From High-Fives to the Fetal Position: The Emotional Highs and Lows of a Startup

    by David Cohn
    January 15, 2013

    Circa is not my first tango with a startup. Even before Spot.Us, the startup I am perhaps still best known for, I have been part and parcel to various projects that were “starting up” even if their aim wasn’t to build a company (i.e., conference organizing or experiments that had sunset dates like Assignment Zero).


    People talk all the time about the skills journalists need in the world of media entrepreneurship. I’ve written some lessons and ideas in the past. What is often left out of the conversation: the mental traits journalists need in the world of media entrepreneurship.


    The Mental Aptitude for Immediate Ups and Downs

    In any startup there are very high highs and very low lows. Sometimes these emotions are experienced within hours of each other … There is no average day.

    These feelings of highs and lows aren’t just theoretical. They are felt at a very real and gut level. In some of those moments you want to jump up and high five random people on the street. In other moments you want to assume a fetal position.

    These emotional fluxes can be emotionally draining. Worse yet, they can lead to rash decision making. Journalists in a startup need to be able to separate themselves from the visceral emotions that are inherent in any startup. These emotions will be felt every day, and you cannot be a slave to your emotions — you have work to do. There is no “average day.” I never say “Just another Wednesday,” because no Wednesday is like any other day. Each day is a roller coaster.


    A Team Player

    Yes — this goes for pretty much any job at any company. You need to be a team player and an effective communicator. But considering the emotional fluxes mentioned above, this becomes even more important. Not only do you need the mental toughness to ride your own emotional highs and lows — you need to be able to help lead your team through it (and EVERYONE must be a leader — see below). They are feeling the same things and if anything is contagious — it’s panic. Even if you can keep your own sense of steady — you need to be able to communicate and project that to the team and take their temperature in what is a never-ending volatile situation.

    Haters Gonna Hate, But Criticism is Your Best Friend

    You are exposed. You should be ready for trolls. I am honored to have what I consider “career trolls.” They do not have well-meaning intentions. No matter what I am doing, they will find a reason to hate on it. I used to let it get to me. This one, for example, I found rather obnoxious — I couldn’t even get a funny fake Twitter account goddammit, it was mean-spirited! Bottom line — these folks are not helpful ever — and you have to be ready, willing and able to ignore them. Haters gonna hate.

    That said, not everyone who has criticism or even negative comments is a troll and to dismiss them as such is doing yourself a disservice. If you are working on a project, you have to be open enough to hear criticism and wise enough to recognize when it’s coming from a place that isn’t constructive.

    Everyone is a leader

    There are different kinds of leaders. Genghis Kahn would lead from the front, Napoleon from the back. Some lead by example and others by inspiration. I would not prescribe how one leads, but you must be ready to. Because a team (see above) is made up of individuals that have complementary expertises. One could argue the “art” of putting a team together is just trying to compensate for deficiencies. Everyone has their strength, and everyone must be able to lead when it comes to the territory of their strength in their own way.

    David Cohn has written for Wired, Seed, Columbia Journalism Review and The New York Times among other publications. While working toward his master’s degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Cohn worked with Jay Rosen as editor of the groundbreaking Newassignment.net in 2006, which focused on citizen journalism and ways news organizations could explore the social web. Cohn also worked with Jeff Jarvis from Buzzmachine.com to organize the first Networked Journalism Summits, which brought together the best practices of collaborative journalism three years in a row (2007-2009). Most recently he is the founding editor of Circa. He was the founder and director of Spot.Us, a nonprofit that is pioneering “community funded reporting.” In academics he has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s journalism school and was a fellow at the University of Missouri’s Journalism school at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. He has been a contributing editor at NewsTrust.net, a founding editor of Broowaha and an advisor to many new media projects from OffTheBus.net and Beatblogging.org to The Public Press. He is a frequent speaker on topics related to new media and beyond.

    This article originally appeared on David Cohn’s Digidave blog.

    Tagged: assignment zero circa highs and lows journalists media entrepreneurship spot.us startups teams

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