The startup life is an intense and intensely personal experience.
Poet David Whyte said, “Work is where we can make ourselves; work is where we can break ourselves.” We’ve seen so much of the making and breaking in this world of fast paced startups, big exits and failures. Perhaps the greatest detriment has been the rise in burnout and depression in the startup community.
What follows is our absolute best advice on how to navigate the startup world without losing yourself in the fire.
It starts with radical self inquiry.
What is Work?
More importantly, what is your relationship to work? As humans, we work for purpose and meaning, to create value in the world and for money. Yet very few of us take the time to explore what work truly means to us and where we first learned our beliefs about work.
What is work to you? Is it your job or your joy? What did you parents teach you about work? How did they relate to work? What is your relationship to work right now? What is success to you? What is failure?
We bring a lot to work, and we check a lot of ourselves at the door of our respective workplaces before we enter. When you understand the story under the story of your relationship to work, or discover what is truly driving you, a new understanding of why you do what you do may surface. Apperception is the gateway to stronger decision making.
When it comes to finding meaningful work, know what connects you to your purpose and commit to align with it often.
What parts of you show up at work? How can you bring your wholeness into work?
How’s your heart? How do you feel? What are you not saying that needs to be said?
Startups are stressful. They can be incredibly lonely, frustrating, disappointing, overwhelming — and a whole host of other emotions. If these emotions are not released or are stuffed down and tucked away for later, they can compound in their intensity just under the surface of you. Allowing yourself to get comfortable with vulnerability can diffuse stress and cortisol build-up caused by the extremes of the startup life.
Start by voicing your feelings, even if it’s just to yourself or your journal. Take refuge in the private pages of your always-there-for-you journal and let your pen do the writing. The stream of consciousness style of writing helps to release thoughts, emotions and other mental tangles that may be weighing heavily on you.
Working with a coach can create space for you to open up and receive support to shift from draining habits and patterns to more life-giving ways of being. Connecting to a community of peers allows you to find a sense of safety and belonging.
Be honest, bold and real with yourself.
Know Your Flow
When hard work equates to constant stress, you won’t produce good results. From a neurological perspective, working with a brain constantly in survival mode — from a place of fight or flight — is the fastest way to deplete your resources as a human being, and can tank your ability to be an effective leader.
There is a powerful engagement in the oscillation between the states of optimal performance and recovery that is your prime resource of creativity. To work hard and work better, you need to be alive — you need to learn what it takes for you to be in your creative flow.
How do you work best? How do you show up on your best days? What do you do to show up on your best days (eat well, sleep well, exercise, play, etc.)? What can you do to support yourself so that you can show up like that more often?
Look Fear in the Face
What are you afraid of? What are you afraid of? What are you afraid of?
As humans we fear many things that compromise our sense of safety, love and belonging. We also fear uncertainty — and startups are a sea of uncertainty. When it comes to fear and failure in our startup saturated lives, it’s good to know what fears are at play for you.
Your fear has much to teach you. Be brave enough to ask yourself in moments what you might be afraid of. Trace your responses and inquire deeper. Voicing your fears is to know what underlying stuff you’re working with and what may be unconsciously driving you.
Until you get to the root of that fear, it can consume you and keep you from a fulfilling life. What is the fear you’re running away from? What will it take to admit and surrender to it?
How might you do something differently if you weren’t afraid? What would you dare to ask for?
Being a leader requires a cultivated depth of self-knowledge and awareness. Take some time to reflect on the following:
What do you really believe? What is your vision for your life? What values do you hold? What kind of company do you want to build? What kind of adult do you want to be? How do you want to be remembered? How do you want to feel in your days?
Rooting and Rituals
Once you begin the unfolding of who you are and want to be in the world, you can build that into your daily patterns and create that life for yourself day by day.
Personal rituals can help you connect to who you are and your purpose, and provide a center to orient your day around. Develop a habit of grounding to remember those important things — who you are, what you believe, what your vision is and what your intentions are for the day. These are your Polaris, your living why. Giving yourself this time for you can affect all the choices you make in your day.
What are rituals and things you can do to nourish your deepest sense of self daily? How can you slow down and find the pause in your day?
Learning to relax and lighten up is the key to your sustainability, resiliency, agility as a leader in your life, work and relationships. And, relaxation is the key to creativity.
How do you play? How do you unplug and recharge? What fuels your spirit? How can you create unburdened moments into your days?
