As of lately, I’ve seen quite a few articles about mental health (and lack thereof) among startup founders.
Sifted published an analysis about The existential loneliness of the founder CEO, which describes the pressure from investors, feelings of being removed from your own team and a bad work-life balance as reasons why “77% of founders felt that running a business had affected their mental health.”
Other media have reported on burnout, stress and anxiety among entrepreneurs - and recently, one of my own VCs, byFounders, admirably launched a coaching programme to help founders struggling with mental well-being.
Reasons for mental health among founders
It’s easy to see why life as a startup founder would take its toll on you.
- 95 % of all startups fail and founders often put a lot at risk when opening up a new business: money and relationships especially but also pride and reputation. Being nervous about that is pretty rational.
- You are under pressure to perform - from investors, competitors, yourself - and you have to work long hours to reach your targets. Being a startup founder is not your usual 9-5 job. (If I was a bigger cliché, I would have said that it’s a lifestyle).
- And you are very often alone with your decisions. There is rarely anyone to guide you or validate you except for the numbers. The market changes rapidly, so what worked just a few years ago might not apply very well anymore. You are working in unchartered territory.
That is also what makes it so fun. You have a lot at stake, you are under pressure to give your best, and there is no manual for your job. I wouldn’t be able to live without that challenge.
So in the end it’s a balance.
I personally think that the mental health issue is really important. For everyone on your team really. As a founder, you are responsible for creating an environment where everyone thrives even when the pressure is high and the targets steep. And you have to look out for yourself to prevent burnout and maintain the passion. But also to perform well. You are not making good decisions when you are distressed and exhausted.
Here is how I overcome it
Somehow, I’ve managed to avoid most of the negative consequences. I take a lot of pride in the fact that we haven’t had any incidents of burnout or stress in Contractbook. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the pressure. I do. I sometimes get imposter syndrome and catch myself thinking that I’m just a convincing speaker or maybe there is a new tech bubble building up. I get exhausted after long days of work. And I am in serious doubt about many of my strategic decisions.
But I often try to turn it around and see it as a strength.
- Doubt also makes me better. Reflecting on my own performance enables me to optimize, try new perspectives and be more honest about what works and what doesn’t. I consider doubt as a fruitful feeling because it makes me improve. It's a dream catcher for contentment and stubbornness - as you are constantly forced to consider whether things could be different.
- The pressure and nervousness come because I am afraid to lose what I have. I am afraid because I have something I care about. That is a privileged position to be in. I have resources. I have good people around me. And I know that many dreams of being in my position. CEO’s, in general, shouldn’t complain too much about their life - they are usually doing quite well.
- Imposter syndrome keeps my feet on the ground. It makes me humble and aware of my own limits. I don’t look down on myself, but I look up to others. I try to be aware of my own mistakes and recognize other people’s strengths. There is nothing worse than the boomer CEO who thinks he knows everything about everything just because he can run a profitable business. Being a good CEO doesn’t make you an expert in French wine and the stock market. And it doesn’t make you a good CMO. It’s good to know your own limits and surround yourself with people smarter or more talented than yourself.
My second piece of advice is to be honest with the people around you. The entrepreneur culture is often a bit macho. You are not allowed to show weakness and doubt, because you have to have constant success and celebrate new wins every day. But that is bullshit. Being able to share your doubts and frustrations with people on your team makes it easier to navigate life as a founder. As I wrote last time, I spent a lot of time recruiting authentic people that I personally trust. The fruit of that is that I don’t have to keep up appearances all the time. I would encourage anyone to do the same.
And my third (and maybe most important advice) is to find ways to escape the pressure by thinking about something else - or nothing at all. I play basket twice a week. When I have a pulse is 160 and need to help the team, then I don’t have the mental capacity to think about my business. It’s a kind of meditation. I could also be running intervals or painting water lilys, but basketball does the trick for me. Find the thing that makes you zone out for a moment and establish a routine of doing it every week. You need that.