Founders are not fuel to be burnt on the altar of innovation
Startup founders are stressed and anxious. The media and the community perpetuate the image of the miracle worker at the edge of what is possible. Naturally, focus and hard work do drive innovation, but most of the anxiety and identity struggles reduce bandwidth, create inner conflict and sometimes mental illness. Founders, startups, and the whole community need to prioritize mental wellness and signal how sustainable innovation is a better way. We don’t need performance porn of founder meditation, but a systematic approach to push the envelope with the limited means and pressure that are a reality of startups. We are not surprised that Olympic athletes work all the time, but they have a support system and a community that wants them to succeed.
Many startup founders get mental issues from the stress and pressure of running and scaling a startup. Statistically, founders are more prone to issues due to personality traits but the context aggravates the problem. I’ve said it before: being a founder is hell.
In the beginning, a startup is almost an artistic endeavor; there are more uncertainties and changes than there are regular or focused days. You haven’t got anything, but the anticipation, the degrees of freedom, and the identity shifts are very psychologically tolling.
When you have found the elusive product-market fit, or at least being able to communicate that you “know what you are doing,” new pressures arise. The two biggest are that now the pressure is on from everyone around you — investors, employees, peers, and even spouses who still might challenge why you left your stable life for a whimsical idea — but also that you still have to have a superficial over-conviction while still doubting inside if the idea will work. And flipping back and forth between these.
Your identity is so closely linked to the company. The founders’ mantra is that if the company fails you are clearly a failure. Clearly, if you mess up this company it was ultimately your fault, doesn’t breed a relaxed mind.
In a normal career every day adds to your CV, but in a startup, the outcome can be very binary. Daily you have to remind everyone, including yourself, that you are on track to “crushing it.” Just the opportunity cost can be tolling.
If this wasn’t enough, running a startup is a lot of work, meaning you omit the basics of sanity fertilizer; sleep, exercise, friends, and a healthy diet. It is the perfect storm of psychological anxiety.
This is clearly not good for anyone — the founder naturally, but also investors and society that yearn for the startup’s success. Sadly, the culture of the startup ecosystem doesn’t lean towards fixing these problems, so we’ll have to change it and take a much more active stance to create innovation without destroying the brightest minds.
To summarize: founders are more predisposed to mental illness, they put immense pressure on themselves, and the community adds to the toll. This is not sustainable and not good for anyone.
Naturally, upending the status quo, pushing the envelope, and innovation will never be easy. It will always be a lot of work, under a lot of pressure, and with a spotlight of perfection shining till it hurts. Sometimes the ambition, and even a sense of not belonging and the need to prove oneself, is the core of what gets people to do the impossible.
Founders have different mental health problems than other taxing professions such as lawyers, consultants, investment bankers, or doctors. Let’s get to the root of why founders are different, and in some aspects worse, and how to fix it.
People — including founders themselves — see founders that attempt to change reality in mythical terms: fools or heroes, demons or gods; magical creatures who have emerged from the underworld with the new secret to life. And, the founder is the company.
At the same time, we all know being on the inside of a startup, that most of the time we are not “crushing it.” We are either on the border of failing, or we are clueless. On good days something follows the expected path.
The dissonance in identity — the mask a founder needs to wear and the inside reality — pulls a person apart. We are lying to ourselves and that hurts mentally.
In one way, it is like make-up. You can fix yourself so you look stunning, but then you fear how you would look when you wake-up and don’t want to be seen. You become the perfect person on the outside and don’t accept the real you.
We are wandering around in a dark forest and need to tell everyone we know that we are on the right way.
One simple trick is to keep your personal, digital, identity separate. Use your work email to sign up for work-related services, and your personal email for personal things. You and the company are not the same.
The most important way is of course to be other things than the company — parent, sister, friend, hiker, etc.
The problem is of course that people about to join or invest want to hear that they are backing a winner, so the system doesn’t encourage honesty and vulnerability.
The first step to fixing the mental toll is to acknowledge that things are not as great as they seem. Not in our own company, but also understanding that the KPIs are not greener on the other side. If you left and joined that other company, you’d figure out that they are as lost in the forest as you. Anyone who has been acquired can attest to that.
Find a way, to be honest with at least some people with yourself and your company. Don’t perpetuate hustle porn. Share how hard it is to run a company. Don’t feel alone, and don’t make others feel alone.
