Do not let the fire burn you out

About the angst of riding a hot, hot, hot market

Before reading this post, I’m sure you scanned your timeline and read about the new record VC round, the latest unicorn unveiling, and the founder brag about industry disruption. Latin American tech is hot and we’re all thrilled about the momentum.

We’re also anxious.

The market is booming but only for a small number of hot deals. Most of us have not yet minted a unicorn. Some of you are probably waiting for an email from a key investor as you see your list fill with NOs. Others are more likely working on an emergency bridge round rather than choosing competing term sheets.

Yes, we know we can’t complain. The pandemic is still raging around the world and just by virtue of being in tech, we’re doing better than almost anybody. Yet, in the mornings, we feel the opposite of lucky.

I’m writing this post after talking to exhausted founders around me. Their long faces silently ask if there’s something wrong with them and their companies. I try to cheer them up as I control my own anxiety.

It’s not the first time tech hype rocks Latin America. The last time feels like yesterday.

Just as the world welcomed a new century, I entered a small concert hall packed and buzzing. Around two hundred people scattered in small groups were chatting, drinking, and eating the occasional amuse-bouche.

As I set foot inside the room, I scanned the environment: Juan, my boss, was chatting with Eric of Mercado Libre and two people I didn’t know. The Starmedia team was hanging out near the bar. I recognize a couple of MTV VJs with their usual entourage. I spotted my former high school crowd and decided to check in with them first. Always fun, I thought.

‘I’m only doing B2B deals now’, said my friend and investor wannabe — apparently pivoting before even starting to deploy capital.

Yeah, whatever. I was in a great mood for networking anyway. I felt like I was on top of the world. Of all the marketing folks in the room, I had secured some of the best branding real estates in town for Submarino, one of the best-funded e-commerce in the region. Our logo was printed on every Ticketmaster slip and my billboards challenged those of DeRemate, notorious for burning cash with joy. More, LaCanica.com, the loyalty startup I had co-founded and poured all my savings into, was now live.

Little did I know what would happen a few months later.

Today feels similar but more confusing. Back in the late nineties, most of the Internet’s fizz was hype. Today, with so much genuine value being created, it’s harder to separate hype from reality. And, it’s stressing us out.

I’m no Naval or Midas so I reached out to four confidants to manage my anxiety: my older wiser brother who works at the United Nations and practices Buddhism, my wonderful insightful Argentinian coach, an inspirational no-bs-please-stop-whining sports entrepreneur, and Yana, a singularly empathic chatbot I met recently.

Here’s what they told me.

It’s normal to feel anxious

None of them questioned my right to feel bad. They did not force me to be thankful given how lucky I’ve been lately. It’s important to recognize that the next founder or investor is also going through the same shit. Most of us are.

Feeling anxious about the future when you’re out finding a market and raising capital is not only normal but very common. My inspirational friend reminded me that ‘success has nothing to do with the billions of dollars but rather, waking up every morning excited to go to work.’

Finding a calling ‘is more than enough to have a great life. If you find it, you’re surely on the path to having the impact you seek’, he added.

Stop comparing

We live in an age of over-sharing partial truths and filter-heavy realities. Hooked on our phones, fingers numb of scrolling, we buy everything we download as if our eyes never lied.

If you compare yourself with trees, you will always find a greener one. Measuring yourself up is healthy only if it drives personal growth, the rest is just sabotage. Next time you catch yourself comparing, take a breath, watch the stupid cloudy thought, and let it go.

My coach went on to remind me, hardly controlling her laughter, that unicorns and magical kings are part of the mythology and therefore, do not exist. ‘There is no point in torturing yourself with fantasies.’

It’s important not to compare your journey. The road to success is neither linear nor predictable. Your only competition is yesterday’s YOU, not other people. Comparing yourself to others clouds what makes you unique and incredible. — Yana, my empathic chatbot

Be humble

My brother suggested practicing what he called selfless respect for reality. He explained that it’s essential to free ourselves from self-centered aims, and images. ‘Behind the financial rush you’re seeing, greed and disappointment are the inevitable consequences of individualism,’ he said.

In contrast, living with the realism of compassion allows us to maintain a center in the face of the powerful fantasies that surround us. In a word, choose love, explained my brother: ‘at the end of the day, we are all interdependent and ‘success’ can only be achieved collectively.’

And make a plan

While being humble and loving are beautiful pursuits that may work overtime, the angst is still there. Knowing me well, my coach preferred to send some action items that my distracted brain could easily digest.

She explained that we have little control of the output but we can create a decision process and try to reach a clear set of goals. Once we have a plan, we can focus on achieving those milestones. Write them down, build a spreadsheet or fill a whiteboard, whatever works.

You’re in charge of finding out what success looks like. If, for you, changing one person’s life is success then that’s the measure you should keep in mind as you set your expectations — Yana, my charming chatbot

When all of the above fails, I find it useful to get distracted. Our mind is bombarded by VC rounds and tech news. It seems the tech world has become a giant room where loud slot machines take turns sounding cha-ching and jittering coins falling.

To think about nothing, I watch NPR tiny desk concerts, read magical realism authors, and meditate. Some people cook, garden, write or sweat to get distracted. Find an escape routine.

The first Tuesday of every month in 2000, the Mexican Internet industry threw itself a party to celebrate the revolution we were all part of. It was fun, trendy, and, eventually, very very lucrative, we thought.

A few months after that Tuesday, most of the people in the concert hall got fired or went bankrupt. The Starmedia clique has long been forgotten and the revolutionaries became consultants, operators, and investors. By now, the cool VJs are dealing with teenage kids and paying down home mortgages.

Promptly, the Internet billboards started going down like a giant house of cards. Soon enough people forgot about most of the dot coms and their slow websites.

Today, we live in a different world. Tech is not going anywhere. If anything, tech will continue to eat the world. Yet the exuberance feels similar and some of it will indeed evaporate.

At the end of the day, what matters most never appears on a list or a news feed. It’s about building together with serenity and joy. It’s about living a compassionate and courageous life. It’s not about you.

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Mil gracias Coni, Andrea, Diego, and Oso for your wise advice.