“The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.” — Stuart Brown
Create spaces in your days that are unburdened and you are connected to your most intimate being and to your community.
What is the change you want to see and bring to the world? Startups begin with an amazing idea that sparked a successful company doing great, new things.
In the rapid growth of startup life, it’s important to reconnect to those moments that bring you alive and to cultivate more moments like that. That’s where your next great idea is going to come from.
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.
At Techstars, we talk about the mantra ‘founder first’, but being advocates of founders means we can’t only focus on the health of their companies – we must also focus on the health of the founder.
May is Mental Health Awareness month and Techstars is driving to end the stigma that surrounds mental health. Let’s open up the conversation around it and what it means to our community and industry.
When my first son was a teenager, he was challenged with depression and bipolar disorder. During his high school years, May meant the time of year when he really struggled. I found that being open and honest with my friends and family helped me, my son and others.
We encourage everyone to become educated on mental health and important issues around it. To kickoff the month, we 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.
Throughout May, you will also be able to find insight on this topic from other founders and mentors on the Techstars blog.
You can’t #givefirst if you don’t put your own health first.
Do you have resources to add that can help others? Let us know here.
AA: International fellowship of people who have had a drinking problem
Al-Anon: Network providing resources, strength and hope for families & friends of problem drinkers
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Locates mental health resources by city
NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness
Ginger.io: A mobile platform with 24/7 care for stress, anxiety, and depression
Mental Health Works: Free monthly publication focused on mental health in the workspace. Includes ideas + tools to successfully implement mental health strategies
Failcon: Conference for startup founders to learn from and prepare for failure, so they can iterate and grow fast
TED Talks: Common TED Talks that focus on the topic of mental health
Fully Rich Life: A free toolkit for 21 ways to reduce stress and anxiety
Founder Stories: Suicide, Entrepreneurship and the Road Home
Female Founders: My startup failed and this is what it feels like
Fortune: Depression and Startups: The Emotional Toil of Entrepreneurship
Wired: One startup’s struggle to survive Silicon Valley’s Gold Rush
Paralign: Making mental well-being data driven, intelligent and personalized
Workit Health: An online addiction care program
TWLOHA: Find a list of local resources and a help hotline
Koko: Koko offers services that help social networks manage crisis, abuse and bullying.
Crisis Text Line: Free, 24/7 line with trained crisis counselors
Support Groups Central: Video Conference-based Support Groups
Depression Recovery Groups: Support for depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety
SonderMind: Network of over 250 licensed therapists in the Denver-Boulder area
The Founder Institute Or How It Helped Me Stand Up To A Bully: Depression: A post about what it was like to be diagnosed, but also how it wasn’t the end of the world… actually, it was the start of a new journey – the best one yet!
ZendyHealth: We can arrange a session with a credentialed, reputable therapist who provides affordable services at a practice near you. Our professionals will work with you to evaluate and develop a treatment plan to help manage your depression and/or anxiety.
Sigmend: Helping employees with brain (mental) disorders self advocate.
Impact Founder: An independent multimedia movement and community to reduce the feelings of isolation experienced in entrepreneurship.
Journey Meditation: Leads guided meditation programs in the workplace in a way that’s simple and approachable.
This post was originally published on Thoughts on Tech Startups and Venture Capital
Recently, I came home from work at 10pm, opened the door and immediately heard my wife say how stressed she was.
Her pharmaceutical company recently bought a biotech startup for a lot of money, and my wife is leading a very tough integration project. She works super hard, all the time, and is still behind on things.
The truth was that I was really stressed too. After my wife finished complaining I complained right back.
In general, running a Techstars program is super intense and stressful. This winter, though, just feels unusually challenging and demanding at work for me as well. I am behind on projects, concerned about not doing my best with founders, feel more tired and more stressed.
On Friday morning, while driving to work, I was trying to dig deeper to understand the cause of our stress. Suddenly it hit me – subconsciously, me, my wife, all of our family, friends and co-workers are way more stressed because of political instability in United States. Regardless of the political views, the stress caused by politics on Twitter and CNN combines with the typical stress at work, and amplifies.
As soon as I recognized this I felt better. In general, I’ve been good at self-introspection, de-stressing and identifying causes of my stress and addressing them. I think this is an important quality particularly because when dealing with startups, the stress tends to be extreme.
