Founders know this advice well.
You shouldn't grip too tight to any role in your startup. As you scale, bring in the best recruits to take on each critical function. Then move on to the next developing area. Repeat.
But in the early days, becoming redundant is a laughable concept. You're doing everything. Wearing all the hats. If you don't do it, it doesn't get done.
That feeling weighed heavily on my mindset in the early Bleacher Report days. Shortly after we raised our seed round in 2008, I clashed with my co-founders over a long-planned trip to the Euro Cup soccer tournament.
They saw the trip as a justified perk of being in the sports business. I objected, on grounds that an extended break would slow our momentum. And what if a crisis came up?
So I stayed home in protest and to mind the store. In the end, all was fine and no crises arose. And by all accounts, the Euro trip was a blast.
Over the next couple years, B/R continued to grow. We brought in key people we trusted to keep things moving, even when we weren't around.
Soon, a new reality set in. Our startup had it's own momentum. It no longer depended on the founders alone to keep pushing it forward. Taking a true vacation became a real possibility.
It was a surreal feeling. And hard earned.
It was also a sign that we'd done our job as founders. We'd "replaced ourselves."
Khe shared his plan to take a full two months off this summer. But unlike a startup founder, Khe can't really replace himself. He is RadReads. Such is the life of a solopreneur.
As a creator, you're not conditioned to replace yourself. Your audience and business revolve around you. Like me during the early days of B/R, you feel the pressure to be on all the time. Except there's no endpoint in sight.
What about the worry that you might lose momentum? It's real. Algorithmic platforms reward continuous posting. Getting juice in the algo takes consistent effort. If you don't use it, you lose it. I'm getting anxiety just thinking about it.
But not all creators live on this treadmill. A filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino releases a new film every few years. His audience expects this cadence. They don't "unfollow" him if the time between movies stretches a little too long.
Of course, even some traditional creators can test their audience's patience. Have you also waited over a decade for George R.R. Martin to finish Winds of Winter? I feel your pain.
So for web-native creators who feel burnout's creep, how do you take a break?
I asked the Twitter hive mind, and they obliged with some ideas:
- Take regularly scheduled breaks: TV shows have been doing this for a long time. They're called seasons. Podcasts do this as well. But even standalone creators can plan their breaks in advance. You might find it helpful to use the break time to organize your next "season" around a new theme or idea.
- Re-runs: To borrow another concept from TV, use a break to re-surface older content that your audience may have missed. At Inverse, we'd employ this during the end of year holiday season. With a slower news cycle and more staff on vacation, we'd prep end-of-year retrospectives on some of our best stories from the last twelve months. They would do great numbers. Just goest to show that older content doesn't necessarily mean it's bad.
- Bring in a guest host or writer: Radio shows and TV talk shows have done this for decades. Podcasts often do it as well. But you could also bring in a guest writer or writers for a newsletter. Jason Kottke will often hand over the keys to a trusted guest like Tim Carmody. Bringing in a guest can also be a way for you to spotlight up and coming talent to your audience.
- Let your community take over: Take it a step further by making your audience active participants in your time off. Ben Thompson of Stratechery will often feature audience guest posts while he's on a break. PewDiePie takes at least a one month break every year. But his fervent audience continues to post memes and jokes in his massive subreddit, so when he comes back he doesn't miss a beat.
- Give yourself permission: Khe talked about breaking free from self-imposed pressure. For many creators, consistently creating is part of their identity. When the consistency is more important than the creativity, that's a problem. Giving yourself permission to step off the hamster wheel can be incredibly freeing.
- Just be transparent: Sometimes burnout creeps in and you just need to hit the brakes. When that happens, transparency is always the best policy. Many creators put undue expectations on themselves to maintain a high level of output. The audience is often much more understanding than they realize. That was the experience of Jessica Williams of #JessPicks.
Neil Young may have sang that "it's better to burn out than to fade away." But with all due respect to Neil, I'm here to tell you there's a better option.
Just take a break.