Bootstrapping founders: avoid being ‘Klopped Out’

Founder Tom Blomfield rocked the fintech sector when he stepped down as CEO of Monzo in 2021, having been in the role for five years. He moved into the role of President, only to leave the company just eight months later.  Blomfield, who founded payments firm Gocardless in 2011 and Monzo in 2015, has recently taken up a role as partner of the eponymous San Francisco start-up accelerator Y Combinator. 

Blomfield’s announcement at the time has always stuck with me: I’m working seven days a week, I wasn’t sleeping. I just needed to throw the towel in. I felt a deep, deep anxiety bordering on depression. I wouldn’t use the words rock bottom, but it wasn’t a happy time. There was no other emotion in my life other than anxiety.  When I did sleep and wake up, I was calm. Not stressed, not anxious and then three or four seconds later all the memories came back, and it was just like a crushing weight.

Many successful entrepreneurs harbour secret demons, struggling like Blomfield through moments of near-debilitating anxiety and despair, when it seems everything might crumble, sleepless nights, staring at the ceiling, falling asleep then waking up at four in the morning with mind racing, thinking about this and that, not being able to shut it off, wondering, when is this going to turn?

One of the most prominent mental health challenges bootstrapping founders face is navigating the internal and external pressures and expectations. In this loop, it is difficult to pinpoint achievements and celebrate wins, as each of them brings on another challenge. But rather than showing vulnerability, founders have practiced ‘fake it till you make it.’

We’ve recently seen another high-profile leader check out, which offers insights into the causes and potential cures of maintaining founder wellbeing. Jürgen Klopp is the manager of Liverpool FC where he has reenergised the spirit, culture, and winning mentality. Football is domain specific in many ways, which make drawing parallels to other sectors hard – founders tend not to envelop people in bear hugs after a successful meeting or use the gegenpressing technique against rivals – but Klopp has drawn back the veil on a crucial ingredient of success in almost every walk of life: personal energy. 

To great surprise Klopp announced on January 26 that he would be leaving Liverpool at the end of the season. They are leading the Premier League, his job is secure, his contract runs until 2026 and he claims still to love it. But after eight years in the role, he is running out of energy. His resources are finite: I can’t do it on three wheels, I don’t want to be a passenger.

Klopp is not the first leader to make such a decision. Jacinda Ardern resigned as prime minister of New Zealand in January, saying that she no longer had enough in the tank to do the job. Energy is one of those factors that differentiates leaders, their enthusiasm and outward confidence supplants ability and ambition, but energy plays an outsize role.

In admitting that his energy stores are now becoming depleted, Klopp has offered an insight as to how punishing leadership roles can be. His decision to hang up his Liverpool tracksuit brings to mind the aphorism of another great football manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Hard work is a talent, Sir Alex liked to say. But it is also just hard.

So, how are alert are you to the early warning signs of your founder batteries being drained and making your feel Klopped Out? Here are some thoughts.

1. Hustle v Health Startup culture is characterised by the ‘hustle’ mentality of founders who claim to work fifteen hours a day. Are you imbalanced in the hustle v health equation?  It can create emotional turbulence. A study from Stanford University found that productivity declines sharply when the working week exceeds 50 hours. Productivity drops off so much after a 55-hour week, that there’s no point. Newsflash: If you’re working a 70-hour week, you’re getting about as much done as someone working 55.

2. No boundaries Aligned to risk, entrepreneurs often do not limit their time exposure and thus it becomes a blind spot. ‘Just keep going’ is bad advice, the consequences can rock not only your physical self but also your stress levels. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and bootstrapping your startup is a constant process of trial and error, but don’t exaggerate the experience. Have you set a limit for your bootstrapping investment of you?

3. Always over-extended There’s always that feeling of being overextended, of never being able to relax. Is this you? You feel like every time you build up momentum, something happens to take it away. As a result, founders emotionally overreact to small things which can trigger mood vulnerability.  Are you running your startup or is it running you? Your initial reaction may be of course I’m running my business, it’s all I do! in which case I would argue that you actually fall into the latter category.

4. Burn out & anxiety It is natural to get tired looking after your business each day. However, being close to burnout is a warning sign that you must heed. You can tell that you are close to burning out when you feel everything to the extreme. When you are constantly anxious it means that you are actually having a hard time coping with everything that is going on, constantly feel worried about every little thing. Time to press pause.

