Resilience - how to move from Survive to Thrive in the Startup World

How about we end the struggle of founders creating and building startups?

What if we adopt a mission to move from surviving to thriving? No matter what happens to the organisation!

Interested? Read on…

Yes, startups are a battle against many odds. Many fail. I know, it’s akin to walking across a desert with an unreliable compass. But what if there was a way to thrive, despite everything?

What would thriving look like? And how can we learn to access that power?

This is what I want to explore in this article and at the end of the piece, I will provide you with a strategy to achieve it. If you are short on time, jump to the end, if you want to understand, then carry on…

Let’s do this differently

To end our startup struggle, let’s change our self-talk.

Yes, I know that startups have minimal resources, customers and finance - but that doesn’t me that you or I - the founder / the entrepreneur needs to struggle too.

Yes, it is also true that some startup gurus sell the idea of an entrepreneurial journey as a heroic struggle against enemy forces– it isn’t!

At least, it doesn’t have to be! It’s your choice!

This is really about resilience

Instead, let’s talk about building resilience.

In 2010 I engaged Manchester Business School in a piece of research to identify the traits of a successful startup team. Out of 6 key factors we identified - resilience, stood out.

Yes, I expected startup founders to need attributes like deep knowledge of business sector, technical skills, sales ability, charm etc…. but, resilience? That was the factor that surprised me.

Now, if someone had said that ‘positive mindset’ was a necessary founder’s trait, I might have gently nodded and agreed and moved on…


After all, what is resilience?

Resilience is typically described as;

“the ability to successfully cope with a crisis and to return to pre-crisis status quickly”
(Source: Wikipedia)

Ah! So resilience is the positivity and character that we show in the face of a crisis to pull ourselves out of, and our teams through, any crisis.

Resilience is not about being ‘cheerful’ or ‘encouraging’ or ‘looking at the positive side of things’.

No, resilience is your ability to climb out of the hole made by a crisis (and quite probably you made the hole).

It is the ability to put down the shovel and start climbing…

…and when you reach the top of your particular hole (or crisis), you stand up, dust yourself down and get going in a new direction.

Yes, you are allowed once last look down that hole, but don’t dwell on it too long - get moving!

Why is Startup and Founder Struggle so Common?

There is something uniquely public about startup success and failure. Or at least if *feels* public to us founders. (And how it feels is all that matters). And is why I believe Startup Struggle appears common.

That sense of public failure and exposure can impact on our identity - on who we think we are or what we believe we are good at or even why personally felt reason for being here on this planet. And yes, we struggle with that pressure.

This desire for impact and a sense that startups facilitate us making a difference - this adrenaline rush - is also what makes startups so addictive. And we can struggle with this too - both loving and hating it at the same time!

Creating a startup gives us the sense of being pushed to the very edge of our being - like climbing a great mountain and doing it in front of all the people that wish us to succeed and those that wish to see us fail too.

Perhaps we enjoy the sensation of being a superman or superwoman - bending the world to our will (and for the good of all, of course).

The downside, however, is that the higher we rise, the greater the risk of a sharp fall. And that fear can give rise to a deeper struggle within our own minds.

So what advice can we give ourselves?

…focus on developing our resilience through these three key elements:

1. Accept the Crisis

Often, when we are in the midst of a crisis - typically a failing #startup, we founders are the last to realise!

That’s not surprising because we are the ‘leader’ which means we are the one who is most encouraging to others, most confident and we stood up in front of our teams and investors saying ‘I can make this work’.

In this situation we need to publicly declare - ’okay, it didn’t work’ - along with ‘and, despite that, you can still trust me’.

The ability to accept the crisis and convince others to trust you to pivot and move on is key to thriving (and also very hard to do - in other words, it take practice).

2. When you don’t Win, Learn!

Secondly, although it takes effort to resist the natural human instinct to blame someone or something else, we must overcome this if we are to thrive.

That’s because we need to learn something from each disappointment, from each set back.

And you can’t yell and listen at the same time!

Blaming or pointing the finger is like yelling; learning requires an open mind, especially in the midst of a crisis.