I want to share tips for how to deal with founder stress, which tends to be amplified nowadays.
1. Recognize That You Are Stressed
The first step in dealing with stress is recognizing that you are stressed.
Do a self check-in once a week on how you are feeling. Literally, put it on the calendar.
If you are stressed, think about the source. What exactly is stressing you out? Uncertainty about the future? Fundraising? Co-founders? Co-workers?
Whatever it is, figuring out the source of the stress helps address it better.
2. Get More Sleep
Whenever I feel really stressed, I go to bed.
Stress for me is typically combined with physical and mental exhaustion. To deal with it I go straight to bed. I’ve never had a situation where I didn’t feel better after a full night of sleep.
The clog, and chemical build up of stress tends to wash out and get garbage collected during the night. We are all sleep deprived these days, especially founders, so extra sleep really helps.
Conversely, lack of sleep, and repeated stress causes people to malfunction. Literally, our brains don’t work well under repeated stress, and can we can’t think straight. Ongoing sleep depravation and stress can lead to permanent brain damage, so be sure to catch up on your sleep.
3. Take a Regular Vacation
Brad Feld has a rule of one week off the grid every quarter.
While you, as founder, may not be able to afford this, there is no reason why you can’t take at least one weekend completely off every few months, and take a week off twice a year.
Plan vacations ahead of time, and don’t ignore them. You always comeback refreshed, and ready to go. Give your body and mind the break it needs and deserves.
4. Eat Better and Drink Less Alcohol
This one is really important, and often founders get this exactly backwards. Startup culture is a culture of unhealthy foods, snacks and drinking. All of these tend to compound stress. Make an effort to plan your meals and to cut out alcohol. Healthy food leads to a less clogged and less stressed body.
Alcohol seems like it relieves stress, but it really doesn’t. I was drinking to reduce stress when I was running my second company, and developed an addiction. It was pretty bad, as I would drink, a lot, every single day.
I quit cold turkey over 3 years ago and never looked back. If you are founder and catch yourself drinking daily, be mindful that this is a response to stress and can turn into an addiction.
5. Exercise & Meditate
Regular exercise is an awesome way to release stress.
Personally, I do yoga, running and strength training, and try to exercise every single day. By trying to exercise every day, I end up exercising 5-6 days a week.
I exercise first thing in the morning, because I realized that if I don’t do it then I won’t get to it at all. Any sort of exercise (at a gym or participating in sports) is a great way to destress. Figure out what works for you and commit to it.
Meditation is one activity I’ve not been able to incorporate into my daily routine yet.
I’ve tried meditating a bunch, but never stuck to it. Many investors and founders do it and find it extremely beneficial for mindfulness, and stress relief.
Similar to sleep, during the meditation, the brain tends to relax and clear out the clogs and stress that’s building up. Just ten minutes a day can make a massive difference in how you feel.
6. Have a Routine and Plan Your Calendar
Uncertainty in the schedule causes stress. Startups in general are chaotic, but sometimes total chaos leads to stress.
You need to own your calendar and plan time for everything – meetings, work, email, family time, exercise — everything you do should be planned and mapped out onto a calendar.
Planning helps you clearly know what to do next and it helps you to reduce the stress.
Please share your tips for reducing stress with our readers!
The challenges you face as a founder and entrepreneur don’t go away just because it’s the holiday season – in fact, they usually grow. As demands for your time increase during this time of year, you need to do more for yourself — not less. This time of year is extra challenging to those who suffer from depression, common among startup founders. Here are ten helpful tips to help you cope.
1. The Numbers Matter
This does not mean just the bottom line, or your Q4 sales revenue. This means getting eight hours of solid sleep a night. Yes, I said eight hours. Not the typical four or five hours of sleep you’re used to getting. Another number to be aware of is your budget. Don’t get caught up in overspending this year. This will only cause you stress as you enter 2017 when the bills roll in. So watch your numbers, they matter!
2. Calm Your Mind
Meditation and conscious breathing are your tickets to less stress. Even carving out 5 – 10 minutes to meditate and consciously breathe every morning before you dive into your busy day will have a big impact on your mood and energy levels. And this will make you more fun to be around and more effective at running your business.
3. Visualize Success
What do you want the holidays to feel like this year? After the holidays are over, what memories do you want to take with you into 2017? Make a short list of specific memories you’d like to create and schedule them into your calendar just like any other appointment. It can be something as simple as picking out holiday gifts for your team members, but scheduling will help you distinguish between what’s important to you and what you can drop.
