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Startups: How to stay motivated and focused?


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Last year, when I saw this picture of Mark Zuckerberg’s desk with a poster that screamed “Stay Focused & Keep Shipping, I thought it was lame. I could never see myself do something like that until I realized a need for it, very recently. Yes, I have something similar now :)

When I recently quit my job to focus full-time on my startup, I took a month off to travel alone, and:

1. Satiate my hunger for travel (for a while ;) )

2. Take time to do some serious thinking on what mattered to me, and why I wanted to do this startup

3. Limit technology usage (no phone) and disconnect myself from all tech. blogs, the “gyaan” they constantly feed, and draw some “real-life” inferences about Mobile/Internet usage by simply talking to / observing people in various places I traveled to (more on this sometime later). 

During those travels, I came up with a mental map of my what my priorities should be, and how I should stay focused over the next couple of years. Just by observing (and talking to) people, I also discovered some useful insights that shaped the core functionality of the product I’m working on.

As a founder (or an early-stage startup employee), one has to manage a number of things at the same time and it becomes very challenging to prioritize…sounds easy till you actually start doing it and see yourself drifting in so many directions. We easily get distracted by things that do not matter much to a bootstrapped, early-stage startup that just got started. For example: we sometimes spend too much time meeting fellow startups, investors etc. and then soon get trapped into becoming a “fundable” startup…or we start spending too much time on the Internet — blogging, tweeting, engaging in discussions about startups, technology etc. I do acknowledge some of it is important, but given there are limited resources, the question becomes what our priorities should be and where should we focus our time and energy. How do we stay focused and motivated despite all distractions?

I did a few things to help me. One of them was, put up a poster (that I created for myself) somewhere I can constantly see it; I needed a constant reminder on what mattered to me till I get my product-market fit right.

Don’t take my word (picture actually) for it ; each one of us is different and each startup is different. Also, as your startup progresses further along the growth curve, the priorities change. While this info-graphic is self-explanatory (I hope), I just wanted to highlight areas most of us have to deal with as an early-stage startup.

#1. The inner most circle (your customer, product etc.) is what I call the “Circle of Focus”. I believe, this is what matters initially.

#2. Things in next circle (your team, family, health & wellness etc.) are what enable one to succeed — the “Circle of Enablers”

#3. Next one (advisors/mentors, competition, friends etc.) is the “Circle of Attention”. Pay required attention to this after you take care of #1 and #2.

#4. The next one (investors, media, networking etc.)  is the “Circle of Moderation”. It is a necessary evil, but we can’t spend too much time on it. Find ways to balance time and effort spent on it.

#5.  The “Circle of Distraction”

#6. Last one is the “Circle of Detraction”. Probably the most dangerous one! One has to find ways to stay immune to feedback from many of the so-called “admirers” and naysayers. Identifying what’s noise vs. useful feedback is something that’ll help us, and it’s not easy at all.

P.S. Oh BTW, in case you haven’t noticed “Stay FAB” here stands for Stay Focused and Build. :)

However, soon I started realizing I was spending more and more time just building product and ignoring other things. Darn it! I’m constantly trying ways (any tips are welcome) to find balance, stay motivated and focused, but below are few things that have helped me over the past few weeks. All of these sound so simple (and more like “gyaan” a.k.a unsolicited advice), but I hope it helps:

1. Finding what helps me focus on a day-to-day/every minute basis. For me it’s music (Electronic works great for me) while working, constant reminders (posters etc.), regular/short breaks, and running at least 4-5 days in a week to help me de-stress.

2. Knowing what I’m doing (and when) — people talk about having a vision but focusing on something small, but I realized there is something in between that is equally important. I went through a high level exercise of coming up with my own 10 year, 3 year, 1 year, and 3 month plan(s) to help me get from vision to anMVP/immediate focus. Now, anything that doesn’t fit with my 3 month plan gets eliminated quickly.  I plan to revisit/update this every now and then to see if I’m on track or if the long-term plan needs adjustments.

3. Developing/tracking measurable metrics so that I don’t ignore (or spend too much time on) “low priority” things. It’s not just metrics around financials/budget, burn rate, weekly progress etc., but some very seemingly trivial ones. For example: I now mentally track  the number of days I go to gym, have metrics around # of people (potential investors etc.) I need to meet in a week/month etc.

