Why Is Working On Our Mental Muscles the Most Important Job as Startup Founders?

With Nadav Shoval,
Co-founder & CEO of OpenWeb

At the age of 2, Nadav’s parents took him to the doctor, and when he checked him - he became pale. Nadav was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease, a violent disease which can really harm the muscles and potentially can even cause death. It was really hard for Nadav to use a pen and write, so he had to take a computer to school, as it was much easier for him to type. It was a cause of shame for him in the beginning, but that’s exactly what brought him to get into coding at the age of 7, and thanks to that he discovered the magic in the world of online communication. 

There wasn’t a lot of knowledge at the 90’s, not only on his disease, but on other things he was later diagnosed with - ADHD, Dyslexia, and OCPD. His parents were extremely supportive, but didn’t know how to help him - it was brutally hard. 

“You don’t know what you don’t know. As a kid you’re being told things, you're being asked for some things, and you don’t really know who you are. You don’t know why you do what you do, you just think - this is who I am, this is life, because you don’t have something to compare it to, you don’t have the toolbox to have this type of understanding and analyze it.”

Joining the army, he knew he wanted to do something meaningful with his time, to contribute to the people he cares about and people in general. Cut to 2013, when he was diagnosed with PTSD after his service, with the help of Avishai Abrahami, the CEO of Wix, who was one of his early investors. He taught him the valuable tools of meditation, mindfulness and NLP, and guided him with a lot of wisdom and sensitivity to accept that he’s suffering from PTSD and not to be afraid of it. He was very lucky to have a supportive environment that helped him see his blindspots:

“When me and my wife, which is the best thing that ever happened to me, first started dating, she told me all the time - ‘This is not normal, you don’t need to suffer’ and it opened my mind.”

When I asked him if it was the process of giving it a name that was meaningful, he had a beautiful and unexpected answer:

“Yes, although I don't like labeling, because I think each one of us is great at some things and not so great at others, and at the end of the day - we build our own habits, we build our own lives, we build our own vision. I don’t want to be like somebody else, and we should always be curious to learn and improve. The only good thing about these labels is that it gives you information - and I believe in science, so I can see I’m part of a bigger thing that others deal with as well, and this is how they deal with it. It helps you understand what tool box you can use to continue to function and feel better.” 

In the beginning, he had mixed feelings about it - he was happy to know that there's a name to what he’s experiencing, but was also afraid it made him a ‘broken’ person.

But now, as weird as it may sound, he’s grateful for everything:

“I’m not happy about everything I’ve been through, but without the Kawasaki disease I wouldn't know how to code, without my OCPD  I wouldn’t be able to build the productivity habits I have today, without my ADHD maybe I wouldn’t be as creative and, without my PTSD I wouldn’t learn deeply about mindfulness and be able to truly enjoy the present moment in life - so I am grateful. And now I want to help others to enjoy life, if I can.”

Nadav knows what it’s like being on the other side, feeling this pain and not knowing what to do with it and how to contain it:

“I think a lot of founders, athletes, artists, executives, teachers - go through a lot, and don’t talk about it because there are stigmas and negativity about it. They are not enjoying life.” 


90% of our conversations are about everyday things. We don’t tend to share about the best 5% news of our life because we feel ashamed, and the same goes with the worst 5% we are dealing with - the bottom of the pit. In YPO, a global organization of people, executives, that run companies in every field, they want to change that. There, you don’t focus on giving advice - it’s about sharing openly about your life, and listening deeply. Something we all crave but don’t always know how to ask for. 

They meet in small groups each month for a few hours - everyone there is very busy but they still show up - the consistency of meeting face to face is a chore component of their vision. 

Being a part of this community taught him a lot - mostly about perspective. Through sharing and listening he learned that his highest and lowest moments compared to others - are just normal. Everybody goes through those ups and downs. Even in totally different fields, they find that in the end, they all go through the same things. Now they can feel a true relief in knowing - it’s not them, it’s just life. And we can deal with those big issues and still come out on the other side. 

“A growth mindset in most cases is knowing that you don’t know what you don’t know”.

There is so much knowledge out there about being a founder of a startup, so much good advice and bad advice, an enormous amount of data that can really overwhelm us if we try to digest it all. But in Nadav’s eyes, it’s simple:

It’s about persistence and determination. There's a lot of milestones, and each time you hit one you realize there’s 10 more that you didn’t know about, but founding a company is so unique and also so brutally hard - it’s all about being persistent and resilient, and understanding you're going to go through a lot. If you don’t have the strong perspective that you're going to go through ‘hell’ sometimes - you won’t get to ‘heaven’”

Nadav shares that finding his first co-founder, Ishay Green, was a big challenge he faced in his entrepreneurial journey. It took him many months to find the original co-founder, and even the right person to be a co-founder isn’t always the right person to be a leader in the next stages of the company. Nadav figured it out the hard way, as he and his partner brought the company together to a very good place, but after that, problems arose in the dynamics of his co-founder and the team, and they realized that it’s no longer right for him to stay - his co-founder needed to step down. It was painful, but necessary, and they’re still friends today.

“I truly believe no one was born a great leader. It’s all about the ability to help others be the best versions of themselves, work together, grow and learn. Founders are not leaders by definition - for a founder to be a great leader, they need to go through a lot - know their weak spots, their strengths, surround themselves with knowledge and the right people, and they need to make mistakes in order to know what's working and what's not in order to coach others.”

We often think that being a leader means taking care of everything, managing and taking all the responsibility on your shoulders - but really, it’s the opposite. It’s opening your perspective and knowing how to coach people you put your trust in, so that they can do it even better than you, to accelerate and help drive the company forward because you have the same goal - allowing it to be ‘ours’ instead of ‘mine’. It’s really hard, and definitely not for everyone, and that’s okay.

And lastly, Nadav shared with me what helped him the most as a young founder -

“be true to yourself - if you really want to grow a company, put the time, the sweat and the tears, it’s going to be brutally painful in most cases, but if you're going to continue to fight for what you care about and have real meaning behind it, and if through all of the turbulence you’ll stay focused and determined - there's no way you won’t succeed. I believe it with every cell of my body.”

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