4. Let Go of Expectations
Be in the moment. Holiday ups and downs – and the highs and lows of being a founder – will have less of an emotional impact on you if you keep your expectations in line with reality. The unrealistic expectations of the perfect holiday season is one sure way to bring on the disappointment. Know it won’t be perfect. Be present. All you have is this very moment, so enjoy it.
5. Shift Your Mindset
Practice gratitude. Write down three things you’re grateful for at the start and end of every day. Showing gratitude to your employees and your customers will go a long way to increase both productivity and retainment. Being grateful for what you do have instead of getting upset at what is lacking is a guaranteed way to bring more joy, ease and happiness into your business. All you need is a little shift!
6. Me Time
During the holidays we spend a lot of time and energy focusing on others and our company. But don’t forget that the most important person is you! Don’t neglect you, because in the end you’ll feel stressed, drained and resentful. Make sure to carve out time for yourself to decompress. Schedule this in your calendar and tell your team, family and friends you have a very important appointment – with yourself!
7. Drink a Lot
I’m talking about water here. With all the happy hours, holiday parties and cocktails, it’s easy to get dehydrated. And what happens when you get dehydrated? You get tired and cranky. When you’re tired and cranky, it’s an easy set-up to get into difficult situations with employees, family, and loved ones. So make sure you are drinking plenty of water every day.
8. Limit Sugar Intake
Sugar affects your mood and health. The holidays are filled with all kinds of sweet treats and it’s a sugar overload at the office. All that sugar is sure to make you crash and burn. But you don’t need to deprive yourself, instead of overloading your plate with things that don’t really turn you on, go for the MVF (minimal viable food) that gives you true enjoyment. If something doesn’t light you up, leave it.
9. Move Your Body
Maybe you’re traveling this holiday season and there’s no gym in sight? Or perhaps you don’t have time to go your fave yoga class in-between your end of year meetings? No problem! Jump online or download the latest fitness app to find something that fits your busy schedule. Moving your body helps you to process your feelings and emotions — an important practice for founders to stay sane. Physical activity is like poor man’s therapy. Just do it!
10. Be Prepared
Once the holidays are over and 2017 is in full swing, many founders experience a dip in your mood, motivation, and energy levels – the post holiday letdown. Getting back to your normal routine at the office may take a few weeks, so take it easy as you enter the New Year. Don’t get caught up in lofty Q1 expectations, schedule fun things to look forward to outside of the office, and don’t forget to unplug every once in awhile to clear your head.
The following is a guest post by ChopDawg.com, an award-winning app development company that has worked with over 180+ startups and companies from all around the globe, helping them bring their web apps, mobile apps, wearable apps and software ideas to life.
Follow ChopDawg.com on Twitter at @ChopDawgStudios.
Entrepreneurship is inherently lonely.
When you embark on this journey, it’s important to note just what you’re getting into. I’m not just talking about the struggles and achievements that you’re going to be embarking on, but the personal investment you’re about to make.
In this particular instance, with your mental health.
You see, the reason that I am writing this particular blog post is because some of the most talented, successful and driven entrepreneurs I have ever met are, most often, the most depressed.
They lack the feeling of fulfillment. They feel isolated. They’re stuck in a mental corner, so to speak.
From an outsider’s perspective, that might seem a bit crazy. How can someone who has created their own destiny, been accomplished and driven success, feel this way?
It’s not as unimaginable as you might think.
For most of you who become an entrepreneur, you quickly realize, you can’t share this journey with most. Yes, you may have loved ones, friends, even a significant other to confide in about your struggles, successes, journey, but do they truly understand it from your perspective? After all, you’re the one going through the grind.
For some, you have a founding team, a partner to work with, which can help release some of the pressure, but for most, it’s truly just you.
Yes, you can have employees too, but for a long part of your internal battles, you don’t want to share such things with them as you would with perhaps a founding team. You’re the one on top. This is your battle to overcome.
On top of that, think about the mindset you need to have as an entrepreneur. You can’t become complacent. You can’t lose your hunger. You can’t lose your drive to succeed.
Understanding that, think about how draining it can become if you never truly celebrate your accomplishments, or always take the next accomplishment as the minimum you now need in order to grow.
Now that we have painted a clearer picture, it is easy to see how many of the most successful entrepreneurs deep down can feel alone.