4.  Getting organized, and getting on a schedule. I still struggle to get my sleep schedule right. :(

5. Last one is something I read yesterday in an interview of Richard Branson: Delegate (use it if you have a team). 

Enough of gyaan! I’d like to hear any suggestions/tips that might have helped you stay focused and motivated. Also, would be great to know if you tried any of the above and it still didn’t work…and lastly, feel free to call this BS if it doesn’t resonate with you :)


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  1. hey rishi,

    what a wonderful post! you are so articulate in identifying your issues. I LOVE THE POSTER! 

    i think prioritizing is a challenge most of us face. we just want to do EVERYTHING and then end up making a mess ‘coz it couldn’ve been delegated to someone else. or we should’ve tackled something else first. too many balls up in the air. and it’s difficult to juggle all of them!!

    “getting organised” is an ongoing process i reckon! the moment you think you’re on top of things, something unpredictable comes your way and boom! you find yourself terribly disorganised! so one thing i keep telling myself is to be prepared for the unforseen. and try to be flexi as well!

    a small e.g: as part of my “attempt to be organised” i pre-schedule all my social media posts for the weekend before the weekend actually starts. that way i’m relaxed at the beach enjoying a bit of family time and not thinking about “which post needs to be promoted now”!

    ps: FAB is awesome!

  2. Awesome thought..another thing that I do personally to stay motivated and focus is to watch any random video or read any random article on focus/motivation on a DAILY basis (before going to sleep).

    Or much better to look into the mirror and ask yourself….why I am sitting at home & working on a start up as compared to those who are in a job…the answers will give you some great motivation which will push you prove yourself.

  3. Thanks Asha. Can’t agree more on the being flexible / being prepared for the unforeseen.  

    I found from your profile that you live in Goa when you mentioned the word “beach”. How I envy you now. 😀 Long drives + beaches were two of my fav. activities that helped me de-stress before I moved to Bangalore. It’s sad I can’t do either now.

  4. Interesting to see how each person has his/her own ways 🙂 One more thing I found few people do is meditate (unfortunately I don’t, but I should)

  5. rishi – pls read this!

    I’ve been meditating for over 12 years now, and I’ve enjoyed moderate success as an entrepreneur.

    By meditation, I mean any practice; spiritual routine or training that could be broadly described as ‘meditation’. If you haven’t meditated before, I will mention a couple of options at the end of this column.

    This is a summary of my belief in meditation and how it has helped me.

    The 10 logical reasons

    1. It’s just great exercise

    I know most entrepreneurs barely get time to exercise. It’s a curse born out of chaotic lifestyles, constantly being committed to the business, and just not being able to prioritize what is good for you.

    After a while, the body becomes stiff and bloated, and then getting down to some hard grinding exercise becomes a cruel option. A couple of years later, when you try to tie your shoelaces and feel like dying, you know you have hit the bottom of the fitness well.

    All the meditation practices that I know of [Art of Living (AOL), Kriya Yoga, etc] have a simple built-in exercise routine in them.

    The AOL routine I follow has a beautiful yoga cycle (called Padma Sadhana) that precedes my meditation. It’s very simple – lasts less than 7 minutes, yet keeps me fit, flexible and makes me ‘feel like’ I have exercised!

    If nothing else, meditate just to keep your body alive.

    2. If you don’t have a serious hobby, then choose to meditate!

    As an entrepreneur, I’ve noticed that as business begins to ramp up, it begins to completely dominate an entrepreneur’s mindshare and break down the walls between ‘work and play’. The routine becomes ‘work and work.’

    Having a hobby is a great way to get your mind off work; not just because it ‘relaxes’ you but also because it breaks down monotonous and rigid thinking.

    So often I have noticed that taking a break from hard-core work and just going for a run or sitting down and doing some meditation infuses a brand new and fresh wave of thinking in me.

    If you don’t have a serious hobby, choose meditation. It’s simple, portable (you don’t have to carry your guitar around the world), and can be enjoyed anytime during the day or night.

    3. Practicing Patience

    One of the biggest challenges that entrepreneurs face is cultivating patience. We live in a world of instant gratification and apply the same rules of ‘instant success’ to ourselves. We revere startup stories of entrepreneurs who have become overnight success stories and benchmark ourselves against them.

    I truly believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of “Taking 10,000 hours to become good at something” (central theme of his book ‘Outliers’).

    Now, patience is not easy to cultivate.

    If I tell you to sit and stare at the door everyday for 20 minutes, you will break down the door, go insane or come to my house and break down my door!

    I would rather suggest that you learn to meditate to develop patience.

    Immediately the focus changes to observing your thoughts, your breath and other such techniques, and the process isn’t boring! It’s fun and challenging!

    Once (sometime in 2003) Guruji (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) made us (a public gathering) do a ‘Death Meditation’ in an open ground at the Bandra Kurla Complex.

