Leo Koenig on ‘Thriving as a CEO’

Through TechStars Boston, I’ve met up a few times with entrepreneur Leo Koenig of KinematIQ. Each time, I’ve been struck by how thoughtful he is about business in general, and, moreover, how he handles the ups and down of being a founder.

I increasingly receive questions from founders, asking me about how to deal with stress. I think it’s a critical ability to develop. And, what better way to hear about “how to” than from another entrepreneur?

So, I asked Leo to do a guest blog post and happily received the note below. Also, he has a cool blog, and so, check that out, too:

Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy, especially when it is your first go around. It’s likely one of the most challenging and demanding jobs one can have.

You bet your life on an idea (at least you feel like you do), and chances that you will make it are a mere one out of ten. You’re constantly facing challenges and problems that you never encountered before, so you are way out of your comfort zone to begin with. Your business is always a month, missed deadline or just simply bad luck away from failing.

On top of that, you are pretty much alone out there, especially as the CEO. You can’t really share your worries and fears with anyone. You need to be and act optimistic, encouraging and confident in front of investors, partners and your team. Sounds like a perfect recipe for disaster, and if this is the way you look at entrepreneurship, it certainly is.

Here’s the good news: You are doing something beautiful, and should be really enjoying what you are doing. The good news also is, the more fun you have, the more relaxed you are and the more you enjoy what you do, the more is your business likely to succeed.

Ever hear baseball players during a struggle saying that they are pressing too much? Trying to hit a home run every at bat? Their answer to the problem is simple: “I’ve just got to go out there, play ball and have fun. Take one pitch at a time”. Don’t worry if you are not there yet – and I don’t think anyone (including myself) will ever be there 100% – but there are many things one can do to get in a state of mind that is rather relaxed, enjoyable and productive at the same time (some call it flow).

This is perhaps the most powerful tool of all of them, yet the hardest one to achieve as well. You’ve probably heard about meditation by now, it’s all over the start-up world and mandatory in some Silicon Valley companies. Meditation is one of the tools to achieve mindfulness.

The basic concept behind mindfulness is to detach one self from thoughts and conditioning, and embrace the only thing you will ever have – the present moment. There “is” simply no future or past, there is always just the present moment. Not surprisingly, the state of flow, a highly productive and happy state of mind, is said to be achieved when you are 100% present.

Ironically, this state of presence, most iconic scientists and artists had their biggest break through. It’s not when they think, it’s when they stop thinking.

So, how do you achieve a state of mindfulness? As mentioned, meditation is one possibility, but I don’t think it’s the answer to it all – how can meditating for half an hour (ever tried that after a busy and hectic day?) help you if you go right back to stress mode? There are other, “hidden” forms of meditation that many of us aren’t perhaps aware of. We can tell they make us feel good, and the reason is that they put us in a mindful state.

First, there are a few things one can throughout the everyday grind that bring mindfulness into your life. Take a step back and observe. Really enjoy the food you are eating, recognize the tastes. When you walk outside, don’t just look down, look up and observe your surrounding, you’ll be surprised about the things you notice that you missed before. Just sit back and take a deep breath, and notice the sounds around you. Talk to people, and listen to them.

Also, there is a lot of mindfulness to certain activities. Ever had those moments where you “completely forget all the stuff around you”? After playing a hockey game, after a night out with your friends, or perhaps after a good kiteboarding session? Those things immerse you into the present moment and switch off your consciousness, you just “are” and enjoy what you do.

Action sports are a particular powerful form of meditation, and even though I am a rather small sample size, I myself have my most creative and productive moments during or after a kite-boarding session.

Read: Eckhart Tolle – The Power of Now

Be your real self. First off, every bit of success will feel as hollow as an empty bottle if it is the result of you putting on a facade, and every failure will be a worthwhile and helpful experience if you stayed true to your values and self throughout.

More importantly, though, authenticity is the only way to build strong and lasting relationships, and it is arguably the most important trait of strong leaders. Last but not least, not being yourself to obtain something from others is a rather selfish act, as ironic as this might appear to be.

Authenticity is a tough nut to crack, fear creeps in easily and pulls you back to fulfill norms and do what others want you to do, especially because there are so many accomplished and opinionated people around you that give “advice” or have a strong opinion on how your (or any) business should be run. Chances are you will get 120 different opinions from 100 different people. If you follow each of them, you’ll quickly be lost, running hard and scrambling to keep up without a clear direction.

Truth is, you know your business better than anyone else, you know yourself and your team better than anyone else, and your strong opinion and leadership have gotten you to where you are now, so stay true to those values and be yourself.

Read: Bill George – True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership

When astronauts first traveled to the moon, everybody anxiously anticipated what the experience on the moon would be. Yet, once there, all the astronauts did is look back towards that blue ball hanging in the middle of space, our planet. From that viewpoint, but also when things go really wrong (and failing a business is not one of them), you will gain perspective. You’re caught in your everyday life, and things seem immensely relevant because they are surrounding you, but rest assured, all that is completely irrelevant.

People get perspective when they are facing death (aka when shit goes really wrong!). That’t when they look back on things and wonder “why on earth did I worry about this promotion so much? Why didn’t I spend more time with friends and family?” The same applies for your business, take a step back, look at the long term vision, and make sure you build a business that is there to last and do good.

A great way to gain perspective is travel. Takes you out of your everyday grind and into a totally new environment. The beauty about travel is, the cheaper you travel, the richer your experience will be.

Read: A Grandfather’s Last Letter to His Grandchildren.

It’s been proven by science – the more fun you have at work and with what you are doing, the better you will be. Fun and laughing is in some regards still frowned upon – if you don’t suffer, you don’t work hard enough. A perfect lose-lose situation. You hate your job, ruin your health and personal life, and are anything but productive at work because you hate what you do.

Have fun with it, laugh, do what you love, and you will be successful. And be careful what you define as success – if it is tied to money and power, or even working 100-hr. weeks, you might want to take some perspective and rethink your values.

The irony in all this is that not focusing on money in the first place will likely make you end up with much more of it. Build a great company, make customers happy, build truly awesome products, have a ton of fun along the way, and money will come. You will actually enjoy busting your rear end for your company.

Here’s a warning, though, there will be people who hate you for having fun at what you do, and they’ll do everything they can to take that fun away from you and make you fear for your life. “You will fail”. It’s called jealousy.

Don’t be mad, instead be grateful that they care for what you do – just make sure you don’t listen to them and stay mindful, true to yourself and keep your perspective. You owe it to yourself, your team and the world.

A good way to check in if you are on the right path is to step back and take a few minutes to yourself every day, and reflect on the last few days. If you think you don’t have the time for that, you already know that you have lost it.

Perhaps one last note, the four things described above all amplify each other. Mindfulness creates authenticity, perspective and fun. Authenticity makes you mindful and is fun. You get it.

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