What Does It Take to Build a Low-Stress Startup?

April 21, 2021

I want to build another company. A company that’s small on headcount, big on impact, and big on profit. A bootstrapped and lean business.

I have a good idea. I’ve fleshed out the business plan. Launched a landing page.

Yet one thing is holding me back: I don’t want to get sucked back into the rat race.

At first, I told myself I couldn’t build another media company without falling into a fast-paced lifestyle. Content startups have an inherent feed-the-beast mentality because of the constant need to publish. And while my Type A personality can be an asset for building a business, it also makes it hard for me to slow down, especially when most of the startup leaders around me move quickly.

But then I realized this isn’t an all-or-nothing choice. My options aren’t to run a stressful media company or no media company at all. Sure, many startups are frantic and stressful. But who’s to say my company has to be like that?

We don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done, this Startup Parent mug reminds me. We can do better.

Holding a Startup Parent mug

Yes, I look tired. I’ve been parenting in a pandemic for a year.

Optimizing for low stress

When I think about what’s most important to me in the next phase of my career, here’s what’s at the top of my list:

Keeping stress low.

It’s impossible to avoid stress entirely; I’ll have to deal with some level of stress to build something meaningful. But as much as possible, I’d like to keep the stress factor low.

Stress looks different to everyone, so I pushed myself to identify what exactly I want to aim for (and prevent) as I design my business. What does stress look like for me? What stress do I most want to avoid, and what does my ideal low-stress environment look like? 

And even more specifically, for the startup idea I’m vetting now, what are the potential stressors and how could I build a framework that mitigates them?

For me, most stress originates from:

  • Working with people who aren’t kind, respectful and reliable
  • Bumping up against deadlines when family responsibilities limit my focused work time more than I expect (this has been particularly challenging during the pandemic)

This tells me I need to set up an environment that prioritizes working with good people and where my personal time-sensitive deliverables are limited.

Working with good people has an obvious solution, but I want to flesh out this second idea around time and balancing family time with work. Here are my two big desires when it comes to how I spend my time at work. 

⌚ Flexibility

I have realized over my last 5+ years as a mother that what stresses me out most is when my kids need my attention or caregiving, but work and deadlines are gnawing at me. This has been especially true during the pandemic, as we lack elasticity in childcare — I can’t just call a babysitter for a few extra hours of help.

Do I enjoy spending time with my family? Of course! But it’s difficult to enjoy time with my family when I feel like I’m dropping the ball on something else.

There will be times when my family needs me, and I want to give my attention to them instead of to work. There will be days when I’m exhausted because someone kept me up all night and I simply can’t do my best work.

Before I became a parent, I envisioned this clash happening once in a great while. Now I know it’s common, even while sharing the load with my husband. 

So I want to build a business that offers the flexibility for me to step away as needed, without feeling like I’m letting anyone down or thwarting the company’s chances of success.

This might sound ridiculous. You might be thinking, a founder can’t just walk away or take a day off whenever they want! 

But with intentional design, I can.

⌚ Work 30-35 hours/week

I don’t want to work 80 hours/week. I don’t want to work 60 hours/week. I don’t even see myself working 40 hours/week. In a life where I’m balancing parenting, work and taking care of myself, 30-35 hours feels manageable.

That might sound like a light workweek. But time spent does not equal results achieved. Likewise, contrary to what society tends to suggest, working more does not mean more success. Working smart and spending each hour well is more important than putting in long hours.

Even if I look out past the pandemic to a world where 40 hours a week of childcare is possible, in reality I will use some of that child-free time to exercise, shower, eat, pay bills, schedule doctor’s appointments, order groceries, and drive to and from kid drop-offs. With 40 hours of childcare, I will likely have around 32 hours to work.

And so from the beginning, I will structure this company so it can grow within that time constraint. I have done this before, and I can do it again.

Working fewer hours requires staying focused and prioritizing. Rather than doing all the things, it means deciding what truly matters and focusing on that. It means delegating and systemizing and saying no.

By now you’re probably thinking, wow, Lexi has a lot of demands and expectations for how she spends her time. And you’re right. The point of this exercise is to clarify my desires and set high expectations, because I will build a company around those expectations. I don’t want to build a company around the status quo, because that’s not what I want my life to look like.

When this feels intimidating, I remind myself how my husband and I have optimized our life for what matters to us. The status quo, at least for the professional circles we run in, is to live in or near a city and its amenities, and drive to experience nature on our days off. We flipped this script, moving our family to a mountain town so our default would be trail days, knowing we could drive to city amenities when we need them.

It’s easier to do things the way we see others doing them. But it’s possible to do things differently — and it’s often more rewarding, too.

Building a company that’s flexible and low stress

So how do I achieve flexibility and low stress with a shorter-than-average workweek?

First, here’s a quick rundown of the company I’m considering, since this is the lens through which I’m thinking about my requirements.

It’s They Got Acquired:

Screenshot of They Got Acquired

I envision this as a media/content company that covers acquisitions of online businesses in the 6-, 7- and 8-figure range. This is a huge hole in the market, as most publications that cover this space tell us about $100M+ deals that are VC-backed. For most entrepreneurs, a 6- or 7-figure deal is more attainable — and probably more enjoyable to work toward, too.

I have played in this space, so I’ve seen firsthand the need for helpful resources. At the same time, an increasing number of acquisitions are happening. The industry is hot, so there’s lots of opportunity.