    Guruji requested us to close our eyes and asked to think of how we had traveled to the grounds. Then he asked us to focus on what we had done a few hours ago; a bit later on what we had done yesterday; then on what we had done a few days before; a month ago; a year ago; so on and so forth. Essentially Guruji tried to take us back in time as far as we could recollect. He was taking us to the time of our birth, if we could remember it!

    Later, when the meditation was over, he requested us to gently open our eyes and asked us to guess how long we had meditated. Most of us (including I), assumed that the process had lasted 20-25 minutes; but we were shocked to learn that we had mediated for over an hour!!

    Now, imagine sitting patiently on a public ground, on a sunny evening with your eyes closed, without anything to think of or do…

    4. Lateral thinking

    As a long-term meditator, I have begun to enjoy the benefits of the creative and lateral thinking that meditation stirs up in my brain.

    For instance, for a certain period of time, I was terribly affected by the sound of traffic that I would hear while meditating. The problem became so acute that I would constantly try to hear the traffic sounds rather than meditate on what I was supposed to.

    One day that frustration inspired me! I actually began to meditate ON THE TRAFFIC and made that my meditation. I decided that I would become ‘Traffic Monk’!

    This was a lateral thought that was born out of compulsion. Soon, I got TIRED of meditating on traffic and began to enjoy my regular routine again.

    This training of using what was affecting me to actually assist me was taught to me by meditation, and I now regularly use the same concept while doing business!

    Mediation not only calms your mind. It inspires it too!

    5. Concentration

    Guruji always says, “Meditation is not concentration, it’s ‘de-concentration’.”

    He is so right.

    But to get to the point of understanding something so subtle and profound, you have to practice meditation first.

    Let me take the example of a simple meditation technique that involves closing your eyes, sitting in a comfortable position and just observing your breath.

    You will be able to observe your breath (how it enters your nostrils, fills your lungs and comes back out) for a few seconds, or maybe minutes, before your mind wanders to that e-mail whose response hasn’t come so far. When you become ‘aware’ that you lost your concentration, and come back to the breath, a few moments later the evasive VC and his hide-and-seek games will pop up into your mind.

    Just observing the vacillations between what you are supposed to concentrate on and what actually the mind prefers to focus on, helps increase your concentration. It essentially makes you practice ‘concentrating’ between 2 things.

    In business, you then easily apply this learning and focus (or defocus) on one or more issues that demand your attention.

    In this way and more, meditation trains your mind and makes it more focused.

    The other 5 fuzzier reasons

    6. Celebrating being helpless

    As one matures, one begins to understand that many things in life are not in our control. What we ‘intend’ may or may not happen, and what was unintended also happens.

    As you go deeper into a meditation practice, this clarity and ‘acceptance’ of being helpless begins to manifest itself without mental conflict.

    As an example, consider the new book launches, product introductions and the Nasdaq IPOs that were scheduled in the week that was hit by the monstrous Hurricane Sandy.

    The entrepreneurs and business people involved got severely affected, leaving them with a feeling of being ‘helpless’.

    Amongst them, those who meditated would have handled the situation better.

    At a certain point, mediation deepens into a subtler understanding of spirituality and when that happens, “helpless situations” become easier to handle.

    7. Understanding cause and effect, aka Karma

    Very clearly, if you meditate regularly and with utmost dedication, you begin to appreciate ‘cause and effect’.

    For instance, I have begun to notice that my intuitive ability has increased significantly over the past few years, which I believe is a result of my meditation.

    That intuition really helps me in my business. I can ‘sense’ things – what is affecting people around me, etc more acutely than other people. I would say that is a direct, measurable benefit of meditation.

    But I also now seem to understand subtler reasons of ‘why’, not just ‘how’ and ‘what’.

    No one understands the laws of Karma better than a startup entrepreneur.

    In the first few years that I started my online contesting business, the pain, the toil, the sweat and the tears were almost all in vain. No one understood what I did and what purpose I was serving. What kept me going? What gave me untiring stamina? What was my magical fuel?

    Well, it was the belief that if you do good things sincerely, then you are rewarded!

    Now, that is not some dictum that is written in text books – it’s the simple law of Karma that was reinforced in me like steel, thanks to meditation.

    When you do observe subtler things and laws, you become more careful in your conduct – both in business and in personal life.

    8. Accepting change

    Nothing is tougher than change.

    It’s very nice to read bumper stickers that say ‘Change is the only constant’ and the other blah blah blah… But Change SUCKS.

    In many ways, meditation can help deal with Change.

    To explain it simply, the practice of meditation, its effects, its highs and benefits only increase with time.

    Meditation is the only practice, resource, wealth, hobby or profession that rewards you increasingly as you invest in it, despite other things changing and diminishing around you.

