A Psychological Model For Achieving Entrepreneurial Success
The ability to persevere makes you unstoppable.
Martin here. Welcome to another edition of Founders’ Hustle!
I write about the “hustle” of entrepreneurship and startup building frameworks.
Today I’m sharing a psychological model for achieving success!
How you feel is critical to persevere and win. 😇
Upgrade mental endurance and decision-making ability. 🧠
Avoid psychological mistakes that lead to burn out. 🚫
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You often hear about how perseverance played a huge role in the success of an entrepreneur’s journey.
Stories about how ‘XYZ founder didn’t give up’, ‘just kept at it’, and ‘defied the odds’ despite continual setbacks, marketplace resistance, and scepticism are characteristic startup origin scenarios that persist throughout a company’s lifecycle until maturity.
In fact, this was a core theme in one of the first founder biographies I read at the beginning of my entrepreneurial career—Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas.
It’s forgiving to assume Walt Disney had an ‘easy time’ building his entertainment company because of how obviously brilliant it is in hindsight.
But, the reality could not be further from the truth. He faced incessant opposition to his mission and regular psychological blows for the duration of his career.
From an adversarial father who actively discouraged his passion for animation when he was a child, all the way to Disneyland around half a century later—after the Walt Disney Company was already a big success—when no one was prepared to finance his vision for a ‘themed park’.
In between these two events his first serious company—Laugh-O-Gram Studios—went bankrupt, his follow up company notoriously had most key staff and all major intellectual property swiped away by a distribution partner, and his ‘comeback character’ Mickey Mouse was initially turned down by everyone the now-iconic character was pitched too.
Evidently, stubborn determination to persevere is an insanely powerful weapon in your armory as a founder.
That’s at every level—million, billion, and even trillion-dollar companies.
Steve Jobs once said in a 1995 interview:
“I'm convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”
I totally agree.
It’s simple. In order to win you have to play the game.
And, it can be a long game—likely, over multiple attempts.
But, a distinction needs to be made here. Perseverance is the output and not the recipe. You can’t just tell a founder to ‘persevere’ and expect everything to work out.
That’s not a silver bullet.
An initial burst of energy and zeal will soon fizzle away if the correct mental and lifestyle foundations are not in place that permit long-term endurance and therefore sustainable perseverance.
You get beat up a lot psychologically along the way as a founder no matter how successful you become.
The question is, when that happens over and over again, what separates your decision to walk away to instead keep hitting ‘continue’ each time? 👇
Frankly, a lot of things.
To be clear, I’m not talking about walking away from a specific product or startup endeavor—that’s a whole different topic. What I’m referring to is giving up on entrepreneurship in itself.
Sometimes folks test the water and figure out it’s not for them. That’s totally fine.
But, there’s also a lot of people who would be most happy in their career path as entrepreneurs but quit along the way for various solvable reasons.
Chief among them is state of mind. Do not underestimate this.
I believe the single most important ingredient for long-term success is how you feel psychologically.
If you feel positive opportunity seems omnipresent, there’s a solution for everything, and ideas materialize with exciting regularity—like sparks in a combustion engine.
You embrace the day and eagerly jump back into building your business at any given opportunity—even when things are tough for what seems like forever.
Naturally, you will persevere.
If you feel negative this begins to collapse, and, with enough time, it will—until you throw in the towel. Everything feels out of reach.
Since founders are heavily emotionally invested in their companies, maintaining a positive mindset is a tough objective.
When your business gets hurt, you hurt. When your business struggles, you struggle.
But, feeling good psychologically is the key ingredient to long-term sustainable perseverance. It shouldn’t be ignored. Master this and you’re unstoppable.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been through times where I’ve had the wind knocked out of me really bad.
It’s the getting back up and fighting on with the same energy and enthusiasm that is the real difference-maker. It pretty much has to be the ‘default mode’—to the degree it doesn’t even feel like persevering, it’s just a natural state of mind.
Next, I’ll share the psychological model I’ve developed over the last twelve years to stay positive.
It may not be perfect for you, but, hopefully, it will inspire you to consider and optimize your own psychological approach.👇
Drive & motivation
Without question, the most overwhelming factor of my own personal will to persevere is drive. This is different for everybody. And, ultimately, difficult to artificially create. Usually, the seeds were planted long ago and possibly date back to childhood.
In the case of Walt Disney, it’s been reported that drawing and the invention of intricate imaginary worlds was a form of escapism against an abusive father that never stopped escalating in scope and ambition.
But, it doesn’t have to be that dark. Thank goodness.
For me, I originally thought money was the main drive. But, I was wrong. That rarely works out. There are much easier ways to make money and live very comfortably, so most founders driven by this alone have a higher chance of quitting.
It’s only been fairly recently where I’ve consciously realized my primary drive is a behaviour I developed in my teenage years that I continued into adulthood.
Back in school, I would play a lot of online games with my friends. One of them, Planetarion, was a sci-fi web browser-based strategy game played in real-time, 24/7.
