founder burnout

A founder’s path is often a lonely one filled at times with self-doubt, loss of confidence and fatigue. Being a multiple startup founder, I have much to reflect on and understand what happened to me.

You see, I am not only a startup founder, I’m also a person in recovery– from depression, anxiety and insomnia.

These mood disorders may seem fluffy, but for majority of us, we would most certainly have understood stress and frustration in our entrepreneurial journey.

For us founders, failing fast, failing early is the mantra but how many of us are equipped mentally to embrace failures, one after another and be able to march forward relentlessly till we reach scale.

As a young founder, I harboured dreams that I could change the world, create a tiny ripple in this vast ocean. Like some, I chose the route of spending any free time I had on a side tech project while slaving away in a corporate day job. I was bootstrapping myself and it was incredibly exciting.

Little did I realise, balancing two intense jobs would take a toll on me. I started to stumble, committing every mistake there was to make in the founder’s rulebook and before I knew it, I had burnout without even being aware of it.

Without proper guidance and a stubborn will to cross the finish line at all cost, I was soon managing a zombie tech project on life support. Mentally, I was fatigued but refused to accept the idea of mental wellness. I would rather believe in the wind than accept I was suffering from burnout, though both were invisible and widely acknowledged.

As I rejected the notion of burnout, it developed into depression and a range of other mood disorders. Finally, it proved so exhausting that I was no longer getting out of bed much and I meekly surrendered to the fact that I needed help.

Also Read: Ryan Chew of Tribe: Why startups should pay attention to the environmental, social, and governance side of their business

The turning point came on a Monday, where instead of turning up at work, I checked myself into a hospital. Apparently, my condition was severe enough to warrant a week’s staycation.

Looking back, there are so many red flags and potential minefields any founder can encounter in their entrepreneurial journey. The idea of accepting failure as a good teacher to eventual success is noble. But the reality of it is, our minds have limited capacity to keep sponging up the stumbles and falls.

There will be days we feel grey, we lose hope and we struggle with our ideas. There will be moments where we make comparisons with our peers who are successful and we wonder why we are doing what we do. The challenges faced by Founders can range from vulnerability, imposter syndrome, stress, and anxiety amongst a range of roller-coaster emotions.

The startup world exacts every pound of sweat, passion, energy, and strength from founders, who, with their noses against the grindstone, often handle the workload of three or more people every day. Due to this high-intensity lifestyle, founders often end up experiencing burnout.

A few years ago, Business Insider published an article about depression in the startup community. According to the article, seven per cent of the general population report suffering from depression, while 30 per cent of founders report dealing with its effects, and more than 50 per cent of those get to burnout.

In the early 2010s, a clinical professor and entrepreneur by the name of Dr Michael Freeman surveyed 242 entrepreneurs about their mental health. Of the 242 entrepreneurs he surveyed, 49 per cent reported having a mental health condition.

While there are no specific studies focusing on entrepreneurs, there are countless clinical research papers and statistics on the rise of depression and burnout in the general workforce population. The contributing factors range from long hours of work, little personal interaction to a general loss of meaning in professional life.

Also Read: For your mind only: How to deal with founder’s burnout

Founder burnout is as real as it can be.

How can we change the world and not be a shadow of ourselves at the end of it?

It begins by understanding the cause of founders’ burnout. Normal stress can be healthy, and it can even contribute to one’s peak performance. But when we consistently don’t recuperate by resting, we start building chronic stress, which can lead to any combination of disorders and illnesses, ranging from hormonal disorders, muscle tension and aches, weakened immune response, to anxiety, depression, irritability, and insomnia.

Eventually, the continuous stress on the body over a long period of time disturbs the endocrine system, it starts taking over everything that the brain considers nonessential, like sleep, digestion, and the reproductive system. This is when burnout starts. At its highest degree, burnout is a state of complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion.

From my own journey, I have reflected and identified some key learnings to avoid Founders burnout. I am sharing them here so you don’t have to go through what I did:

Identify your self-worth
I observed some entrepreneurs tend to identify completely with their work, which leads to their moods and sense of self-worth becoming intertwined with the ups and downs of their business.

It’s important to be invested in the business but even more so to invest in one’s mental health. Without the founder leading the vision, the entire startup cannot go on. You cannot give if your glass is empty.

Find your tribe
The founder’s journey can be incredibly lonely, no matter how successful your startup is. There will always be naysayers and difficult decisions no one else can make, except by the Founder. There will be many moments where we find ourselves at a cross junction, struggling with the what-ifs.

It is extremely important we gather support within the startup community, to ask questions, to bounce ideas and to support each other by validating what we do. I call it ‘mental fuel’ and we need it to go on to create something great. Remember, for every doubt a founder has, you can be sure you’re not alone within the community.

Let go
While I am not necessarily a God-fearing individual, I understand we can never control things we simply cannot. And in the startup journey, there are so many variables that are just uncontrollable. There are a million and one things that can go wrong in this path to greatness and often, to keep winning, founders can be harsh on themselves. Remember, be kind to yourself and don’t sweat the small stuff.

Also Read: How ThoughtFull aims to destigmatise mental health through daily chats with professionals

Leave time for me-time
Entrepreneurs sometimes relate their own sense of purpose with the purpose of their business, which can be dangerous when the bubble bursts, leaving the entrepreneur completely empty. Be reminded to put things into perspective and leave time for family, friends and exercise. Setting aside time for relationships and self-care can recharge a Founder multiple folds and last longer in this challenging entrepreneurial journey.

Celebrate the small wins (in a big way)
In the course of a Founder’s startup journey, there will be wins and losses, just like a basketball regular season. Hit that pause button to acknowledge and celebrate the small wins. While we may not necessarily get that hockey stick chart we all love, enough small wins make an upwards linear line. And that’s called progress.

There is a mental health crisis in entrepreneurship

As I embarked on my recovery journey, it is also through this wish to share my lived experiences with others that I founded CARA Unmask, a community based mobile platform where users can connect anonymously and securely with trained peer supporters and professional counsellors.

Global statistics and market surveys indicate two big findings:

  • One of the biggest issues preventing someone with mood disorder from seeking help is stigma
  • It takes someone on average from six to 11 years before they sought help with their mood disorder

Our mission is to overcome stigma and be that global digital front door to more conversations about our mental health. We aim to be the first line prevention, rather than handling higher cost, time and efforts for bigger mental health issues further downstream.

They say products are often a function of the founder’s experience. In this case, I simply wanted another to not have to go through the mental struggles and difficulties I encountered in my startup journey. There may not be necessarily anything serious about a founder’s mental health when they on board CARA but it does provide a safe space to share their struggles within a community that cares, rather than keep things snowballing inside.

Also Read: 7 strategies for beating startup burnout

Startup founders are one of the most inspirational people around; the will to persevere on and strong desire to make things better is bar none. However, the same group of people is also vulnerable to poor mental health, if not careful.

The journey to startup greatness can be lonely. So, start looking out for another fellow Founder and nudge them with a reminder to take care. After all, there is no true health without mental health.

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Image credit: Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

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