Startups & Mental Health: A Taboo Worth Discussing

From the founder working out of their parent’s garage to the CEO of a multi-million dollar startup, all entrepreneurs have one thing in common: they’re human beings. In this article, we look at the side of entrepreneurship that is rarely seenthe struggles of building a business, and the hidden stories of how founders survive in their worst moments.

In the smog-filled winter of 2016, Jamie Craig had a problem. “I was in China, in the midst of travelling and delivering workshops between four different cities when I got the news: my China-based friend was pulling out of a long intended plan to join my new Chinese startup, Grow Forward China.”

“For the previous six months Monica* (pseudonym) had helped with every step of the way. We had a wonderful rapport and professional relationship, and she was my answer to every complex China-related challenge. I didn’t quite realise how much I depended on her for answers and support on the challenging road into China.”

Jamie laid like a starfish, staring at the ceiling of his hotel room in Shanghai. “My head was spinning. When I traveled to China my wife had to look after our young family. Now it felt like a central pillar holding up the business had suddenly collapsed.”

Bonny Morlak had a similar experience eight years earlier. “If things get bad in a startup, they get really really bad. You have dwindling income and then you have to fight with unsatisfied early stage customers. Everyone’s angry at you. Your family and kids are angry at you. Your customers are angry at you. You’re working 80 hour weeks, and you’re going backwards!”

“After a year of working in that environment, I felt so burnt out that I laid in bed one weekend and didn’t get up. I felt I had no choice.  I didn’t react to anyone talking to me. Didn’t even attempt to connect to my own family.”

“When I got up three days later, doing simple things was still a major effort. Leaving my bed. Brushing my teeth. Eating. Everything was drained out of me, and I had to work my way back up again.”

“The problem with depression is you’re the CEO and the hustler. You can’t go into a meeting with a negative headspace! You have to squeeze out the last little bit of happiness you have, and when you come home to your family you have nothing left.”

A rollercoaster ride of emotions 

Entrepreneurs routinely experience situations at both ends of the spectrum. Aivee Robinson—cofounder of Catalyser, gave the same opinion. “It’s a rollercoaster. One moment you win a client, the next you’re rejected. It’s bipolar for sure.” Alfred Boyadgis—founder of Forcite Helmet Systems added to Aivee’s view. “Ever since we started, we’ve been at best three months from becoming insolvent. But the financial stress also means there’s a lot of pressure when it comes time to talk to investors.”

Even Elon Musk shared the same sentiment in speaking about entrepreneurship. In a tour of the Tesla Factory, Musk responded: “I think it’s very difficult to start companies and quite painful. There’s a friend of mine who’s got a good phrase for doing a startup. He says it’s like eating glass and staring into the abyss. If you go into it expecting it to be fun, you’ll be disappointed.”

In summary: if you’re doing a startup, you’re probably crazy (sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves).

Building a business, especially a high-growth startup, can be incredibly stressful. It requires taking on financial risk, a non-stop workload, sacrificing relationships and investing lots of time into a venture that has no guarantee of success. The uncertainty often leads founders to burnout and exhaustion.

It’s not just the activity that burns entrepreneurs out however. As Jamie mentions, “one of the most intense challenges of entrepreneurship is to believe in yourself when no one else does. It takes a lot of inner strength to maintain one’s belief in their mission, even after bewildering disappointments.”

Bonny, after founding multiple startups throughout his career, knew these difficulties well. “The stresses of course is making big commitments of time and money—it’s 100% of your time—60-80 hour weeks. Then you borrow money from people you like. It’s huge pressure. If your mum gives you $10,000 and she doesn’t have any money—and you screw up, it’s a big blow.”

In an unpublished article titled “Are Entrepreneurs Touched With Fire?”, researcher Michael Freeman and his colleagues took surveys from 242 entrepreneurs and 93 non-entrepreneurs. They found 72% of entrepreneurs had some relationship with a mental health disorder, whether it be through family members (23%), or through personal experience (49%).

Entrepreneurs were on average more likely to have ADHD, substance abuse problems or bipolar disorder than non-entrepreneurs, had a higher chance of having two or more mental disorders and a direct family relationship to someone with a mental health condition.

UPDATE: KPMG High-Growth Ventures Sydney published a report on founder’s mental health (2018) that is worth a read. Sydney is now also home to the Founder Circle, a support group for founders.

If psychological health isn’t properly managed, the stress of entrepreneurship can be devastating to founders, and their employees. Many suicides and attempted suicides have been reported across Silicon Valley and in other startup hubs across the world. Jody Sherman, founder of Ecomom took his life in January 2013 after running out of capital. Eric Salvatierra, an executive at PayPal, did the same in March 2012.