It had no graphics per se. It was all reports, charts, and numbers based on a combination of your inputs and the external actions of others.
Testing, exploring, optimizing. 👇
In other words, the same basic behaviours as what it’s like running a digital startup.
I’d spend all of my free time online playing this game, collaborating with my friends in alliances, strategizing on IRC and MSN Instant Messenger, and executing to move the needle and increase my ranking.
I thought about it all the time and got totally hooked to the constant struggle and drive to thrive amongst a huge universe of players.
After graduating from University, I circled back to the same group of friends and we naturally fell back into this pattern but with a startup instead of Planetarion.
It didn’t feel like work. It became a mission—a game—organized 24/7 over instant messenger, once again.
But, this time: Instead of an alliance, a company. Instead of earning points, earning revenue. Instead of building starships, building product. Instead of beating other players, beating competitors. Instead of stealing resources, stealing customers.
You get the idea.
My point is, since you’re reading this, you likely have an innate drive pushing you forward that you may not even consciously realize.
This motivation is the most likely to endure. Lean into it, assuming it’s healthy.
In today’s glorified startup world symbolic arbitrary milestones are heavily mixed into the founder narrative to the degree they acquire enough social proof to become perceived prerequisites to success—chasing things like Forbes 30 under 30 awards, TED speaker status, TechCrunch headlines, or record-setting funding round announcements.
This can lead to an uncomfortable cocktail of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that is less likely to endure holistically.
I’ve found that if you consciously focus on what you’re intrinsically motivated by and filter out the imposed aspirational noise, it leads to a much happier mindset.
Remember the big picture
When founders set out on their startup journey they usually have a pretty grand multi-year vision—like an exotic faraway destination to sail towards.
But, as building the business gets underway founders often inevitably become absorbed into ever-decreasing time loops of intense focus and immediate results chasing—the small picture.
Initially, one or two-week sprints during the research, building, and testing phase and then daily, once customer stats and KPIs are available to review in analytical dashboards.
This is an ‘in the weeds’ problem where the mind over indexes the significance of short-term events emotionally.
As time goes on, this pattern only accelerates unless kept in check—even in businesses with skyrocketing growth.
I’ve been in situations where my mood has changed on an hourly basis depending upon the total value of customer orders placed over the course of a morning or afternoon, even if the long-term monthly revenue chart is massively up and to the right.
This applies to most results or progress-driven scenarios. Email responses, sign-ups, sales, usage KPIs, press coverage, hires, etc.
Real-time dashboards become dopamine dispensers.
It feels really crappy to see a number or result that didn’t deliver the next euphoric hit, but was otherwise completely fine within the context of the big picture. Reality cannot keep up with the brain’s infinite short-term appetite for more.
I find that if you don’t step back and consider the big picture regularly, a negative view can start to manifest, even under circumstances where things are going well:
Incremental weekly or monthly progress feels like moving backward.
A short-term dip in results feels like it’s falling apart.
The long-term success or failure of your business is rarely dependent upon the results of the immediately preceding hours and days.
As a rule of thumb, the shorter the time period you are drawing conclusions over the more inaccurate they will be.
So, if your emotional state mirrors your analytics dashboard, inbox, or social media presence on a real-time basis you are likely both: 1) drawing misleading conclusions about the health of your business, and, 2) setting yourself up to burn out.
Zoom out and analyze results over the longer term. Dig deep and look for positive signals in your analytics dashboard—which it’s easy to develop a type of reality-skewing tunnel vision towards through habit.
Often, there is a reassuring rate of acceleration or progressive insight that can be gleaned.
How long did it take you to get your first 100 sales? How long did it take to get your next 100 sales? Then your next 100 sales after that?
At my last startup, it took months of marketplace testing to reach $100 daily revenue.
The journey to that point was brutal. Knowing you can’t survive off that amount amplifies feelings of frustration and desperation.
The ups and downs during such periods can feel like you’re going around in circles—particularly when the results are not linear.
Is $1 to $100 daily revenue really progress if it’s not sustainable?
Yes. It’s 100x growth.
If you persevere, can you achieve that again?
As it turns out, yes, we did:
Ten months later we hit $5,000 revenue in one day—50x.
Two months after that we hit $10,000 revenue in one day—100x
Two weeks after that we hit $15,000 revenue in one day—150x.
That was over one year. After many months of spinning the wheels in what seemed like nowhere land, compounding effects kicked in. 👇
Take the time to regularly step back and review the progress and direction of your long-term journey.
If you take current trends and project them going forward, particularly when factoring in exponential results, where does it lead?
You’ve likely come further than you think.
Separate your product from you
A mistake I’ve made in the past is pinning my hopes and dreams as an entrepreneur on one single product or idea—a kind of ‘golden ticket’ to success.
This is a fantastic way to set yourself up for a massive emotional blow.
Why? Most products and ideas do not work out.
So, if you have entangled your identity or ability as an entrepreneur with a product that fails, by association you fail with it. It can be crushing.
