Karl Hughes

Karl Hughes

Why 2023 Was My Hardest Year So Far

Why 2023 Was My Hardest Year So Far

If you follow me on social media or hear me on podcasts, you probably think I have it made.

That’s the perception I feel like I’m “supposed” to put out there - that I’m effortlessly successful, perfectly happy, completely healthy, and mentally stable all the time. I don’t share my sleepless nights, my fear of failure, or my struggles with food or alcohol because I don’t want to elicit sympathy or make it seem like I’m begging for attention.

That said, I’ve been trying to open up more about my struggles privately this year.

An old friend recently saw my appearance on Starter Story and reached out.

“Sounds like you’re doing great. I’m so happy for your success!” he said.

I didn’t know where to begin. No, the video didn’t lie. In some ways, I’ve been incredibly successful in my career thus far. But it didn’t tell the whole story either.

2023 has been the hardest in my life so far, both personally and professionally. I don’t want to dramatize this and pretend that my life is hard. I’m extremely fortunate compared to most of the world, but mentally, the past 9 months have been far from the easy road you see on the outside.

And yet, it’s been the year in which I’ve learned the most as well.

I’ve learned more about myself, running a stable business, hiring, and motivation in the past 9 months of struggle than I did in the first two years of building Draft.dev.

In the interest of transparency and to let all the other entrepreneurs out there see it, I struggle too.

2023 in a Nutshell

Our second child was born in late 2022, and after three months off, my wife went back to work. Leo was cute and healthy (yay!), but he wasn’t a great sleeper. I probably averaged 5-6 hours of sleep per night for the first eight months of 2023.

Due to staffing shortages, the home daycare we planned to put him in was unable to take him right away, so from January to April, I took 2-3 days off work every week, with a nanny filling in the other three.

We’re extremely fortunate that we could find and afford a nanny for a short-term contract, but this was not an expense we had planned for. I also didn’t plan on cutting back my hours at work so dramatically.

This reduction in hours wouldn’t normally be a problem (my goal is for the business to run without me), except my main business, Draft.dev, was simultaneously taking a huge hit. Market forces were impacting our clients (tighter venture capital funding, higher interest rates, and lower technology company valuations), and forcing them to cut marketing budgets.

Draft. dev’s monthly revenue was down 50%-75% of its peak in 2022, and it became clear that demand wasn’t going to bounce back quickly.

I had to let go of over half the team. It was brutal.

I had several great team members who I just couldn’t afford to keep, but it was heartbreaking knowing that we had worked so hard to train and onboard them, only to let them go during a big tech downturn where it would be very difficult to find a new job.

Oh, and I Was Buying a New Company…

The process of acquiring The Podcast Consultant was too far along to stop by this point, and it closed during the lowest point in Draft. dev’s downturn.

I had envisioned spending 90% of my time on the new company, but because I had to cut the team so much, I was forced to step back into a sales role at Draft.dev too. I even spent a fair bit of time this summer editing and tech-reviewing content again.

I don’t mind working hard but keep in mind that during this same period, I was watching one kid a couple times per week, sleeping around 5 hours per night, and cutting my own paycheck as much as I could afford to.

The Personal Toll

As all this work stress was building, our dog (who we’ve had longer than our kids) started to get aggressive towards our oldest son. She attacked and bit him, completely unprovoked, so my partner and I decided we had to rehome her.

It was gutwrenching, and I still cry when I talk about it with my family.

Obviously, most of these stressors were circumstances outside of my control, but I can’t claim to be blameless either.

I wasn’t making time to work out (normally something I do 3-5 times per week), meal prep, or even take regular walks, and that just made the mental fatigue worse. I had few outlets and this led to me drinking more (and more frequently) than I normally would.

Many people in my professional life don’t know this, but I spent 8 years after college sober. I was running a lot and very focused on my health. After some injuries and having kids, I started drinking occasionally a couple of years ago.

But, when the stress picked up this year, I found myself struggling to moderate. One of my strengths is my obsessive, competitive personality, but I believe it also makes me susceptible to substance overuse. I never got into hard drugs, but when I am at a party drinking, I want to keep up with the best of them. (As an aside, I’ve since quit drinking completely and am 100x happier for it).

Unfortunately, poor habits beget poor habits, so this cycle worsened throughout the first half of the year. Lack of sleep, lack of exercise, bad diet, and drinking too much led me to sleep worse, exercise less, eat worse, and drink more.

Breaking the Cycle

Fortunately, I saw this cycle of decline, and it was pretty clear where it was going.

Despite all my flaws, I have a high level of self-awareness, and I do not suffer from a depressive personality. My natural optimism lends me to solutions-oriented thinking rather than allowing negative feedback loops to continue, so soon after I recognized the problem, I started to look for ways to address the factors that were within my control.

In August, things started to stabilize. It’s hard to say what came first, but I believe it’s all linked in some way:

  • Leo started regular daycare and started sleeping through the night consistently
  • Draft. dev’s business stabilized, and the team took on the sales work I had been helping with
  • The Podcast Consultant had a great first six months, and we closed lots of new deals
  • I started making time to work out and prioritized eating better
  • I quit drinking completely, removing the temptation to use it as a crutch when I felt stressed

What I Learned

In hindsight, 7-8 months doesn’t seem that long, but when you’re in the depths of it, it can feel like a neverending nightmare. That said, now that it’s behind me, I can take stock of the experience and I’m very grateful to have had it so early in my entrepreneurial career. Here are just a few of the things I learned this year:

  1. The tiger won’t kill you. Even if your business takes a nosedive, you’ll live.
  2. Keep your health in order. Don’t let diet, sleep, inactivity, or substances bring you down.
  3. Minimize fixed costs in your business. Leverage contractors as much as possible and keep subscriptions monthly (instead of forcing an annual lock-in).
  4. Get credit; know how much you’re comfortable using. It’s better to have it before you need it than after.
  5. Taking big risks might slow you down. If they don’t pan out, but you learn a lot

Taking the path of entrepreneurship is not easy. There were days this year that I wished I could ignore work, but unlike a regular job, you can’t just leave it at the office.

If you’ve been through struggles and you want to share them, or this helped you in any way, let me hear about it. Find me on Twitter/X.

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