How can you overcome this?
How can you maintain feeling fulfilled, happy, and driven?
The biggest thing, it is about being self-aware and understanding all of these factors listed above (and the much more that are personalized to each given situation).
We all battle these hurdles. It’s part understanding your DNA, your ego, your outside factors to why you are doing what you are doing. When you understand better why you have such feelings and what stems from them, you can better understand how to deal with them.
Another thing that I have found many successful entrepreneurs do to overcome such mental fatigue — and yes, something that even I do myself — is seek professional help via therapists.
This isn’t the 1950s anymore, the negative stigma to therapy shouldn’t exist. In fact, it can become an asset to have someone from a professional perspective to hear your thoughts, feedback, emotions and give you recommendations and thoughts back.
We go to the gym to keep our bodies healthy and strong. We eat healthy to keep our minds sharp and our bodies going. Approach going to therapy to keep your mindsets aligned in the right direction for the long term and to remain 100% focused.
Above all, with everything stated above, focus your mental being on positivity. Look into options such as the Five Minute Journal (which I highly recommend) and meditation. Things that are proven to allow you to focus on positive energy, positive results. Yes, they all take work and consistency. However, you’re an entrepreneur. You already know how to work hard. No reason to make any excuses.
Why is this an important conversation to have and bring up here?
First, we as entrepreneurs, need to always be on our A-Game. We have clients and customers that depend on us, employees that depend on us, families that depend on us, and expenses we need to always be covering. This can drag you down and put you into an emotional rut if you let it. You need to be aware of this and leverage it as a strength, not a weakness.
Second, we need to be open about these personal obstacles because the struggles of growing a company aren’t your only struggle. We have the struggle of being a human too. With being open about such things, we can better figure out solutions, talk to ourselves, work together to overcome these emotional ruts.
Your mental health is important. It’s as important as your physical health, your diet and the success of your company. None are mutually exclusive. Be self-aware about what makes you tick, what stresses you out, what puts you into a positive, fulfilled mindset. Spend time asking yourself the tough questions and exercising your brain. The more often you do, the more consistently that you do, the better, more successful, you will be.
To learn more about Startup Digest, visit us and get in touch.
May is Mental Health month. This is the next post in our series on depression and the startup community.
I like formulas. I like checklists. I like one, two, threes. Dotted i’s and crossed t’s. I like it when all I have to do is put in the work and I’ll get the promised outcome. I don’t care if the work is hard or messy, if you tell me that if I just do A, I will get desired result B, I’ll do it.
I’ve had the good fortune to work with Jerry and Parker Palmer over the last few months on a to be published book discussing depression and entrepreneurship. Jerry and Parker both have a gift for articulating the experience of depression. As we’ve worked on the manuscript I’ve often found comfort in their ability to express in words what I myself have experienced, but not articulated. There is a great comfort and hope that comes from the connection of shared experience, especially when in its depths depression is so deeply isolating.
The journey of entrepreneurship and the “startup life” are the human experience at extremes. When life can feel so polarized, it is not surprising that many on this path find themselves suffering from depression. The past few months have been a hopeful time to be paying attention to this topic as progressively more individuals have opened up about their experiences, media has published multiple articles on the subject and new technologies to support those who are suffering have been introduced.
Each of these can be incredibly useful. The importance of understanding that you are not alone in depression is tantamount to surviving its lowest depths. And any effort to bring comfort and hope to those suffering is something I can get behind. Yet, with this growing interest and awareness comes what I find to be a troubling idea: that there is an easy solution to overcome your depression.
Let’s be clear: there is no solution to depression. There is no formula, there is no checklist, there is no one, two, three; no A, B, C. Depression is not a thing you overcome, it is something you move through.
Allow me, or better, allow Jerry Colonna and Parker Palmer to explain. The following is an excerpt from a 2013 discussion between Jerry and Parker at Naropa University about entrepreneurship and depression:
In the startup world there is such a profound reliance on the intellect. There is such a profound belief. We were talking about our friend Brad Feld’s recent postings and some of the comments, looking for what feels as if a willful doing, in response to the pressure. Take more Vitamin D — which, by the way, is really great. Get more sunlight, which is really great. Get more exercise, which is really great. But there’s a relationship, I think, between learning to accept being, learning to accept the authentic self, and learning not to rely so much on the doing as a pathway through this.