I’m still exploring this idea; I’m not committed yet. The landing page is my way of experimenting, of taking baby steps and collecting feedback, to see whether I want to spend the next few years building this business.

And that’s why I’m asking myself: Can I build this company without falling into the rat-race, feed-the-beast, can’t-escape-my-laptop mentality?

Here’s how I would do it.

1. Hire a small-and-mighty team

To build something meaningful, I’ll need the help of others. Yet I’m not interested in growing a huge team; I’d prefer to keep the team intentionally small.

I’ll need to make several hires to execute the reporting aspects of the business in particular. I expect this to be challenging for two reasons:

  • I need writers and editors who are familiar with this space: experts in M&A. (If this is you, please get in touch.)
  • Creating content is expensive. Hiring good reporters and editors costs money. I’d need to invest likely tens of thousands of dollars in the first six months to pay for content creation until the site can cover its own costs.

While these challenges are clear, I feel confident in my ability to meet them. I’m good at putting the pieces in place, both people and systems; I’m an “Arranger,” in StrengthsFinder terms. This is what I enjoy.

2. Minimize time-sensitive content

Because of my background in journalism and breaking news, I see value in offering information on events that just happened. 

But here’s what I’ve learned over the last decade about covering news when that’s not a content company’s bread and butter: It’s usually not worth it. 

Covering news is expensive, rarely brings a high ROI, and can be stressful to boot. Plus, evergreen content is far better for growing traffic via search, and SEO is one of my strengths. 

Because of these learnings, I want to focus on evergreen content, partly because it gives us more leeway on timing (we don’t have to drop everything else when news breaks) and partly because evergreen content is better for SEO. I’ll lean into search as an acquisition strategy because it’s what I’m good at.

We may offer some news in a low-effort way that’s valuable to our readers, for example, by linking to news from other trusted sources. But I want to avoid the temptation to build our content strategy around news coverage.

3. Build systems

I’ve always enjoyed building systems for efficiency; I find it incredibly satisfying, as it tends to lower stress in a meaningful way. I want to push myself to do this even better with my next company, including integrating more automation into my processes.

I’ve been inspired recently by Jenny Blake’s podcast interview with Cal Newport about his book, A World Without Email

How could I design a system that almost entirely eliminates reliance on email for me and my team? Team communications are the easy part, as we’d build our workflow in a project management tool. But what about emails from readers and advertisers?

My biggest takeaway from this podcast was that I can do more to prevent emails from coming in, rather than focusing on systems that triage emails after they arrive.

4. Focus on simplicity

I’m more likely to succeed if I keep things simple, pouring gasoline on one or two things instead of on all the things. 

That’s why I want to keep both the content deliverables and monetization strategy for this new media property as simple as possible.

I have lots of ideas for monetizing, yet I will focus on just two at the start. I have lots of ideas for audience growth, yet I will force myself to focus on one or two strategies that I expect to bring the highest ROI.

I have always loved the idea of the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle. It says 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of efforts. This is a permission slip to let go of things that are working a little to focus on things that are highly effective.

I have leaned more heavily into this strategy since becoming a parent, because I had to. I no longer have the time or energy to do all the things; I have to focus on the few that move the needle most.

A few years ago I saw this as a weakness, yet now I see it as a strength. It has made me better at building, because I’m not afraid to let small bad things happen so I can get the big things done. 

Who else is building a low-stress company?

I’m not the first person to want to build a company this way, and yet when I looked for resources and inspiration, I didn’t find much. Hustle culture is all-encompassing.

One audiobook that made it into my collection is It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp. They call themselves a “calm company.” The book is more of a manifesto than an operating manual, but it’s a good reminder that this approach is possible.

What other resources should I check out on building a low-stress startup?

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    7 Replies to “What Does It Take to Build a Low-Stress Startup?”

    • Gina Horkey says:

      Great stuff Lexi – I find myself in a very similar mindset and situation with Hazel’s recent arrival. I’m thinking 20-25 hours a week is more my speed, however.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        I’m impressed you’re even reading newsletters =) 20 hours/week with a newborn is a lot! Let’s reconnect in a few months; I’d love to hear how you’re doing.

    • Bev Jones says:

      I love your model, Lexi. When I first left the corporate world to create a low-stress career, I made 2 big mistakes.
      1) I thought that reducing stress meant working less intensely, and I held myself back when I should have been diving in. That was wrong. A better approach is carefully scheduled and protected blocks of intense focus.
      2) I thought that I had to do it alone to control the stress level, but your approach is better. Reduced stress can be the result of trusting collaboration with the right people.
      I continue to watch your innovative career path with respect and fondness, Bev

    • Shoshanna says:

      Very interesting to me as well. During this pandemic I lost my always fit and healthy husband to cancer at the age of 47, leaving me behind as a fulltime single parent to 3 children, trying to carve out a copywriting business for myself that revolves around MY time and my particular talents. Thanks for the inspiration. I will need to reach out to people that are great in tech or design.

    • Katie Ren says:

      Hey Alexis, could you write about the economics of how you built The Write Life? How you hired writers, how much you paid, when you hired a full time employee, when’s a good point to hire your first full-time employee, what position to hire first in a media company?

      Would love to learn more about how you went about it. I think the most common type of information out there is the solo blogger with minimal expenses. Am really interested in how things worked at The Write Life, maybe even The Penny Hoarder, too? 🙂

      Thanks, just a suggestion for post that I would loooove reading!

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