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Justin Kan on Vulnerability, Happiness, and Suffering in Startups

Justin Kan is a serial entrepreneur, previously a partner at Y Combinator and co-founder of Twitch.tv. Besides talking about startups, success and failures, in this episode Justin will also share his views on burnout, why attaching your own happiness to the success of your startup is a disaster in the making, and why it's good to be vulnerable.

Updated on June 21
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Key Smash Notes In This Episode

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It has been a long road for Justin. He started in 2004 with Kiko, an online calendar, very similar to Google Calendar. The only really notable things about that startup were it was very early on in this online web application world and it got Justin and team into Y Combinator, which set him on the entrepreneurial career.

From there, the team started justin.tv, as an attempt to make their own reality show on the internet. Although that was a terrible idea that mostly failed, it eventually turned into a platform for anyone to live broadcast their own live video, which became Twitch.tv and in 2014 sold to Amazon for a lot of money.

Justin burned out after about 10 years of doing startups and decided to join Y Combinator and be a partner there, but after a few years of investing in YC startups, he realized being an investor full-time wasn't really for him at that point in life. He was not learning anything anymore.

He started thinking of new ideas and eventually settled on Atrium.

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Atrium.co is a full stack corporate law firm for startups. They help startups with all the legal needs. Right now they work mostly with venture-backed technology companies in the US and specifically in Silicon Valley.

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Legal services is something that startups need in good time and bad times. Justin himself has been a client of legal services for over 15-year of his entrepreneurial and investor career, and no matter what was happening in the world, and no matter whether the business was thriving or dying, he'd always end up paying attorneys.

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Justin's interest in self-improvement and self growth really came from a realization that he needed to make a lot of improvements in himself and in the company culture of Atrium in order to create an environment where he would not feel stressed every day.

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It is easy to burn out no matter how successful you are. You might accept unhappiness in the present, thinking the next milestone or the round of funding will make you happy, but the problem is that that's not a sustainable strategy for actually achieving happiness, and if you're not happy, you will not want to do what you're doing for an extended period of time.

As a CEO of a startup, you are a very important component and if you burn out, you are not doing yourself or your investors, employees or customers any favors, so you need to retain yourself. You need to create a situation inside your company where you are going to be available for a long time. Taking care of yourself is actually your obligation.

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As a start-up you want to have a mission you are working towards and trying to accomplish, but you should also remember that achieving the goal is not 100% within your control. You are just one factor, one member of the team, one part of the strategy. You're only a contributor to achieving that goal. And even when you achieve the goal, it is not going to make you happy.

You need to find a way to work without actually wrapping up your entire ego and identity in accomplishing this one goal.

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Get coaches, join leadership groups, and get a therapist. It can be very cathartic to have someone to talk to. It is effectively a mechanism that we've created in our society to make you feel like you are not alone. It could be very helpful when working through any sort of problems.

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