Cheer up, love… it may never happen

By Bertie Stephens on December 4th, 2012

When I was 19, I spent the £10,000 that I’d made working on the Harry Potter movies on my first feature film. I decided to do a sixteenth-century period drama based on the first unsuccessful colonisation of America, during which 117 men, woman and children vanished.

I had a great team supporting me, but on the fifth day of shooting we were due to have the actors playing all the men, woman and children arrive. That night was one of the worst I’ve ever had. I couldn’t sleep. I was worried that they would be angry, maybe even start a riot, because of the lack of facilities, or thanks to some other problem. (OK, maybe a riot was a little far-fetched.) But, eventually, I calmed down.

I realised that ultimately, so long as no-one died, got seriously injured, or went to prison (that last one is a recent addition to my list), everything else would just happen and could, somehow, be dealt with. Some people are always going to complain and be unhappy with decisions you make, but unless you’re purposefully trying to be a prick, it’s not going to be held against you for ever.

And that realisation has kept me pretty strong in the succeeding seven years. It would be very easy to go down the “life is short” road or “there’s always someone worse off that yourself”, but that’s not quite what I mean. And actually, because humans are inherently selfish, the latter is pretty difficult to worry about if you’re stressed.

It’s all about what’s relevant to you. The reason I get up every Monday morning and storm into work for 7 a.m. (I don’t mean to boast) is that I know, despite all the problems we may have that day, there’s simply no point in getting into a stew about them. (I try not to show off about being a workaholic. I’m telling you to show you perhaps my most major flaw. I love work so much that it consumes my life; I love progress. But what I have realised is that stress will only get worse if you put all your files on one hard disk.)

In just two months we’ve gained thousands of customers – happy customers, at that! We probably have hundreds of unhappy ones, too, come to think of it: a few times, we’ve screwed up. Sent them the wrong product, didn’t send it to them at all, sent it to them but it was broken. It’s crap, yes, but unfortunately, as volume grows, so do mistakes.

Whenever I start a new project or close another round of funding, I get a bit low afterwards. It’s probably the the sheer amount of emotion and energy it takes, followed by coming back down to your natural level. With that return to normal come stress and worry. I assume it’s like a drug, but, being teetotal, I have no idea.

The emotional comedown is crap. It really is. Getting out of it takes some time to myself. My life philosophy, like most people’s I guess, is easier to write than to follow. But it is possible to follow. Technology tells it best: the reason “the cloud” is effective and successful is that it spreads risk. And that’s what you must do too.

Spread your emotional risk through your work and your personal life, so that if one area falls over, you’ll still have stable support somewhere else. Staying with the IT metaphor, right now I’m not properly load-balanced. But I’m learning from my experience that I need to be.

Work through the day and night, if you must. Show your investors that your entire world revolves around you working hard against their risk, if you must. But if the chances are that no-one will care about anything you’re doing if they happen to play that remembering game in the year 2454, then make sure you at least remember it as always positive.

Your start-up may fail. You may stop getting customers and run out of money. Your incredible idea might not be so incredible to others. You’re going to go through so much rubbish you won’t know what’s hit you. But what does it matter, really? If you’re stressed, you’re not going to help anyone achieve the solutions to these problems.

So, what I’ve learnt from day in, day out start-up adventuring is just to get on with it, enjoy it and realise that complaining customers can always be placated with a nice, friendly response, and broken servers or wrong coding can be overcome with a few more hours’ work. So cheer up. It may never happen.