To thrive in a crisis, change how you think about things that go wrong - ask ‘if we don’t win, what can we learn’?

3. Get going again

Thirdly, although you’ll hurt and ache in a way no one else can describe (unless you’ve been there and done that), you have to get going again.

Here, the key is to return to the original reason for starting your startup - your purpose and the pain that other people endure, that you motivated your startup in the first place.

May be this attempt to solve that customer pain failed, but it doesn’t mean that the problem or issue has gone away and, it should make you more determined to beat it.

Just like Edmund Hilary…

You’re not Getting Bigger but I’m Still Growing

Edmund Hillary and Tenzin Norgay were the first people to successful climb to the peak of Mount Everest. But first Hillary failed. He only succeeded on his fourth summit attempt.

Famously, Edmund Hillary, after an earlier failed attempt to reach the summit of Everest was seen shaking his fist at a photograph of the mountain in the Royal Geographical Society in London, saying
“…you’re not getting bigger, but I’m still growing…”

And that is the right response! He was still growing as a leader and as a mountaineer. He had just learnt a bunch of new ways that didn’t help him achieve his goal but his learning mindset meant he was getting closer each time.

Similarly whatever you face, the challenge doesn’t go away and isn’t getting bigger, but you are - if you learn from each failed challenge!

You are learning and growing as a leader who can demonstrate greater and greater resilience.

That’s why your task is to make a series of attempts to solve the challenge that your startup has identified and to ensure that you are better equipped and wiser for each of your next ascents.

This lies at the heart of #startup resilience.

“The startup may fail but founders never fail when they pick themselves up, learn their lessons and go again, learn again, go again…”
Neil Lewis

Failure Builds Resilience

Psychologist Tim Hill says

“…you can’t build resilience in a life that only contains success.”

Wow! Protecting ourselves from projects that fail actually reduces our resilience.

We have to embrace the risk of failure and know that each time a project fails, we get stronger.

Abraham Lincoln was a serial failure, he failed to get elected eight times, failed twice in business and suffered a nervous breakdown - before he became president of the United States and provided immense leadership and personal steel that led his country through a time of fractious politics and civil war and personal threat that ended with his assassination.

And he left us with immense wisdom, including

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
Abraham Lincoln

It’s not about Surviving- it’s about Thriving!

You know things around your startup will break, products will fail, projects will fail.

How you respond to those events determines if you survive or are beaten by the project. And clearly, we want you to choose survive, don’t we?

Actually, no, we don’t.

The lesson here is that we are not seeking to just survive - but to thrive! You thrive when you grow stronger. Surviving is just escaping a disaster, more or less intact.

Having the courage to ‘go again’ is the best way to thrive, but first, make sure you have learnt your lessons.

“Failure is success in progress.”
Albert Einstein

Resilience for Startup Leaders is Different

There is some great advice around building resilience which can help in many situations but not with Startups

For instance, standard recommended ways to develop resilience or emotional well being are things like; get more sleep, drink less caffeine, spend more times with friends and family building your social life, do more exercise…

…yes, great advice, but have you ever been a startup entrepreneur?

Have you ever tried to launch a business outside of a job - doing 60 hours at work and 40+ on the side AND sought to keep an active social life?

Yes, definitely schedule in exercise and time with your friends and family, but also realise that sometimes that’s not possible. In this case, think of you year more as a series of marathons followed by down time.

In the downtime you rebuild your strength by focusing on healthy living, your relationships, your social life and exercise. But when you are focused, get focused.

The Struggle Not to Give In

What advice do we offer to ourselves when we struggling to gain traction and our plans don’t work out?

Or when no customers accept our project? When investors turn us down? When people say ‘yes’ but they walk away at the last minute. When you just want your first customer but they won’t commit. What then?

Do you just stop? Give in? Retreat? Of course not. Every startup begins with faith - which is belief in those things not yet seen - and it has to fly in the face of good or sensible advice.

To have the confidence to create this startup we need to be so convinced of its success that we squeeze out all possibility of failure.

So, we can’t prepare for failure and that’s why when it comes, it hits us founders particularly hard!

So how do we, founders, thrive?

