybe you are operating in an environment where scale is defined differently. Are you maintaining balance personally? You don’t feel at risk of hitting a wall, but maybe this race is way longer than the last time?
In the sensory deprivation tank, your mind plays tricks on you. You can get wrapped up in knots trying to solve MC Escher style mazes, get lured down rat holes that dead end at 4am with a sign that reminds you of the hours you just wasted and a list of all the things you should have been doing instead. You can stop taking care of yourself.
In these early days, everything feels strangely familiar but also just out of reach — it is like not being able to remember a word and at the same time realizing that you are halfway through the sentence that requires you to use exactly that word to make your point. The best CEOs figure out how to maintain contact with reality — how to keep waypoints and landmarks in view. In the first 6–12 months at a new company, I try to help people look outside the company for clues about how well things are going inside the company. We search their network (and the First Round Community) for context and feedback and points of comparison. The work it takes to find people who have just solved the problem you are about to face and build a sense of your pace and execution is worth it every single time. You don’t have to do it just like them, but with context you can evaluate the value of doing it differently.
Every CEO I know feels lost in the tank sometimes. In the early days context is the only thing that can bring you back to your senses and help you do your best. It is the lifeline and priority number one is to grab it.