    If you begin to meditate early and put some solid years behind you, then the routine ups and downs of business, wealth, fame and fortune will not affect you that much – because the wealth, benefits and rewards of your meditation will have only grown over the years.

    Meditation balances your losses as you grow up.

    9. Developing faith

    Some anonymous person made fun of me on a public post ridiculing my belief in a “Baba”.

    Sitting outside Mahavatar Babaji’s cave in the Himalayas.

    How I wish I could meet that person and explain to him or her, the real benefit of such a belief.

    First the basics. Most entrepreneurs are NOT uneducated, under-exposed and suppressed prisoners.

    Errr, I mean I do read the news, I understand a bit of technology, can manage a business on myself and can even afford to hire and retain some people! I am not a blind, bumbling idiot that believes in voodoo because the maid who brought me up injected me with some demonic spirits!!

    I believe in my Gurus and Gods and Baba’s because I choose to believe in them.

    And I choose to believe in them because as my meditation has progressed and deepened, I have realized that there is a lot that faith and belief can do! What we call serendipity, chance, luck, circumstance, grace and just ‘being in the right place at the right time’ has a certain law of spirituality wrapped around it.

    I try to embrace these laws with faith as my currency!!

    When I meet Guruji and request him to tell me ‘what do’ or to ‘guide me’ I have blind faith that he understands the spiritual laws of the universe much better than I do and will point me in the right direction!

    It’s like he is my professor asking me to study a particular set of textbooks to max my exam! We never doubted our professors and teachers, did we?

    With Guruji Sri. Sri. Ravi Shankar!

    This cultivated faith helps in being a great entrepreneur.

    In many ways, it helps to vanquish the ego, and makes the entrepreneur open and more accepting.

    You have to learn to believe in people more accomplished than yourself and follow their instructions almost blindly. That is ‘faith’.

    10. Embracing purpose

    A couple of years ago, I noticed that despite meditating with utmost devotion, I wasn’t experiencing a ‘high’. What was worse was that even if I missed my meditation for a couple of days, I wasn’t experiencing a ‘low’.

    Something was wrong and I met my teacher to ask her the reason. She said, “Alok, your cup is full to the brim. You need to empty it to experience a sense of replenishment. Go and give back.”

    That really struck me like a thunderbolt and it occurred to me that I had to give back to society – from whom I had received everything.

    The problem was that when I tried to do the conventional charity stuff (going to hospitals to donate medicines, etc), I was repulsed. Those places made me uncomfortable. I was puzzled on how to ‘give back’.

    That’s when it hit me that as a digital entrepreneur who had been lucky to survive 14 long industry years, I had seen and done a lot. I had the knowledge that so many entrepreneurs needed. I had the scars on my back that needed to be shared.

    This ‘realization’, coupled with the gentle yet firm prodding of my VC – Sumant Mandal inspired me to start blogging and to start sharing!

    I launched ‘’ – a social network for Entrepreneurs and that was the take off point.

    Entrepreneurs from all walks of life found a platform and a place to share, discuss, learn and give back! TheRodinhoods began meeting up on Fridays in my conference room – we named it the Open House! Initially about 4-10 entrepreneurs would turn up. Within a year we moved to the National Stock Exchange Auditorium with 150 attendees!

    Today, TheRodinhoods has over 3700 members, 1600+ blog articles/discussions and a very vibrant, real community that meet as often as they can. So many Rodinhoods work and co-operate with each other!

    Meditation helped me find my ‘real’ purpose in life. Beyond the making money and getting famous, I found out that my real fulfillment lies in helping people.

    Dedicated at the feet of my Gurus and Gods.

    If you want a basic introduction to meditation or want to figure out if you like it, I would strongly suggest you do the simple, Part 1 ‘Basic’ Art of L…

    In just a couple of days you will have learnt the most precious secret in the world!

  6. Thanks Asha. Does my running 5 days a week count as meditation? 😛 Jokes apart, I should try it!

  7. This is a fantastic read. Thanks Asha for sharing it. Im inspired Alok! 

    Rishi Fab is truly fab. i think we end to waste a lot of time on the outer circles. Your chart definitely brings a lot of things unto perspective!

  8. Thanks Sudeepta.

  9. i can’t believe this rishi…!

    i did it again!

    i messed the top of your post!!!!


  10. I can’t believe it either…that it happened again :))

  11. I happened to read your post and its comments and I happened to see this message on fb too. 

    Your post was just awesome and very organizing. Keep being fab. All the best!

  12. Thanks Bhawana!

  13. Excellent post Rishi, bookmarking it!

  14. Thanks Nakul.

  15. Now, that’s a good one! Bravo Rishi!

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