The Emotional Journey of a Bootstrapped Founder: Negative Self-Talk

There was this problem I just could not solve. No matter how much I tried, I just could not get a specific integration working so that our customers could use our product with one particular provider.

It was infuriating. At some point, I had a glimmer of hope, only to be crushed a few days later when the provider changed their system — another setback.

I started telling myself that I was not skilled enough to solve this technical puzzle. I began to think that I didn’t know what I was doing.

This kind of negative self-talk is dangerous. 

It’s also untrue. 

Just a few weeks later, while brushing my teeth, I had an intriguing idea. I rushed to the computer, build a quick prototype, and within minutes, I had found my solution. And the doubts that kept me from working on the problem evaporated.

You can overcome negative self-talk. I will share the practices I have developed to foster gratitude and optimism when facing scary problems and those days when all seems lost, and nothing is working for you.

Self-talk originates from your inner stream of consciousness. Your thoughts cascade into other thoughts, and your inner voice speaks, focussing on one thing and one thing alone: yourself. Your mind is the ultimate echo-chamber, as every thought is produced and amplified within yourself. No outside perspective is possible, and even projections of others are coming from your deep subconscious. To rob self-talk of its negative powers, you need to manifest “the other” in your mind consciously. Guide the self to reframe its underlying assumptions into something that has a firm basis in the intersubjective reality that exists between all of us.

All of this boils down to one thing: stop focussing on yourself. Getting away from negative self-talk starts with refocussing on who is important for your business: not you, but your customers. To get there, I recommend visualizing a few of your customers in your mind and empathizing with their expectations, aspirations, and goals.

Customer and Other People: How Do They Work?

Just like yourself, your customers are driven by their needs and values. Depending on the niche of your business, the first-order needs and goals of your customers might be very similar. But once you look into the second-order reasons for why people do what they do, you will find that they could not be more different. 

At FeedbackPanda, we offered a report templating and student management tool to English-as-a-Second-Language teachers who taught Chinese children online. On the surface, they all had the same problems and were trying to reach the same goals. That made focussing the product quite simple. But beyond that, the needs and desires of our customers could not have been more different. Some were teaching English as a second job to make ends meet, single mothers trying to put food on the table. Some were nomads, traveling around the world, and working online from their destinations to pay for their trips. Others were brick-and-mortar school teachers who have trouble finding a job and were forced to teach through other means.

The point is: on some level, the needs and values of your customers will be different from yours. What keeps you up at night might not bother them in the slightest, and they might be infuriated over things that you have no trouble to ignore.

They have a job to do. And your job is to make their job easier.

Your job is not to be perfect, but just to be good enough at what you do to impact the lives of your customers positively. We’re all flawed, and we don’t expect anyone to be perfect. What we do expect is empathy and being considerate.

Look at your problems through the eyes of your customers. What looks so scary to you will mean much less to them. They have their own issues, their own insecurities and fears. 

To you, a few minutes of downtime might mean you have failed in life. To your customers, it might be an opportunity to get a coffee and take a breath of fresh air at an open window. It’s a matter of perspective, and your internal observations only show one side. Try to empathize with your customers to see how differently they might look at your problems.

Your customers have wildly varying overarching goals in their lives. They want to run a business, they want to get their job done, they want to live a quiet life of peace and relaxation. They will take all the help they can get. They will understand if things don’t go the way you planned, and they will be encouraging when you face obstacles. We all face obstacles. And we all want to overcome them.

First Reframing Opportunity: They’re Already Trusting You

They are your customers. You already provide value to them. 

They are already thankful for how you make their lives better. They trusted you with their money and attention, and they received a service that helps them solve the problems of their lives. 

Here is at least a room full of people that had a choice, and they chose you. They could have chosen another way of solving their issues, went with a competitor, or not solved their problem at all. And all these people made the conscious choice that you are the best person in the world to solve this problem for them.

Implant this thought deep in your mind. The next time your inner self starts barraging your with negative thoughts, step into this room of cheerful people who chose you once and continue to choose you every day.

Second Reframing Opportunity: They’re Already Doing Better than Ever Before

And while you’re at it, imagine that they took a picture of the condition their lives were in before they found you. They were in metaphorical rags; their lives were chaotic, full of wasted time and anger at problems not being solved.

Imagine every single one of your customers standing in that room, holding up that picture. Look at them now: they are doing much better, they are dressed in clean and professional clothing, happy about the positive impact you made on their lives. You can barely see the resemblance between their current selves and their old selves in the before pictures.

Too visual for you?