Despite the prevalence of these stresses, there is still far too little conversation about mental health in the entrepreneurship community. In a 2010 research paper, Thierry Volery and Janine Pullich found that of the six entrepreneurs they interviewed, five had a vague understanding of how to define mental or physical health. Many of the founders interviewed viewed health as being free of sickness or pain, and few had an idea of how well-being related to business performance.

“It’s surprising,” says Duco van Breemen, General Manager of Haymarket HQ, “that something as important as mental health is not talked about in the context of entrepreneurship. You can’t expect to excel at work if you’re depressed, anxious or are battling with insecurities about your business. Unfortunately, outside of the “go meditate for 10 minutes a day” type of advice, there’s little support for entrepreneurs that are going through some of the toughest times in their lives.”

The Importance of Community For Founders

From our research on why founders chose to work out of Haymarket HQ, one of the top reasons was being able to talk to others about their business. Rinat Sadykov, founder of Cozitrip summarised it best. “I can go to one founder to talk about SEO. I can go to another to talk about marketing strategy in China. And if I’m struggling, there’s always people who will listen. It speeds up the process of entrepreneurship and it makes things that would’ve been difficult so much simpler.”

But the same openness isn’t always present in the rest of the entrepreneurship ecosystem. “What you end up with,” says Bonny, “are lots of founders that feel like frauds. You go to a startup event and everyone says they’re going well with lots of capital still in the bank, when they’ve had the worst news delivered to them this month. Everyone’s thinking the same thing, but they can’t share it with each other!”

One route to buffering against these stresses is by improving mental toughness. As Haymarket HQ’s in-house coach, Jamie was familiar with the field. “What I do for a living is sit down with people and understand how to work on their psychological core strength,” Jamie begins. “The idea is when you improve your psychological foundation, you can do everything better.”

The way he accomplishes this is by using an assessment called the MTQ48—a validated psychometric test designed to measure a person’s mental toughness across four aspects, known as the 4Cs: Control, Commitment, Challenge and Confidence. Each of these aspects can then be broken down into two sub-categories, which includes measures such as emotional control, life control—the confidence that a person can control their circumstances, and trust in one’s own abilities.

“The MTQ48 measures resilience. It can predict how you’re likely to perform when challenged, and how effective you are at seeing opportunities. People with a moderate level of mental toughness are able to manage their everyday life without being overly rigid or fearful, increasing their chances of producing top-quality results.”

Despite his business being built upon improving personal capacities, Jamie did have one caveat to the measure. “There’s a significant relationship between environment and psychological strength that is important to be aware of. A person with a healthy level of mental toughness can work in a difficult environment and pull through. But we’re only human. People can’t be stretched far beyond their limits without consequences.”

“Sometimes it takes more than grit and perseverance to pull through. Sometimes, it’s no longer about trying to accomplish everything through sheer willpower. In those cases, it’s crucial to acknowledge that all of us need support from others, not just from within ourselves.”

After his burnout experience, Bonny decided to spend a month talking to people for advice on what to do next. “It took a lot of digging, but after a few conversations I realised I completely neglected all the other parts of my life.”

“What pushed me over the edge was sleep deprivation and dehydration. When you feel you’re getting into a negative space, drinking three glasses of water can change everything. Then I started incorporating all the other stuff. Exercise. Vipassana meditation. I did a lot of small things to recover and it made me feel so much better.”

Bonny looked back at his burnout experience and pieced together the influences that led him there. “As a startup founder it’s all about grit, crushing it—everything is successful and peachy. But if you look behind the curtain of any successful startup it’s chaos. Yet there’s still no place you can tell the truth.”

Later, he found himself sitting in the Austrade landing pad in San Francisco. Almost by accident, the experience taught him the importance of being around similar people. “I was surrounded by eight other founders from different industries. I looked into their eyes, and I instantly knew they were going through the same shit as me. They were my tribe. They understood.”

“After a couple of these experiences, my friend and I wanted to put together a safe space where founders could vent their troubles. We were thinking it would be a roundtable—like in the movies—where whatever people discussed didn’t leave the room. We were thinking, instead of calling it a pitch night we could call it a bitch night!”

Before leaving for New York the following day, he ended with this statement: “Sometimes, being able to say things out loud to other people is helpful. It takes the edge off problems. If you’re a solo founder, it’s so easy to lose your path. But having good friends around makes you feel that if something goes wrong, it’s going to be okay.”