In reality, this should be empowering.
Unlike a product that died, you don’t, and are able to try something else, empowered by the experience.
And, you will get more ideas. Most likely better ones. It’s a natural side-effect of testing and trying new concepts in the marketplace.
Your new product can tackle the same mission, or, something entirely different.
The first product I launched ‘broke Twitter’ and ultimately flopped. But, it lead to the discovery of a completely different business opportunity that was really successful.
Today I keep my identity totally separate from products, which I view pragmatically, and, channel my enthusiasm towards broad themes or missions.
You are on your own journey
In the second edition of Founders’ Hustle, I wrote about social comparison theory. The concept was initially proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s.
In a nutshell:
Social comparison theory is the idea that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others.
A lot of the time this is helpful for humans since it spurs us on through competetion and makes us try harder and achieve more:
Social comparison can be highly beneficial when people use social networks to [compare upwards] and push themselves.
But, it can also be counterproductive.
In the modern world, our social media newsfeeds are constantly pummelled by stories of people that have achieved way more in their careers generally, or, in some particular area we perceive to be important.
There’s a limitless amount of people to socially compare upwards to, unlike say hundreds or thousands of years ago when humans lived in small relatively unconnected communities.
These success stories all kind of blur into one, and, can inevitably lead to conclusions of inadequacy or failure, and eventually burn out.
This is particularly apt regarding an ugly element of social comparison theory known as the ‘paragon effect’—which I previously wrote about:
This is when, rather than using your own network and a broader set of people collectively as a benchmark to measure your own success, you use just one individual or a handful of people who possess the perfect example of a particular quality you find desirable.
These individuals are paragons. They’re rarely within your network. They’re elite of the elite achievers. They’re idolised. They’re inimitable.
General examples of paragons are Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. But, they can also be relative to your market or industry.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always found learning from successful people to be super useful, directly or indirectly, but I try to draw the line there and not derive a sense of self-worth or identity by benchmarking myself against them.
There’s only one you. We’re all on our own journey. Use yourself as a benchmark to beat.
It’s common for entrepreneurs to become psychologically isolated—a scenario that’s amplified for solo founders.
Why? A lot of the time pre-established support networks like family and friends are not building startups. It’s simply harder to connect with them and share concerns and anxiety in a way that will be reciprocally helpful.
That’s a problem because feeling alone is not conducive to being happy.
An important psychological mechanism for me has been building my network with other founders—of all stages. Those that have just started out, those building incredible businesses, and those that have had one or more huge exits.
Discussing ideas, challenges, and experiences with a vast mix of founders like this has helped keep me sane over the years—even if in totally different markets.
The sense of camaraderie transcends industry and insights from one domain often cross-pollinate into others.
Reach out and connect. It will enrich your mind and mission.
I struggled with this in the beginning, but it’s critical.
Because we live in our own bodies 24/7, it’s easy to develop blind spots in our personal development and quality of decision-making.
Having a strong sense of self-awareness about your personal capability, strengths, constraints, and limitations is a superpower.
This skill can also be applied to your startup, which when combined together will lead to powerful and effective decision-making.
Assessing and choosing the optimum strategy or option.
Identifying obstacles to success.
Setting realistic objectives.
Therefore, I regularly carve out time to develop my self-awareness.
Often, it involves mentally listing ‘truths’ or ‘facts’ about my current situation, treating myself in the abstract as if I was a third party, and using this as a framework to plot optimum courses of direction. Taking a few steps back like this helps develop clearer thinking.
This is a big subject in itself and deserves more than a summary, so I’ll aim to write about it separately in the future.
If you’d like a deep-dive sooner, you can check out the Harvard Business Review book “Self-Awareness”—which teaches knowing your strengths, shortcomings, and potential.
When I first became a founder I basically focussed all of my free time on building my company exclusively.
I slept a few hours per night, skipped meeting up with friends and family, ate badly, did virtually no exercise, and allocated little time for relaxation.
Why? I thought working every minute possible was needed to get the business off the ground and be successful.
In reality, it doesn’t work.
This approach suffers from the law of diminishing returns—you gradually become less and less productive. Energy levels veer off. Decision quality reduces. Solutions don’t come as easily. Belief in oneself can falter.
Your mind needs all of those things I originally skipped to be healthy and therefore operate optimally. Fortunately, I realised my mistake early on and have made efforts ever since to continually optimize my wellbeing. It’s never ‘done’.
Look after your mind and your mind will look after your business.
Here’s a quick recap:
Drive & motivation. Focus on your intrinsic motivations.
Remember the big picture. Zoom out regularly and assess your long-term journey.
Separate your product from you. Keep your personal identity separate from your product.
You are on your own journey. Benchmark against yourself, not others.
Connect. Talk to other founders regularly, build your network.
Self-awareness. Develop your cognitive muscle to make better decisions and identify obstacles to success.
Wellbeing. Look after your body and mind.
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