We have so much in this culture that’s about pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, but in the depths of this thing, you don’t have boots, let alone bootstraps. And that has to be recognized. You’re forced back on something more primitive in the human self, more original, more spare, more wild, really. And to live from that place without the hubris that says, “I can solve everything with my intellect.” And then, to fall into the despair of, “Well, why isn’t it happening?”.
Depression is not a life sentence. We do not have to sit idly by doing nothing. This is not an argument against action. Rather it is an imploring to abandon expectation. To understand that depression is not formulaic. It doesn’t follow the rules. You can’t work your way out of depression. It takes what it takes to move through depression. And “what it takes” is not a universal solution.
Originally posted on Medium.
May is Mental Health month. This is the first post in a series on depression and the startup community.
Know that you are not alone.
Depression lies. It tells us that we are the only person who has felt loss, who has felt failure, who has felt desperation, who has felt nothing. This simply is not true.
There are litanies of other people who have felt this way. And progressively more and more people in the startup community are opening up to share their personal experiences every day. Brad Feld, Tim Ferris, Ben Huh, Jason Calacanis, Rand Fishkin, Andy Sparks, and many more have shared their experiences.
It is one thing to intellectually know that you are not alone. It is another to feel it in your heart. When we open our heart and mouth to share with another, we move and transform energy.
Start simple. Talk with a friend, a colleague, a co-founder, a coach, a therapist, anyone you feel you can be honest with and who will respect you where you’re at. Be honest. Let them listen. Make sure they understand their role is to hold space for you, not to fix you. If this feels like too much, dogs and journals are amazing listeners. Just start sharing somewhere, in some way.
When you feel ready, connecting with an intentional, structured community of peers can be transformative. At Reboot, we are greatly inspired by the work of the Center for Courage and Renewal’s Circles of Trust. These structured groups support each participant’s inner journey. A trusted, purposeful group of peers keep us moving along the path of our own heart.
As I previously shared, I believe that you do not overcome depression, you move through it. Depression does not have a timetable, a to-do list or operation manual. In depression, effort does not equate outcome.
There is a peace to be found when we surrender the outcome. To surrender, even if just for today, to the practice, the art of being instead of the result. To honor where we are at, what we feel, to be with what is happening.
Our friend Parker Palmer describes the depressed soul as a wild animal in the woods. Of this animal he says:
It is very shy. It it runs away when someone comes crashing into the woods, screaming for it to come out. wild animal comes out when somebody’s willing to walk in the forest, the dark forest of my life at that time, sit quietly at the base of the tree, breathe with the earth, and just wait for it to put in an appearance, and then quietly relate to it any way they can, helping me to honor that primitive life in myself because they’re honoring it and they’re seeing the spark.
At the end of the day, I don’t have the answer. You do. This is merely a list of things which I, and other members of the Reboot team have found helpful through our personal experiences with depression. It’s not intended to be a comprehensive list.
Many people who suffer from depression need the help of medical professionals (and yes, medications). I did.
Originally posted on Medium.
Thanks to our friend, Sarah Jane Coffey, over at Reboot.io, for this incredible piece on mental health & startups. We thought it was so important we wanted to share it with our audience. Originally posted on Medium.
My startup story starts in Loveland, Colorado. I had shimmed my degree in electronic media into a project management position at a fast-growing, then fast-failing company. Founded by a dot com success story, the company sold educational resources to aspiring entrepreneurs.
It was my first taste of the entrepreneurial adventure. I loved the fast pace, experimental nature and rollercoaster descents of fast success. My years there were also littered with dysfunction (a fair share my own), poor leadership and management. Eventually that company’s growth bubble burst and I was laid off alongside a large number of colleagues.
It was during that role that I first learned of the burgeoning Boulder startup scene. I cultivated an obsession over startuppers’ Twitter feeds, devoured episodes of Techstars’ “The Founders” and I was soon making regular trips to attend Ignites, meetups, and the first Boulder Startup Week.
I made the leap and relocated to Boulder. My goal was to continue consulting and to network in hopes of find a community manager job at a proprietary tech startup within a year. My first Tuesday as a Boulder resident I attended #BOCC, the weekly startup coffee meetup. I introduced myself as new to town and said I was looking for a community manager role at a startup.
Two weeks later I met the co-founders of what would become my first real startup role. We chatted for roughly 90 minutes. I listened far more than I talked. The technology behind what they were building was fascinating. They oozed passion and excitement for where they would go next. I had never thought I would work around such wildly intelligent, innovative, driven people.