Suppose something happens that is a complication. Something breaks. Something that shouldn’t break. You start feeling like a failure. But there is another way. Instead of thinking, “This will make things harder, we will lose customers,” think, “We’re already shifting the baseline to make things easier for them. It’s another challenge we will eventually overcome.” Every time you fix such a problem, your whole business becomes better. Everyone benefits from a more resilient, more stable system. A complication is a chance for radical improvement.

Doing this is hard. Loss aversion is real, and your brain plays will default to the most apocalyptic scenarios. To trick your brain away from those scenarios, focus on the relative instead of focussing on the negative. Compared to you not existing, are we making things better overall? Compared to what they had before, is waiting for an hour for the downtime to be over bearable? The likely answer to most of these questions is “yes.”

Third Reframing Opportunity: Everyone Struggles and They All Come Out Better

The truth is that some things are challenging, either technically or logistically. Some problems don’t have an easy solution.

Your mind will trick you into believing that others think it’s easy.

It will make you think others have all of these things figured out.

But it turns out that every developer and ever founder struggles. People who have worked in tech for decades regularly have to search for the most basic things. Developers who have thousands of hours of experience still need days to find a bug in their code that a novice would spot within seconds. Luckily, many senior developers don’t mind sharing their mistakes publicly.

Most people only think of things as easy because they have solved them before. It’s a form of Hindsight Bias, and we’re terrible at detecting it in our thinking. The truth is that every piece of knowledge is new and surprising to every single one of us at one point in time.

The term “easy” should be banned from the IT industry. It masks that all developers have a catastrophic story of how they learned one thing or another. 

I remember that on the second day of my trial period with a Silicon Valley VC-backed startup. Because I didn’t know any better, I deleted the database that all developers would use to test their latest features. A few devs had painstakingly created data sets for their work-in-progress code, and I blew it up with one thoughtless function invocation. Was I fired? Quite the opposite. I was told what I had just done and how to avoid it in the future, I apologized to my fellow developers, and I was hired ten days later. Since then, I am cautious whenever I manipulate a database in any way. 

The other term I would like to see losing its stigma is “hacky.” Any first iteration of a solution will feel like a hack. Why do we torture ourselves thinking that the only valid way of solving a problem is some perfect idealized state? Why do we always know that our code is not perfect yet, but we never come to a point where it is? 

We develop a severe case of Imposter Syndrome when it comes to working on new things. It feels like we should not be the ones doing this. An expert should solve it. Someone who, unlike ourselves, knows what they’re doing.

But that is not how progress is made. You don’t move forward by waiting for someone else to do it for you. If you want to help your customers, you will need to be the one to learn how to solve their problems.

Talk to your customers and listen to how grateful they are. They don’t think you need to be a flawless expert that never does any wrong. They see you for who you truly are: a real person, with real, tangible accomplishments. You are making a factual, measurable impact on their lives. You are the expert.

For this to work, you need to learn to take compliments. Modesty and decency are core tenants of most social fabrics, so we tend to be humble and dismissive of people’s genuine praise. But your conscious mind needs to hear it so that your subconscious can internalize it.

With this kind of external positivity, you can do for yourself what you should be doing for your customers anyway: do some value-nurturing. Create a “brag folder” with screenshots of people saying positive and thankful things. Share them in the company chat tool, in a channel dedicated to celebrating wins. Create a gratitude list with the names of people who you are grateful for, and the ones who were thankful for you and your work.

Celebrate your successes in public. There are hundreds of thousands out there who are on the same journey, and they will be able to empathize with your struggles and hardships deeply. Many founders share their negative experiences in search of support and guidance. Don’t be afraid to share the good things as well. On Indie Hackers, create a product page and share the good and the bad as milestones.

Value-nurturing yourself will make the little setbacks less scary. Praise for your work will allow your mind to understand that you have overcome similar problems before, always emerging with a better product, new learnings, and another notch on the belt of “problems you thought you might never solve but eventually did.”

Negative self-talk usually surfaces when you run into issues. Most of the time, you will find a solution quickly; other times, it might take you a while to figure it out. And then there will be times when you will direct your attention to other things as you’re running into a dead end. 

Little setbacks are fine. They are no reason to think any less of yourself.

You have already climbed a colossal mountain and raised the baseline for many of your customers by merely existing. The value provided by your solution is higher than any alternative; that’s why they are your customers. 

Your product is the one solution your customers chose out of many. And all of those solutions have flaws and bugs.

It’s okay not to get everything right. You’re already doing so much good. 

You are the reason that your customers are living better lives. Own it.