How to Thrive as a Founder even as your Startup Crashes

So here’s what I’m seeing with my leaders - if we change how we frame the question of our success, we can change our resilience…. here’s how - we change our self-talk as follows:
Instead of saying:

“I believe with my whole heart and all that I am that this project will succeed just as I planned it!”

…we say:

“This problem needs to be solved and I’m going to play my part. We begin like this, we will fail often and each time that happens, we will get up, learn our mistakes and then go again.”

The first high risk approach is a blanket succeed or fail. It is strong, but fragile and if it breaks, it breaks catastrophically.
The second is an iterative and exploratory approach based on learning and need. The crucial part in the second statement is

‘…we will get up and go again.”

This approach is flexible, authentic and adaptable - whilst also totally committed. You might call it anti-fragile.
There lies the essence of #founder resilience - total focus and determination with an ability to switch, change recognise failure, learn form it and yet, get up and go again…

Talk About Journeys…

Telling people your startup is a journey - that it will be fun and that unexpected stuff will happen but there will be a good outcome- is key to helping those people around you support your startup.

Tell investors and people close to you this:

“…this is a mission, it could succeed massively, but it can also end in failure - but whatever happens, I’ll be 100% committed to it throughout and we will seek to pivot and shift and learn and do whatever it takes to succeed. That much I can promise you.”

But then say,

“…after that, the ultimate success is out of my hands. You just need to decide if we’re your best chance!”

Because that’s the truth, right?

It’s Easier when you Focus on What you Love!

Founders set out on risky path because we have a vision of making a difference or working on something that we love or because we are inspired by someone or something.

From that sense of purpose and mission - (you do have a purpose and mission, don’t you???) - then you will be working on something deeply connected to you - and guess what, it doesn’t feel like work!

“The more I love doing something, the less it feels like work”
Richard Bach

However, we are often drawn away from what matters to us to ‘just make money’ and that usually ends in disaster (still, it is a disaster you can recover from – see other suggestions in this article!).

Lastly; Stay Cool - Get Interested!

Resilience advice often refers to the concept of ‘staying cool’.

Great! If only that were easy in the midst of battle!

When everything is on the line; you’re pushed to the limit and a crisis hits - phawbam!

Phawbam - and you lose it, right? You let off steam! You blow your top?

Yep, most of us do. In some way or some form.

So, in that moment where we feel our heads about to explode and the emotion rise up from the deep well in our gut; take Jim Rohn’s advice and that is:

“…get interested - not frustrated!”
Jim Rohn

Jim tells us to insert the following statement at the front of every mental or verbal response to a crisis

“That’s interesting….”

And wow, is it powerful!

Simply framing your response with this two word phrase changes both how you and the people around you see the issue.

Instead of “…how could you let that happen, oh no, I just don’t believe it…what on earth is going on…” switch to
“…that’s interesting…”

As in…

“That’s interesting, how did we ended up here?”


“That’s interesting, that isn’t how we planned things, what can we learn and what can we do?”


“Oh, that’s interesting - what does that tell us?”

…and so on!

What happens when we get interested?

When we frame our response with the ‘that’s interesting statement…’ then our underlying question is - what can we learn from this?
See, following Jim Rohn’s advice places learning right at the heart of any crisis. It’s brilliant advice. And it is so simple, even I can remember it.

Summary - Failing Fearlessly

We’ve learnt that to develop resilience we need to fail - more often!

That developing resilience isn’t about surviving, but thriving - and that happens when we constantly learn and grow as a leader whilst doing work we love.

Hence, my final suggestion to you is this:

Seek to make a huge change, engage the risk of failure - learn. Absorb your learning. Then, go again…

And, stay interested all the time.

Good luck!

Note: check out The American Psychological Association’s website for some excellent general advice and a great place to get extra help.

Note: it’s good to check out great quotes about failure and resilience. It makes you realise all the most amazing people failed first….

About me: I’m Neil Lewis, an European entrepreneur working to empower other entrepreneurs. My mission is to end the startup struggle and instead, grow with grace. If you share those values or want to learn more from me, feel free to reach out to me or contact us here.