And, care a lot less what other people think: Be the captain of your own ship.
Even if founders aren’t gods or magical creatures, we have to realize that founders and startup people are not normal people. The level of focus is what gets them to do miracles. But anxiety reduces bandwidth and bandwidth is all a start-up has. Sometimes telling ourselves that stress is good will help. But, it is a double-edged sword.
I’m a big believer in coaches, therapists, and peers.
A good coach can help you figure out what is “startup normal.” But, don’t get a “life coach” and outsource the ownership of well-being. You are still the captain of your own ship, but it is great with advice from someone who gets startups.
Therapists are not only for people who are “mentally ill.” Therapists are amazing. You can find executive coaches, wellness-coaches and cognitive therapists to help you understand yourself, arm you with tools to handle situations, and frame problems.
Lastly, peers are what really tells you normal is. Find people in a similar stage that you can talk to and share what you feel. They don’t have to be next door, just as you can talk with a friend on the other side of the globe. Remember that a good relationship is about respect so be non-judgemental and focus on the other person.
Make wellness a priority. Set off time and money for coaching, therapy, and reflection. It is your job as a founder to make sure you scale so wellness should be a line item on the P&L. Block your calendar. Upgrading and keeping your mind in trim are not a sign of weakness, but a way to be at your best.
And, the best way of getting things done and not be over-stressed is to say no to other things. Prioritizing is not what you do, but what you don’t do.
Founders or not, if you don’t sleep, eat and exercise you will break down. Of course, there is no time for it, but we need to make time. It isn’t cool to sleep little or work all night. Sometimes it is needed, but it shouldn’t be considered a performance.
Swimming or running doesn’t only make you feel well, it empties your mind in a needed way. Sometimes being bored is the best way to not only defrag your mind, but to come up with novel solutions. Sadly, we fill every bored moment with podcasts, mobile games, social coffees, and other things to escape being alone with ourselves.
I think we all need to figure out what works for us, but watch out for performance porn of wellness. Don’t obsess at the outcome, but the process.
Sometimes you need a break with the team and having fun together. A good way to remind yourself why you liked working with them. But remember, for some people, a team offsite or dinner can be yet another stress, and for others it is enjoyable. Don’t add more burden, but take breaks and do pleasurable things.
At the end of the day, getting things done is about focus, and focus is about what you don’t do. You have to say no to most things, but don’t say no to the basics of mental hygiene.
You might think that you are doing the most important thing right now and that if you won’t “nail it” you are nothing. And, surrounding yourself with great peers, who are also building startups, will only increase this belief.
Most founders have a delusional over-conviction, which sometimes needed to succeed, but of course, is the first step to hurting yourself.
Meet people who are not startup people. Like — normal people. Friends from before. Family. This will help you with perspective and get you out of the all-or-nothing thinking — which is what is correlated with depression. Don’t drag your friends and family into your world, but enter their world.
There are, like it or not, more important things in this world that you and what you are up to right now, and people have had it worse than you have right now.
You can realize that the most successful people you know of are people too. They are having a bad day, want to meet the love of their life, and can mistakingly rant at some diver on Twitter.
You might feel that you are irreplaceable, but remember that a company can only scale as long as the founders’ scale. Make sure you keep fit, get a coach, and get better, but also hire amazing people. If you don’t care about anything but the outcome, realize that your “investment” isn’t worth anything if you crash while being a bottleneck.
Expect your co-founders to scale and to share the burden. If anyone of you become a bottleneck, maybe that person needs to get a more experienced replacement, because otherwise, the burden of incapability lands upon the others.
Check in with the founding team regularly and keep a frank and honest dialogue if everyone is doing what they are best at and enjoy. If your goal is to scale, then put the company before the person. If you want to founders to keep all the key positions, work on growing them, or admit that you are building a lifestyle company and enjoy it. You should build the company you want to build, not someone else’s.
Hire for culture fit. People might have worked at the most impressive companies in the world, but if they don’t share your values or fit the company culture, they don’t fit the company.
I want to thank all the entrepreneurs and investors who contributed with material and stories. This is a hard topic to discuss, but we have to. Share this post with a peer, co-founder, or investor and start the discussion.
Founders are not fuel to be burnt on the altar of innovation
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