When we met a little over a week later, I was handed an offer letter. When they asked if I had questions for them I was so dumbfounded by my grand strike of luck (only two weeks to find my dream job!) I said nothing.
I had no idea of what I would actually even be doing. But it didn’t matter. It was happening. I was going to work at a real, bonafide startup.
My start date was set for two weeks later. The night before I began one of the co-founders emailed me to ask me if I had a computer and could I bring it with me the next day. I found it a little odd, but brushed it off as a byproduct of moving fast.
The first few weeks were a blur. I was the first non-engineer at the company, as well as the first woman. I told myself I was up for the challenge. We were building something! We were moving fast! I was tough. I was blazing trails for the women who would come after me. I eschewed pangs of confusion and uncertainty as the normal feeling of inadequacy you get at any new role. I didn’t dare share with anyone that I had no idea what I was ultimately responsible for, what would count as a win in my role, or even what expectations of me were.
I attempted to subdue those fears by working a lot. A lot. There were nights when I would ride my bike home at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., only to open my laptop again and continue working after I got home. I spent time over weekends logged in making sure our help desk was empty or in the office trying to finish the project I hoped would make me feel secure there. I would kill my alarm and open my email with one swift motion each morning. I still couldn’t really explain what I was doing. Or what my role was.
Around six months after I started the founders called me into the conference room. Certain that I was getting fired, I had to put my hands under the table so they couldn’t see them shaking. They told me they were happy with me and gave me a raise. I left feeling more confused than ever. I felt like a failure day in and day out coming to the office. But people who are failing don’t get raises, right?
It wasn’t long until I was retreating from the office to cry in the bathroom two to three times a week. While there were specific instances warranting tears, more often I cried out of a potent blend of overwhelm: a fear of not knowing what would happen next, what I was supposed to be doing, the weight of being the empathetic ear in an environment where other people were struggling. I was barely carrying my own burdens and I was adding others’ by the day.
During this time I was also very involved in the startup community around Boulder. I was a die hard regular at #BOCC, attended Ignite, helped organize events for Boulder Startup Week, and made regular appearances at a litany of other startup and tech events. If you met me during this time, you would have never known how awful I truly felt. I regularly espoused how amazing things were. How excited and grateful I was for my job. How wonderful it was to be a proxy to what the engineers I worked with were building. Sure the hours were long and things felt cobbled together, but startup life, right? Work hard, play hard! I dare not confide that it had been months since I had experienced play, let alone rest.
Not only was I not confiding in anyone, I was in outright denial. My (now) husband and I were living together. My laptop, iPad, or phone were a consistent third wheel. I would complain about stress or talk about dysfunction at work but would get angry or resentful if he were to suggest perhaps I find something else. Or that the job was taking a toll on my well-being and our relationship. Recently engaged, I invited both families to our house for Thanksgiving dinner, our first blended family event. I cooked a full Thanksgiving meal in between furious and panicked typing at my computer as something exploded at work. Our families introduced themselves to each other. I barely stopped responding to emails for 30 minutes to eat. My husband did the dishes.
At 3 a.m. 364 days after I had started at the company, my husband was awoken by the light of my iPhone as I panickedly check for emails I wasn’t even expecting but could possibly be coming.
I couldn’t miss anything. I would fail. I would get fired. People would know. I would be nothing. I started crying and pacing the room insanely and I couldn’t stop.
I could no longer deny that something was wrong.
My husband convinced me to stay home from work the next day and see my doctor. I left her office with prescriptions for antidepressants and a fast-acting anti-anxiety medication. I took my first pills a few hours after the appointment. As the anti-anxiety medication set in, my heart and mind slowed for the first time in months. I felt a calm set in that I hadn’t felt in a year. My head came up from under the waves. I hadn’t even known I was underwater. I had been drowning and never noticed I was wet.
The next day, my 365th, I resigned my position. I began seeing a therapist twice a week. Under her and my doctor’s guidance, I took antidepressants as prescribed for over a year. The therapist guided me through looking at my experience, my feelings of (un)worthiness, my relationship to work. What I originally had thought was a long hard road to feeling normal took less than a month. I never refilled the anti-anxiety medication again.
