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Erik Trautman

Technical entrepreneurship, business strategy and product development

How to Fix and Avoid Burnout

Burnout sucks. I'm not talking about that "I can't wait for the weekend" feeling or even the glazed-eye look you gave your parents when returning home from finals week during college. When I refer to burnout, I mean the structural depletion of energy which makes it nearly impossible to raise your head and get real work done. It's a poison that seeps into and sucks the life out of every working minute.

In startup culture, we glorify working ourselves to death in a way which is completely absurd and totally self-imposed. Along my own 5 year rollercoaster building Viking Education, I became intimately familiar with the feeling of burnout. I distinctly remember the numb progression through checklists of tasks that had become divorced of any meaning and putting on a smiling facade which overlaid an inner me who had long since stopped bothering to panic at his lack of excitement for work.

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Megaphone

Entrepreneurial Epiphanies #4: Do Nothing Quietly

Since I struck out on my own to build a business, I've banged my head on countless metaphorical low-hanging beams, taken the proverbial rake to the face at least weekly, and otherwise made just about every mistake in the book. But, despite the cost, I've actually learned a thing or two along the way. Hopefully you won't make the same mistakes. Actually, you will, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Last Tuesday we launched beta for The Odin Project, a website where you can learn web development for free. The launch went well -- to focus solely on users, we got >10k visits converting to >1k new students in just two days -- and it hammered in an epiphany that I first had in September of 2013: Do nothing quietly!

There are a lot of expressions out there which capture pieces of this mentality, like "Fail early and often", but I like the directness of "Do nothing quietly". This is very counter to the mantra of the engineer: "head down, get shit done". Engineering culture has little love for self promotion, bold (unsupported) claims or anything to do with PR. But, to build an effective business, you've got to get over it and make sure people know about your idea.

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Sometimes You Need a Slap in the Face

When I was in college I played poker online and did well enough that it steered me towards an interest in trading on Wall Street. I liked what I learned about trading and decided that I wanted to someday start a hedge fund. My friend's father headed a public company at the time and he put me in touch with two fund managers so I could get some advice.

The first guy I called worked within an old-style bank. I don't remember much of anything from our conversation except that he seemed a bit... "traditional"? My questions weren't very good and his answers were pure vanilla. I learned nothing.

The second guy was a different story. He ran a nimble long/short fund with a few hundred million under management and had needed to scrap for every victory. From the second he picked up the phone I could tell he was short on time and low on patience. I kind of stammered through my list of questions and he gave me answers that appropriately reflected the poorly researched nature of my queries, which included things like "what is a long/short fund exactly?".

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The Apathy Implosion and Lessons in Leadership

I recently had a team implode around me. As is often the case, it wasn't some external stress that did the job so much as a lack of passion and strong leadership. It was a slow death but it almost seemed inevitable.

To rewind a bit, I've been taking the Tech Entrepreneurship course through the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab (VLab) online platform. It's a semester-based course where the students form small teams and build a plausible business plan, which is presented at the end of the course in January.

The first couple weeks were a frenzy of virtual team building, where the 30,000+ students that began networked and facebooked themselves into groups of 3-5. That was a fascinating experience in and of itself -- which approaches were destined to be successful? I saw cases of future founders championing their idea, seeking to rally some free labor to develop it. Then there were groups who bonded across continents because they shared a passion for solving a particular problem. Often, the easiest way to begin chunking the enormous initial set of students was by geography. The San Francisco locals Facebook group eventually swelled to over 30 people.

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