Surgery and Startups

When I had my second open heart surgery in March 2017, the thing I worried about most wasn’t the getting anesthetized and cracked open during the surgery itself, or the mortality risk, or the uncertain recovery. it was the impact that being unreachable for a couple days would have on my startup.

In the lead up to my surgery, Healthie was a year old. We’d raised a million dollars just a few months prior. When you raise, you paint a vision for investors, full of billion-dollar liquidity events and company immortality. You paint a picture of being able to predict and control the future. Going under for surgery is the opposite of all of that. You are giving up all control (and consciousness). You are placing your life and future in the hands of a surgeon you’ve met a couple times and in a care team who are complete and total strangers. It sucks.

It was hard for me to tell my cofounder about it. It was mortifying for me to go from raising money, to our next monthly board meeting, where I felt obligated to tell our new board member (and also lead investor) about my newly scheduled surgery.

I was worried that they’d think I wasn’t pulling my weight, that I wouldn’t deliver on my promises due to a medical event I had no control over. I was concerned about how all my recent direct hires, who I pushed to bring on, and had agreed to manage and lead, would do in my absence. I thought I’d be letting all our customers down, especially the many who I had gotten on sales or success calls with and promised that I’d be there to offer personal support.

In all these cases, I’d stammer out a poor explanation about having a problem with my aortic valve, and that I’d need to be out a few days for a surgery. I’d prep myself for the worst responses, and get nothing but understanding and positive reactions. It wasn’t even accommodating or sympathetic (which I appreciated), just people being supportive and treating it as a non-issue.

I was knocked out for the surgery itself, and the immediate recovery is full of blurry memories and dialudid. A day later, after recovering enough, I felt unnecessarily compelled to hop back on email and support tickets from my phone in my hospital bed. This was a bad idea.

A couple of days later doing that, my recovery was progressing well and I was hours from being released. I got an automated email alert that we were having web application availability problems. My blood pressure spiked so much that an alarm went off, and a nurse came rushing in.

The alert ended up being a non-issue, and my blood pressure went back to normal. However the blood pressure spike (despite my explanation) greatly worried my care team, and I came close to not being released from the hospital that day.

In hindsight, I took one of the worst things ever to happen to me, and made it worse. Despite my worries about having surgery, our customers didn’t mind, my cofounder didn’t mind, our investors didn’t mind, and our team performed admirably in my absence. I took a shitty, scary time and made it shittier and scarier.

It’s common to talk about a reality distortion field that comes from a startup’s founders. However, I’ve never seen anyone taking about that field distorting things in reverse. As a founder, you’re supposed to live and breath what your company does. That attachment makes it very easy for founders to overemphasize and fixate on molehills, which quickly turn into personal mountains, and in many cases (including mine), actual quantifiable health issues.

In hindsight, my reaction was incredibly irrational. However, as a founder, it’s normal to seem irrational. The ability to have strongly differing opinions is what allows founders to build big, novel companies. Unfortunately, that same personal conviction can cause trouble.  I know it did for me in this case.

If you’re a founder beating yourself up about personal events that are outside your control, take a deep breath. What’s inflicting more damage to your company? Those events? Or your reaction to them?