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Work Well: How Founders Keep the Fire Burning

After interviewing startup founders for a few years, you start to hear a common theme:

“I work ‘til midnight every night.”

“Oh, I never sleep.”

“No lunch breaks for me.”

For many entrepreneurs, creating a company is something they do as a side hustle on top of another full-time job.

But is there such a thing as too much hustle?

Stress can motivate us to do better and work harder, but it can also have negative effects on our mental and physical health and, eventually, productivity. According to Patricia Frazier, Ph.D. and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, work is one of the most common sources of significant stress.

Though likely a prominent issue in the startup community — given the high stakes, ambiguity, and risk of failure — work stress doesn’t seem to be something that people talk about much. But Liz Giorgi of booming photo startup soona and Sabina Saksena of smart campus platform Cytilife opened up about how starting a business changes your lifestyle, what they do when they’re stressed, and how to avoid burnout.

Liz Giorgi, soona

Giorgi, who launched soona with her co-founder and “creative soulmate” Hayley Anderson in 2019, says there’s “nothing normal” about her life.

“The biggest change from having a job to being an entrepreneur is almost everything that I now experience in my life, I experience through the lens of running a business,” she said in the brightly decorated Minneapolis studio.

Describing a recent vacation to Aspen with her significant other, Giorgi said she was consumed by observing other stores and brainstorming possible changes for both the Minneapolis and Denver soona locations.

“I’m constantly having to remind myself to take time off and relax,” she said. “It’s so hard for me to feel like that’s an acceptable choice.”

But she has found that being conscious of her energy levels and taking breaks are necessary for productivity.

Sabina Saksena, Cytilife

Saksena, the founder of Cytilife, comes at the ever-present struggle between life and work from a slightly different angle. She admits she became an entrepreneur later in life with more flexibility and, having lived in corporate America and outside of it, said the idea of a “balance” is not exactly right.

“It’s a myth,” she said. “It’s not a balance; it’s a blend. Some days are more work, and some days are more play. You pick and choose which day is going to be more of which, and you position yourself accordingly.”

Between work and play, however, are a lot of variables that entrepreneurs don’t have any control over. These unknowns, both Giorgi and Saksena said, were driving forces behind the tendency for founders to squeeze so much grind into each day.

“There’s so many unknowns that you have no power over, Saksena said. “So you maximize what you can control — your time.”

Saksena described entrepreneurs as a “special breed” within the already unrelenting American workforce. But the time-crunch mentality doesn’t always make for meaningful gains.

“We sometimes believe that our success comes from the amount of time we spend,” she said. “At some point, you realize working longer doesn’t necessarily produce results.”

Patricia Frazier, Ph.D., University of Minnesota

Professor Frazier’s work on stress as it relates to one’s job shows that job demands, such as high workload, role ambiguity, and conflicting demands at work are associated with emotional exhaustion and potentially burnout. According to Frazier, burnout is defined as, “exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of reduced efficacy that result from chronic workplace stress that has not been properly managed.

That dubious combination of symptoms is something Giorgi tries to be very conscious of, always weighing how potential burnout could affect those around her. Describing an emotionally tough weekend testifying in front of Congress, she said she doesn’t necessarily get “burnt out,” but does reach the ceiling of what she’s able to give the company. She values being a compassionate and approachable leader — so, to ensure she brings the best version of herself to work, she tries to watch when she gets close to the max.

“If I try to push past that ceiling, I’ll end up hurting myself or someone else,” she said. “That’s where tyrannical CEOs get made.”

Both Giorgi and Saksena have developed tactics to avoid getting to that point. Giorgi has “No Email Sunday” to keep one day of the week work-free, and Saksena has all email and text notifications on her cell phone turned off.

If they do get close to that point, however, special strategies are put into play to decompress. For Saksena, it’s a glass of wine and an activity-filled weekend with her family. For Giorgi, it’s also wine, a long walk with the dog, and an ‘80s movie. And for the employees of soona, Giorgi explains that they each get $100 per month in wellness credit via the company Zestful.

“[It’s] not just focusing on your experience as a founder,” Giorgi said. “…all these folks are coming with you on this wild ride.”

While putting in the work is clearly important — especially in the startup ecosystem — it turns out it’s just as important to take breaks. Find out next week how Clarence Bethea of Upsie and Sean Higgins of BetterYou deal with the ups and downs of this wild ride and how starting a company can affect one’s mental health.

Laura Beier
Laura is a writer, coffee addict, and travel enthusiast who’s passionate about sustainability, vegetarian cuisine, and innovation. You can find her at a local coffee shop, going for a hike, or planning her next adventure.