5. Lack of sleep Shakespeare called sleep the honey-heavy dew of slumber. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sleep is a basic need. We’ve all lost a night or two of sleep during an important project. It’s a familiar one-liner in startup circles: snooze, you lose, lending weight to the macho-notion that entrepreneurs must sleep less than others.

In our startup culture where being busy and working beyond capacity is celebrated, sleep is undervalued – which is why there is the bravado of working while mortals asleep. Some are natural larks, at their best before sunrise, while others are night owls, working away into the small hours. Whatever the case, setting aside time for getting your eight hours is important.

Check out Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution.  Huffington writes in her healthy sleep habits book: I was sleepwalking through my life. She cites a number of studies – one finding was that just two nights in a row of less than six hours of sleep decreases your performance for the next six days. Building up a ‘sleep debt’ has to be repaid before the debtor can operate normally again. A common response is to economise on sleep during the working week and catch up at the weekend. That’s a myth too.

I was a poor sleeper – I tried counting sheep but that got boring, so I started talking to the shepherd instead. But I developed a routine and while I didn’t keep a journal, I did notice that I fell asleep much faster, and awoke feeling more refreshed. I now get good quality kips most nights from 10.30pm to 7am – if the dog doesn’t wake me up first.

Recognise any of those signs? If you do, what can you do to reboot your energy levels? From my own experience and reading, here are some tips to look after yourself.

1. Acknowledge your health status – get help The first step is to acknowledge that your health is threatened. Being in denial will not. The sooner you acknowledge that you need support, the sooner you can take care of yourself and, ultimately, get back on your feet. The first step is generally the most difficult, but after that, it becomes easier.

2. Take a break Taking a holiday does not mean that you are neglecting your startup, a change of environment will allow you to recharge and feel rejuvenated. Bootstrapping a startup is a marathon, not a sprint. Learn to pace yourself. Spending time with family and friends will recharge and refresh your mental, emotional, and physical health. And you find out that your kids still love you. Your partner still loves you. Your dog still loves you.

3. Focus on your minimums, not your maximums Often, we make the mistake of trying to have it all instead of focusing on what we need at a minimum. The truth is we overestimate what we can do in one day. This is why I encourage founders to focus on creating realistic goals and expectations for themselves that they won’t feel guilty about later. 

Stop chasing busy. If done right, bootstrapping is the best thing, you choose who you work with, you deliver great work you believe in, you set your working times, your values and ethos and everything is on your terms. If done wrong, it’s horrible. You’re left fighting fires and backtracking, frantically spinning multiple plates. You’ve created yourself a prison and are being held hostage inside it.

How are things going? they ask. Busy, you reply. But is busy really good?  Sometimes – in fact often – we’re too busy and struggling, and your startup relationship is turning toxic.  We are caught up in the day-to-day whirlwind, pulled in a myriad of different ways every day. You allow yourself to be distracted and lose sight of where you’re heading. The key is stop chasing busyness and focus on outcomes.

4. Follow your interests Enjoying hobbies that are separated from your startup gives you breathing space, unplug. What’s your way of unwinding? Gardening, reading, and chess are my pleasures. I maintain my mental well-being because they allow me to break away from the ’always present’ at work. The silence of doing stuff like this is deafeningly good.

Cultivate an identity apart from your startup. Build a life centred on the belief that self-worth is not the same as net worth. The constant stream of stories about ‘overnight success’ and ‘crushing it’ create unattainable expectations. Get a balance.

5. Overcome your inner critic – be intentional If you think you’re failing, you are more likely to fail. It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believe you’re going to succeed. Pay attention to your thoughts. Don’t ignore those negative thoughts, acknowledge them, then do something positive to distract yourself. Find balance, rather than beat yourself up.

Be intentional about how you spend your time and energy. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. These words from American author Annie Dillard have always resonated with me. Of course, it’s an obvious statement, but reflect upon it, it has a deeper meaning than on first reading.


T S Elliot said: What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened.

Jürgen Klopp’s announcement reminded me of the Elliot quote, that sometimes you just have to press pause. As a startup founder take note of his words: I am running out of energy. I can’t do it on three wheels. I don’t want to be a passenger. Make those changes before you become Klopped Out.

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