Mathias Meyer
Mathias Meyer

A friend recently approached me, asking how he could overcome a feeling of paralysis. He felt stuck figuring out what the next steps are in getting his product out and front of customers.

I can very much relate to that feeling, it’s been a continuous companion over the last 3+ years in building out Travis CI. While I didn’t have any good advice, I had a few stories of my own to share.

In 2012 I was working on our billing app. It didn’t feel that important, but when you think about it, it’s kind of an important piece of making money for a SaaS product.

I felt continuously stuck and afraid to finish it up, paralyzed by the fear that it would break and that it wouldn’t work for weird reasons. In some ways I felt like I over-engineered it, just to make sure it’s resilient enough to all the weird stuff that happens with payment systems.

Finishing it up and bringing it to a state where I could confidently say “Let’s do this!” took me the better of two months. While we weren’t sure if the product is stable enough (it wasn’t) to justify charging for it, we tried to do it anyway, and we went into a private beta for months. We made it a paid one, a generally unheard-of concept in a world where beta usually means free, or where services remain in perpetual beta state.

A similar thing happened when we decided on and published our pricing, which was deliberately higher than that of our competition, and there were public complaints about it. We were still confident, but that kind of negative feedback hampered us. We got over that hill in the end, and decided on just pushing through with the pricing and see where it leads us.

The next time this happened was when we were faced with the question of how long we want our private beta to continue. We were in private beta for almost a year, which is ridiculous in hindsight. There were so many things we were worried about, mostly regarding capacity and not being able to support the onslaught of customers, it kept us from making the call. In the end, getting our of private beta and opening up the product to everyone gave us a huge spurt in new customers, and from thereon out we saw organic and steady growth.

When you step into unknown territory, the paralysis is a natural thing to happen. When you don’t know what’s going to happen, the simplest thing for us is to stay away from taking the plunge. I know this feeling very well, and I’m finding myself faced with it again right now. It gets even harder when it stops just being you, and when other people’s income and supporting their families is on the line.

What I found to be useful in those situations is to think about what it is that I’m really afraid of, what’s the worst that could happen in the situation I feel so paralyzed by.

Is the worst part that no one’s going to give us money? Is the worst part that the billing system might fail and people can’t give us money? Is the worst that we’ll have some unhappy customers, or an unhappy team?

Thinking about that nudges yourself to think about your fear and your paralysis, and to think about what you’re really afraid of rather than just feeling stuck by the fear itself.

The fear of failure and the accompanying paralysis seeps through all aspects of your business. When it’s not about the billing system, it’s about where to go with the product, figuring out what to do next. The product will never be finished, it will never be good enough for you, in particular for you who’ve invested so much into it. This alone can lead you to a perpetual state of not being able to move when move is the very thing you have to do.

Channeled right, this can be a powerful driver and motivation. But it can also be a constant feeling of not achieving everything you want to achieve. For this situation, the simplest thing you can ask yourself is: what’s the simplest thing I can add and ship for this to be (more) useful and valuable to someone? It’s not a definition of finished, but it’s a definition of good enough.

If you can find a few folks to give you money for that, then you’re on a great path, and it’s the most powerful motivator from hereon out. Can you get 10 customers to give you money? Can you get 100? 1000?

That’s the moment where you’ll end up feeling silly about your paralysis. That moment when your first customer, your first ten customers, give you their credit card and their money, that’s the best moment. It’s not a guarantee what you’ve built is going to be successful in the long run, but it’s incredibly validating and motivating for you to push on.

The bad news is that the feeling of paralysis is probably never going to go away. As your business grows, you’ll continuously be faced with new decisions whose outcome you cannot foresee.

What you will get better at is getting a grasp of what you’re really afraid of and, most importantly, at recovering from when things go wrong. You’ll be more resilient to these failures over time, and you’ll find ways to pick yourself up again and move on, learning as you go. The truth is that you’re not alone in this fear and paralysis. It happens to a lot of people in similar situations.

One of the best ways to figure out how to get over it is to find people who are or have been in similar situations as you are now. Ask them how they felt, ask them what they did to get out of the paralysis, and find comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. If you ever feel like you need someone to chat to, feel free to reach out.

I’ve recently listened to a podcast on the topic of fear and founders, I’d recommend you listen to it and think about how it applies to you.