When You Plateau, So Does Your Company
A founder's guide to expanding your comfort zone
Sponsored By: Sentient
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I didn’t fully understand how detrimental avoidance could be as a founder until after I’d exited my first startup and began working at a fund that acquired and operated SaaS companies.
There, I was involved with 4-5 acquisitions of businesses with $1-10M in annual revenue, and I noticed an interesting pattern; nearly all of the companies we acquired had been run by product-focused founders who had avoided sales and marketing.
Each of them had gotten quite far by being first to market and offering a quality product; yet over time, they had all hit a plateau. They spent years trying to grow the business through yet-another-feature launch. When they did invest in sales or marketing, it was usually a half-effort led by a junior employee and constrained by the founder’s discomfort around growth.
This was fine for the first years of the company—but then revenue stalled, the founders burnt out, and they decided to sell their businesses. After seeing this pattern, I realized I had been guilty of the same behavior in my previous startup.
This is one of the beautiful and painful parts of building a company–at some point, your comfort zone becomes the bottleneck in your business. Either you grow as a founder (and a person), or the company plateaus. Whether you're just starting out or are running a billion-dollar business, success depends on your ability to tolerate discomfort.
In this post, we'll break down what a comfort zone is through the lens of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and discuss several ways to intentionally expand it so you're less likely to cause your life and projects to underperform.
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Comfort Zones: An ACT Perspective
A comfort zone represents a set of behaviors that feel safe to us. Our brains believe that if we step outside that zone, something bad might happen, so we experience discomfort. To avoid it, we move back toward what feels safe.
You can think of it like an electric dog fence. While the border might be invisible to others, when you venture near it, you get a shock that sends you back toward safety.
Rather than the physical shocks used when training dogs, our brains use aversive thoughts and feelings to keep us in line. When we start to venture beyond our comfort zone, we experience things like fear, doubt, anxiety, and self-criticism—pushing us right back towards safety.
For example, when a product-focused founder starts doing sales and marketing, they might get hit with a wide array of aversive internal experiences:
- Thoughts: “This won’t work” or “I don’t know where to start.”
- Self-stories: “I’m no good at this.”
- Feelings: fear, shame
- Memories: past experiences of rejection or failure
- Urges: to distract oneself or work on something easier (like developing another feature)
If the founder gets hooked on these experiences, they are likely to retreat back to the comfort zone of product development in order to avoid discomfort. This is how a friend of mine ended up with, in his words, “18 microservices and not a single user.”
From an ACT perspective, comfort zones themselves are not a problem—they are only problematic in as much as they get in the way of doing what we care about. Much of the time, there may not be much of a cost to staying in your comfort zone. However, choosing to pursue a meaningful life at times requires us to venture beyond its borders… or shrink our lives to fit what feels safe.
Now that we understand the concept of comfort zones and their potential impact on our lives, let's explore how we can expand them to achieve our goals.
Expanding Your Comfort Zone
When we leave our comfort zone, it may feel like we're a pinball hitting a bumper. Without even thinking, we end up right back where we started.
However, it is possible to stretch and expand your comfort zone. From an ACT perspective, there are four key aspects to consistently getting out of your comfort zone in service of building a life that matters:
- Clarify what’s important
- Ramp up the costs
- Build discomfort tolerance
- Create commitment scaffolding
Let's dive briefly into each one.
Clarify What’s Important
When first stepping out of our comfort zone, it will be uncomfortable. So to begin, it often helps to start by reflecting on why we’re willingly choosing to open ourselves up to discomfort.
It’s kind of like you’re sitting on an island surrounded by a swamp. All else being equal, it makes sense to stay on dry land. However, if there is a mountain you want to climb on the other side of the swamp, then you might be willing to get your feet wet.
When we are unsure about what we truly care about, it’s easy to default to familiar and comfortable behaviors. On the other hand, when we know what our discomfort is in service of, we experience that suffering as meaningful and are more likely to stay the course.
When we talk about what's important in ACT, we're often talking about values. Values are about what we'd choose our lives to be about, if we could choose anything.
Here are a few questions to help connect with your own willingness to go beyond your comfort zone:
- What is the “mountain” I want to climb that makes the “swamp” worthwhile?
- If I wasn’t bothered by fear/doubt/shame, what would I do? What would I want my life and work to stand for?
Ramp up the Costs
Staying in our comfort zone has short-term benefits and long-term costs.