It’s been more than five years since I left that company. I’ve worked in and around nothing but startups in the years since. I don’t have a perfect track record of mental health (we’ll save the bramble patch that is postpartum for another day), but I’ve never woken at 3 a.m. to check my email since. It can wait. And it’s not worth it.
At first, I was extremely sheepish of sharing my story with others. I shared the full truth with only a few select friends. I made excuses to almost everyone else. I carried the weight of embarrassment and shame. Then slowly I started trusting and sharing more of the truth with fellow startup friends. Behind closed doors, in hushed tones over coffees, friends in turn related their similar experiences to me.
They had tumbled down the rabbit hole in pursuit of the startup life too.
There’s been a promising turnaround in the story of startups and mental health during the last few years as first investors, then founders, have begun to share their struggles with depression, burnout and mental health challenges faced in the startup world. Popular articles around the high stakes of entrepreneurship have helped to bring awareness to the issue. This ongoing conversation is a wonderful development, but the conversation still skews heavily male, heavily white, heavily financially successful, and heavily those in leadership positions.
The challenges and burdens of the startup life extend far beyond these demographics and the board room. Startup team members’ struggles with depression and mental health are just as worthy of attention and care. Team members need to be included in these discussions, in research projects, and in awareness efforts. These challenges do not discriminate.
I hope investors, board members, and mentors will consider their role in this cycle. Just as it is being expressed that no company is worth a founder’s life, I hope you can express the same is true for their team members. Most importantly to founders and leadership who set the tone and culture for teams.
If you are at a startup and struggling, first and foremost: You are not alone. You are not crazy. You are not a failure.
The demands of the startup life can be unrealistic and unrelenting, not to mention not worth it. It’s OK to decide that an environment or expectation is not right for you. There are startups that are healthy, caring, professional (not a dirty word!), sane environments and they’re probably hiring talented people just like you.
Just as the narrative is moving away from glamorizing the founder experience, let’s do the same for team members working at startups. Working at startups can be incredibly challenging for everyone. It is OK to need time off and away from your phones and devices. It is OK to want functioning, adult, professional leadership. It is OK to want a clear understanding of the expectations of you and to communicate your expectations of your employer in return. It is OK to tell people that your startup is hard or dysfunctional or that working there really sucks right now. It is OK to leave and find something that is a better fit for you. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself to be valuable.
My story isn’t really unique to startups. Startup culture propagates a story: normal jobs are boring. Startups are exciting and different. Startup people are extraordinary and special. Working at a startup allows you to have a bigger impact on the world. Working at a startup can be more fulfilling than traditional work.
I was drawn to the startup life with dangerous baggage: a deep-rooted belief that I was unworthy. I grabbed hold and clenched my fists around the startup life story determined to wrest my own postscript:
If I startup hard enough, a startup will fulfill and validate me as a human being.
I wasn’t waking up at 3 a.m.to check emails because I was worried I would get fired. I was waking up at 3 a.m. to check emails because I didn’t believe that at my human core, I was enough.
This is not unique. Our society and culture are addicted to defining our sense of worth from work. Startups merely accelerate and exacerbate this toxic and dangerous belief system.
After sharing an early draft of this post with my colleagues, Jerry Colonna gently pointed out to me that if we bring our suffering to work and try to use the work to stop our suffering, we run the risk of turning work into a form of violence, regardless of whether or not we work at a startup or have power over another. It was a shattering insight. My painful experience undoubtedly reverberated in those around me.
Today I work at a startup that works with startup leaders to end what Jerry refers to as violence in the workplace. Violence is his word for the emotional turmoil and turbulence that I, and so many, have experienced. Reboot is the most adult, caring, empowering, and effective professional environment I have ever been in. I accomplish more high-quality work in less hours than I ever have before. It’s not perfect (spoiler alert: nothing is) and I have cried there, but tears and struggles have been met by empathetic and curious colleagues who have been willing to walk into issues and challenges with me as opposed to brushing them under the keg. It is what Reboot inspiration David Whyte calls, “Good work, done well, for the right reasons.”
This doesn’t need to be a unique experience. If there is anything I have learned from my experience in startups, it’s that if something is deemed valuable enough, enough of a priority, it will be. I can’t think of anything more worthy than this.
Roller Coaster photo credit: J Jakobson under Creative Commons license. Gratitude to Jerry Colonna, Cali Harris, Ali Schultz, Eoin Coffey and Julie Sutter who read early drafts and helped shape this post.