How to survive the startup 'trough of sorrow'

Customisable business insurance
28 September 2018
3 minute read

As Elon Musk’s recent emotional interview with The New York Times shows, being an entrepreneur is a million miles away from the glamorous lifestyle that many people imagine.

As Musk recounted in that interview, the last year running Tesla has been “excruciating,” and he’s previously described starting a business as “like eating glass and staring into the abyss.”

That isn’t something many of us would want to try in a hurry!

In his public frankness, Musk has shone a light on "the trough of sorrow", a term coined by Paul Graham of Y Combinator to describe the period of unease and disillusionment faced by most business owners at one time or another.

Getting a startup off the ground requires a massive amount of drive, motivation and energy, but the truth is, once the initial excitement of developing your idea and securing funding have worn off, it can be overwhelming, exhausting and bloody hard work. It’s only natural that sometimes your drive and motivation can feel like they’re running out.

Whether sparked by a business set-back, pure exhaustion or being completely overwhelmed, ‘troughs of sorrow’ are all part of the startup journey, and you need to know how to survive them.

As the saying goes: "you can’t pour from an empty cup," so you need to find ways to ensure your cup of motivation doesn’t run completely dry.

Working 24/7 and sacrificing your physical and emotional well-being is not a badge of honour, it’s a pathway to self-destruction.

Below are a few tips on how to stay sane when the going gets really tough:

Getting prepared for when the startup hustle becomes harmful

1. Build a network and use it

Running your own business is lonely. You will have highs. You will have lows. Plan for the lows by creating your support network early on, and don’t be afraid to use it.

Know your cheerleaders

Everyone needs a group of people to support them and build them up, from family, to old friends, and ex-colleagues. Keep yours close so you have people to lean on when you need them.

Train your brain

Get a personal trainer for your mental health and take it seriously. Don’t underestimate the pressure you’re under and the importance of looking after yourself.

Sanctus provides coaching for startups and you can check out their blog on mental health in startups.


You have access to the world’s greatest entrepreneurs at your fingertips. Read their biographies to be inspired, but also to understand that the struggle is not unique to you. Our favourite is Arianna Huffington’s, Thrive.

2. Maintain healthy habits

Self-care and the art of looking after ourselves is one of the first things we let go of when times get tough.

Yet, it’s these small habits and routines that keep us on an even keel. Don’t let them slip. Make a ‘pledge’ and keep a list of what’s important to your wellbeing, then commit to this pledge, week after week, in the good times and the bad. Here are some ideas:

Get physical

A 20-minute HIIT session or some yoga at the end of the day. Know what makes you feel good and make the time. You will never regret it.

Get outdoors

A regular dose of oxygen and time spent in nature and away from a desk is a great way to gain perspective and loosen up your breathing.

Eat well

With just a little planning you can eat well every night. From services such as Hello Fresh and Gousto to easy access to healthy take-aways, there’s something for even the busiest days.

Schedule downtime

Make time for family and loved ones. Strong personal relationships and connections are the foundation to a healthy mind. Whether it’s getting home in time to read to your children before bedtime, or scheduling in dinner with friends - don’t let it slip!

Reward yourself

Do something that is ‘just for you’. A massage, a trip to the cinema, a few pints in the pub. This isn’t spoiling yourself, it’s maintenance.

3. Ask yourself, is it worth it?

Be kind to yourself

A startup business will often go sideways for a while before it takes off. It’s never smooth sailing.

Go back to the drawing board and remind yourself why you started the business in the first place. As long as you’re still committed, have faith and keep going.

As Ben Horowitz said: “The Struggle is where greatness comes from.”

For more advice on looking after your well-being when running a startup, check out our health and well-being hacks for entrepreneurs.

This content has been created for general information purposes and should not be taken as formal advice. Read our full disclaimer.

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