May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it reminded me of an email I got from a VC mailing list. Leaders don’t often feel like they can — or should – share their stress and worries, especially with their team. Which is why I was surprised to see this statement in an email sent to founders and CEOs of a leading Silicon Valley VC firm:
“Ever since I started the company, I’ve lost the ability to sleep through the night. I wake up with worries and concerns and anxieties, and toss and turn a lot.”
Most of the founders and executives on that email list run companies that have raised tens to hundreds of millions of venture dollars and employ several hundreds, even thousands, of smart, driven people. But within minutes of that email going out, dozens of responses poured in, all echoing the same sentiment: “Wait, me too.”
Many also expressed their relief to discover they weren’t alone.
As a startup founder, it’s so easy to think that you’re the only one confronting these challenges. But in the US, one in five people suffer from emotional and mental health symptoms every year – and only a small subset of people seek and receive care. For entrepreneurs and people going through drastic career changes, these symptoms and numbers are magnified — but it doesn’t have to be this way.
To quote Ben Horowitz, “The most important lesson in entrepreneurship: Embrace the struggle.” Once you understand what you’re going through, you too can build the positive mental habits and skills you need to overcome roadblocks when the going gets tough.
Startup Stress, by the Numbers
Stress impacts the team at every level in an early-stage startup — from the CEO to the newest hire. Amongst co-founders using Ginger.io, we found that 71 percent identified ‘stress’ as a key challenge for them. Additionally, 57 percent identified ‘anxiety’ as their leading challenge.
Starting a Company Isn’t Easy
If employees working at established corporations — with all of the resources and support that having a team offers — are stressed out, imagine how stressful it is to go solo as a startup founder or co-founder. Creating something that doesn’t exist today is challenging. Innovation is risky. Each step you take — from building a prototype to hiring people — multiplies the risk.
Within a single week, a founding team may experience any number of these scenarios or more:
- Failing product features
- Customer rejections
- Early team conflicts
- Worries about making payroll
- Investors doubting your ability
- Unsuccessful legal or banking negotiations
- Spouses or family questioning your persistence
4 Crucial Ways to Keep Your Head in the Game
As the founder of a company that helps people with stress, anxiety and depression, I’m able to tap into the knowledge of our coaches, therapists and psychiatrists. Our team supports employees from leading technology, finance, media companies and law firms — industries where long hours and stressful jobs are the norm.
Based on what I’ve learned, here’s my playbook for getting through challenging times as a startup founder:
When in doubt, ask yourself what drives you.
Creating something that didn’t exist before, like a new product, service or company, is incredibly risk and hard — why even bother? Instead, you could have a corporate job, financial security and a predictable schedule. Launching a startup makes no sense financially, so why are you doing this?
Remind yourself of what drives you when you hit an obstacle or feel lost.
Dealing with challenges is much easier when you believe the problem is an important one to solve. Whenever I’m stressed about our future and success, my wife reminds me of all the people with emotional health issues who would have no alternative if companies like Ginger.io didn’t exist. She says, “Remember that the world is a better place because people like you, creatives, innovators and entrepreneurs, believe in a better future.”
Don’t take feedback personally, look at the bigger picture.
Being a leader means getting feedback constantly, all the time, and it’s usually not positive. For example, starting a company means facing a lot of rejection from clients, investors, partners and job candidates.
When you care strongly about your company, it’s hard not to take feedback personally — but if you do that, you’ll miss seeing the bigger picture.
Negative feedback, like rejection, isn’t a reflection of you. Instead, it’s crucial information that you need to have about the state of the market, your industry and your product.
When you receive negative feedback, instead of becoming discouraged, ask more questions and find out the reasons behind their reaction. Perhaps this customer has had negative experiences with similar companies or the investor you’re talking to has insight into the market that you’re missing.
Build resiliency today, so tomorrow is easier.
Being able to take rejection and negative feedback and learn from it will help you become more resilient as a leader.
There are also many other behavior changes that you can make to build resilience and lower the stress and anxiety of starting a company. Ginger.io coaches help our members build positive habits using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). CBT is an evidence-based approach that suggests positive behavior changes can influence your cognitive state.
When I saw how our coaches help members A/B test positive habits, like setting a better sleep schedule, changing to a healthier diet and exercising, I tried this out myself. I tested eating breakfast at different times and waking up earlier (and later) as well as creating “protected time” on my calendar to give me space to think and reflect every day. I discovered that certain things, like meditation, didn’t work for me, but that taking time off to ski was a good equivalent.
Building resilience starts with basics, like eating well and getting enough sleep, but it’s important to test different strategies to find out what works for you.
Surround yourself with family, friends and colleagues who care.
There’s a reason people say that, “It’s lonely at the top.” Many leaders I’ve met over the years take a lot of responsibility and don’t reach out when they need help. But it doesn’t have to be lonely to be a leader.
It’s crucial to reach out to a diverse group of people and create a strong support network.
Having a community you trust is especially important because as an early-stage entrepreneur, much of your self-worth is tied to the success of your company. Expectations from within, early employees, VCs and that Techcrunch article will add up.
By building a strong family and friend network, you can separate your identity from your startup, overcome the fishbowl effect, and it may even help you make better decisions.
Industry leaders such as Techstars co-founders, Brad Feld and David Cohen, offer services, such as Ginger.io, as a resource to portfolio companies in programs across the US to help maintain emotional health while rapidly building their company.
Founders and early leaders set the tone for the emotional and wellbeing of the company. When you offer tools that can provide support for your team, you normalize wellbeing and set the right culture for your team.
By removing the stigma around talking about personal challenges and stress, we can begin to increase access to support, and help people realize that no one is alone in their journey.
Techstars put together a list of resources for anyone who thinks they may be suffering from mental health issues, or anyone who wants to learn more about the topic. You can find them here.
Join us on 5/25 for a live, interactive AMA to hear more about this important topic and how we can all help out in our communities. We’ll be joined by Brad Feld, Managing Director at Foundry Group, and co-founder of Techstars. Register here.