“We’re all a work in progress”: The path to high performance in startups

June 2, 2023
Craig Davis, Startmate partner for the High Performance Fellowship
Craig Davis, Co-founder of Sendle, Director of Upside Founder Programs & Startmate HPF Partner

There’s no doubt, startups are hard work. 

The high-risk, high-reward environment characteristic of startups is a beautiful and chaotic way to test yourself. 

Suddenly you’re surrounded by passionate people with a shared vision, and you feel inspired. You start to believe in yourself. Believe in the mission. Your hard work has purpose and you become ambitious to succeed. 

But no one could have ever really prepared you for the unyielding deadlines, cosmic to-do lists, and sheer determination required of you every. single. day. 

Soon enough you’re working late. You skip the gym. One coffee turns into two, turns into three. Maybe you’re working weekends and miss out on catching up with friends. 

For many, this is the trade off made in the pursuit of ambition. And you know what, it probably gets the job done. You get by. 

But your purpose wasn’t just to “get by”, was it? It was to thrive, to realise your potential and revel in the ride. 

If you have lofty goals (and we all do, whether we admit it or not), high performance is your gateway to achieving them. But your performance is only as good as your last night's sleep, or the gym session you squeezed in before work, or the coffee catch up you made time for with a friend. 

To come anywhere close to performing at our peak, foundations must be laid. Boundaries must be set and wellbeing accounted for. 

Conceptually, this makes sense to pretty much everyone. But in high-pressure environments, like those of startups, putting it into practice is no easy feat.

I sat down with Craig Davis this week. Among other things, Craig is partnering with Startmate to run our new High Performance Fellowship. We covered a lot of ground. In particular, we spoke about “high performance” - what it means, what it looks like, what it feels like and most importantly how to achieve it. 

First and foremost, what is high performance? How would you define it?

I think high performance is getting the right cocktail of ambition, satisfaction and sustainability.

Firstly, you have to be clear on what your goals are. If your goals are not things that are well aligned with who you are and what you want, they're not actually going to be satisfying. 

But maybe even more significantly, if you don't give yourself the chance to be satisfied by hitting those targets and having little moments to celebrate, it's not going to work out because you just can't keep it up.

Which leads to the third component of high performance - sustainability. Whatever your approach is, it's going to have to be sustainable for a long time. 

There is no such thing as overnight success.

Occasionally, people get lucky but too often their success is not underpinned with the foundations to make their success sustainable. You see that with musicians. The people that feature in the “Where are they now?” tv programs. Their first album was a hit. But where was the second one? 

Ultimately, high performance is a unique arrangement of those three things. Aligning your vision in a way that is satisfying and sustainable. 

What problem do you see in people striving for high performance?

I think the problem is that people end up being slaves to their own ambition. They sacrifice the important stuff like sleep, exercise, good food and friendships and think:

“I'll get back to that later. When I've reached a certain milestone, when I've achieved a certain level of success."

They end up trading off too many important things in the pursuit of ambition.

And in startups specifically, what seems to be the issue?

I think the pressures around startups are pretty dialled up.

Whether you’re bootstrapped or venture backed you have a lot to prove. If you’ve had investment, there is immense pressure to hit the milestones you’ve committed to and if you don’t hit them, your chances of raising again diminish. Likewise, if you’re in the very early stages of a business, you’re resource scarce and traction is paramount.

The sense of urgency and pressure in these contexts can be debilitating. 

How do you think this impacts a whole team or organisation? 

The first and probably most obvious example is a founder.

Whether a founder likes it or not, they are role modelling the kind of behaviours that will influence their team. If the founder is operating on adrenaline and very little sleep, then that is sort of an indication of how everyone else is meant to operate.

The compounding effects of that are pretty damaging.

Any team that's high adrenaline and short on sleep is not going to perform well. Not physically, not emotionally, not energetically, not creatively, it's just not possible.

What’s your approach to understanding this problem?

I love the basic coaching equation that is:

p = P - i 

Performance equals potential minus interference.

In other words, you're always operating at something less than your full potential because there's always something interfering (AKA life). 

Understanding the nature of that interference is important for all of us. In particular, what’s going on with you emotionally.

There is this cliché in business where people will still say things like, “We have to be really objective. We have to be rational. We can't get emotional about this.” Which is just total bollocks.

Emotions are designed into us and they are useful. They serve a purpose. So pretending that we can extract them and operate without them is silly. It’s much better to understand them for what they are so that we're not driven around by them subconsciously.

Can you run me through in more detail how you are solving this pain point through the Fellowship? 

We start with self-awareness. A lot of us are on autopilot. Sometimes that default mode serves a purpose and it's a positive thing. But we need to be careful we’re not in that mode because we’re not aware of being in that mode at all.

Once you become aware of it, you’re more likely to witness and observe interferences without getting caught up in them.

Then we dive into motivation. What matters to you? What are your values? How well aligned are you with those things that are important to you? How do you think about and articulate your own future? 

Next we tackle resilience. You can be clear on your values and clear on your vision but life happens. Things go wrong. How do you respond in those moments of adversity?

And then we move into your relationships with other people. So not just yourself anymore, but how do you connect with other people? How empathetic are you? 

Finally we bring all these things together with practical tools and techniques. We explore how to integrate these skills into high stake situations.

Ultimately, we really encourage people to embrace the fact that these are trainable skills.

What are the benefits of developing these skills?

When you start prioritising yourself in a more holistic and sustainable way, the results are immediate.

You’re operating at something like your best. You're influencing the people around you in positive ways. You will be more productive, more creative, you will cultivate stronger relationships. And overall, you'll have more energy. 

Can you give me a bit of background on yourself and how you came to be so interested in training high performance?

In the early years of my career, brute force was the only way I knew how to be successful. There was no balance in my path to high performance and I realised pretty quickly it wasn’t sustainable. I was compromising too much. What’s more, it wasn't satisfying either. 

For my own wellbeing, I started exploring research around EQ and neuroscience and it felt quite intuitive to me. Conceptually, it started making a lot of sense. 

It was a gradual process, but integrating the lessons I learnt generated noticeable benefits in my life. 

When I entered the startup ecosystem, I came in wanting to help people create and build and solve problems. And I think these skills are so crucial to enabling those things to happen.

Finally, what’s a motto you live your life by?

My favourite saying is: “We're all a work in progress.” I say that a lot. I'm a big believer in that. We are never done. We're never finished. 

Who is Craig Davis?

Craig is the co-founder of Sendle, Director of Upside Founder Programs, an investor in more than 50 startups, and a long-time Startmate mentor, Craig has dedicated his career to the startup ecosystem. We are thrilled to have him running the High Performance Fellowship.

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Holly BrooksHolly Brooks
Holly Brooks is a freelance writer, content marketer and storyteller specialising in startups, tech and creative industries.

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