The Haunted House: Overcoming the Fear Factor of Running a Startup

Sep 13, 2013
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This guest post is part 2 of “The Amusement Park” blog series written by Mark Fabian Henkel (@mrkhnkl) Co-founder and CEO of Paymill, a young startup that offers the fastest and easiest way to integrate credit and debit card payments in websites and mobile applications.

Surviving a thrilling ride on a rollercoaster is one thing, but being able to predict what is coming next in a haunted house is something totally different. Like in an everyday start-up life there are times where you see no light, no ups and downs, no speed, just the thrill and fear.

In two weeks, Oktoberfest kicks off in Munich and I will go to a haunted house, because the real haunted house is obviously nothing compared to the haunted start-up. But being part of a start-up and visiting a haunted house have naturally one thing in common: Stepping out of your comfort zone for the thrill of it. People who start in a start-up tend to believe running a start-up business is like a fairy-tale, where you drink RedBull for free, work with your friends and then make a famous exit. The truth is, however, that many people underestimate the unexpected and the amount of blind spots, when they enter the haunted start-up cart:

The beginning of the ride is combined with the rattling sound of chains while the cart runs to its first dark entrance, everything is perfect so far, but there is still some noise when leaving the comfort zone. It becomes dark and there it is – the chainsaw sound and the ugly face you didn’t expect and you are somehow scared.

li-bill-shock-620-is5018819Of course it’s not that bad, but it came all of a sudden. There’s an analogy to start-ups here: Everything seems to be fine, sure there’s some rattling stress, but then, BOOM! something hits you in the face and you did not see where it was coming from, but you need to deal with it instantly.

An example here could be receiving invoices from lawyers who dramatically increase your burn rate in the respective month in a way you did not expect. And as you probably already know, the burn rate is the holy grail of start-ups. Of course, you know you have to pay invoices for everything. But some weeks after your new investor has signed, you receive an invoice that appears from nowhere for a ridiculously high amount. And this is just for assisting the VC in the negotiations and closure of the deal. These sort of invoices can easily reach one third of you burn-rate. (By the way, be assured the VC wrote this in his term sheet and you knew it, but it is a surprise). Anyway, you need to get over it and move on.

However, you entered the haunted house in the first place knowing something really exciting will appear during your ride. It will not come after the first thrilling corners but after a while it’s there, a horrendous monster with many arms. Something which reminds me of our first advisory board meeting. I knew weeks before that it will come. Me and the team prepared as best as we could, but right before your first meeting, you are stressed. It’s nothing you need to fear but it is nerve-racking sitting in a room with your shareholders and being confronted with many different expectations, ideas to improve… It’s like the monster with many arms. Every arm tries to pull you in one direction. After you survived the first meeting, you are ready for the next ones.

There is also a special kind of haunted houses where you have people running and jumping around to scare you, you can’t predict their behaviour because it’s inimitable and that’s what makes it so agile and scary. Life in a start-up also has its inimitability and unique pains to it. For example, when people you like leave the company all of the sudden without any premonition and with no signs whatsoever.

It just came out of the blue – it scares you because you didn’t see it coming and it really hurts. It’s the part of the haunted house nobody needs. Plus it wasn’t like the other person who said right from the start that he wants to start his own venture once the opportunity arises. But again, after you have overcome this situation you are prepared for the next one.

Moving forward I start seeing the light. The dungeon is behind me, there’s no more chainsaws, and the rattling cart has stopped – I’ve made it through. Will I be scared the next time? I don’t think so. Sure, you never know what is behind the next door, but if you have faced the haunted house once, you already know all the tricks they play, even the mean ones which hurt the most. The same goes for life in a start-up: I have faced serious strain and stress but they will never frighten me again. No. Why? Because I overcame them all and I am well prepared now. So the ride was worth it.

In two weeks, Oktoberfest kicks off in Munich. For me, there is no chance of avoiding the haunted house, although it might be scary, but at least I will give it a shot and be richer in experience afterwards.

So what about you? What’s the most frightening thing you’ve experienced in a start-up –  and how did you overcome it?