Looking after your mental health as a startup founder

Tom Blomfield rocked the fintech sector last year when he stepped down as CEO of Monzo to move into the role of President, only to leave the company just six months later. Blomfield entered the world of digital banking as a co-founder at Starling Bank after leaving GoCardless which he also co-founded, so someone who you expected had the mental fortitude for the startup scrap.

Blomfield admitted the working environment was tumultuous from the start, as Monzo quickly grew to be one of the biggest UK digital banks. However, at the beginning of the pandemic Monzo was hit hard, and that in the first week after the first lockdown, revenues declined by 50%.  The digital bank was also due to close a £100m funding round as lockdown was announced. All the term sheets got pulled. Monzo subsequently raised £120m, albeit at a 40% discount. 

One of the most prominent mental health challenges founders face is navigating the internal and external pressures and expectations. There’s a cycle in the startup world of chasing new rounds of investment, with the next raise seemingly always round the corner. Each round brings a new set of investors with a new set of pressures and urgency to hit the metrics. In this loop, it is difficult to pinpoint achievements and celebrate wins, as each of them brings on another challenge.

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Blomfield. With the prospect of shutting up shop becoming ever more prevalent, Blomfield made the decision to step down. Blomfield said he was working seven days a week, wasn’t sleeping. I just needed to throw the towel in. In a podcast he opened up his state of mind: 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.

I was unable to sleep at night because I was wracked with anxiety about the future. 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. Blomfield stepped down due to his own mental well-being. I stopped enjoying my role probably about two years ago. My mental health was suffering.

It’s become a major issue in the startup tech sector. Mark Zuckerberg’s motto at Facebook was move fast and break things and is still the mantra for many startups, but for me it epitomises everything that is wrong on how startups should work. Yes, you often must act fast and keep on going, you must be agile, to think on your feet, but you also need to find and keep a balance. 

Many successful entrepreneurs harbour secret demons, struggling like Blomfield through moments of near-debilitating anxiety and despair, times 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?

The problem is that pressure to move fast takes its toll. A study of entrepreneurs from UC Berkeley revealed that 72% reported mental health challenges, and 19% of founders felt that starting a company had contributed negatively to their well-being. Until recently, admitting such sentiments was taboo. Rather than showing vulnerability, founders have practiced ‘fake it till you make it.’ But not everyone who walks through darkness makes it out.

Why does startup life impact founders’ well-being?

Let’s look at some reasons I’ve seen at first hand as to why startup lifestyle may contribute to mental health problems. Check in on the signs if your mental health is declining against these, and then I’ll share some of my thoughts on how to attend to your mental health while growing your startup.

  • Hustle v Health Startup culture is often characterised as ‘working hard and winning’. This is best exemplified with the ‘hustle’ mentality of founders who claim to work fifteen hours a day and push employees to meet the same expectations. Are you imbalanced in the hustle v health equation?  It can create emotional turbulence.
  • No boundaries Aligned to risk, entrepreneurs often do not limit their financial exposure and thus it becomes a blind spot. ‘Just keep going’ is bad advice, the consequences can rock not only your bank account but also your stress levels. So set a limit for how much of your own money you’re prepared to invest.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, startup life is a constant process of trial and error, but don’t exaggerate the experience. Have you set a limit for your startup investment?
  • 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 overreacting to small things that can trigger mood vulnerability.

So, check in on these three drivers that I’ve seen adversely impact founders’ mental health. What does it say to you?

What are the signs that your mental health is declining?

I’ve seen four repeated signals in founders:

  • Imposter Syndrome is where despite doing great or receiving praise, you still feel inadequate and incompetent. You feel like every success you’ve had so far is a stroke of luck and has nothing to do with your hard work and skills. There is a significant difference between quietly questioning your skills and being made to feel as though your identity makes you unworthy of your position or accomplishments. 
  • Burn out It is natural to get tired or feel fatigued, especially because you are looking after your business. Entrepreneurs are rarely strangers to feeling the weight of being the decision maker. However, being close to burnout is a sign that your mental health isn’t as healthy as you think. You can tell that you are close to burning out when you feel everything to the extreme. You may also feel like isolating yourself and thinking about leaving everything behind. 
  • Insomnia Constantly being stressed can result in difficulty in falling asleep or staying asleep. You find yourself struggling to keep up with your old routine. You can’t fall asleep at the same time as you did before and even if you fall asleep, you wake up too early and have trouble falling back to sleep. 
  • Anxiety It is normal to feel anxious once in a while. In fact, it is extremely common when facing working through challenges. However, when you are constantly anxious it may mean that you are actually having a hard time coping with everything that is going on, constantly feel worried about every little thing.

Recognise any of those signs?

What can you do to take care of your mental health?

From my own experience and reading, here are some tips to look after yourself.

Acknowledge your mental health issues – get help The first step is to acknowledge that your mental health is threatened. Being in denial will not help anyone, not yourself, not your team and definitely not your startup. 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. We must embrace the twists and turns and recognise the startup journey is also never linear. It has never been more important to remember that.

Being self-reliant doesn’t mean going it alone Find a mentor that you can talk to about the challenges in your startup. Talk regularly in one-to-one café sessions or lunchtime catch-ups. Take steps to build resilience. Promote open conversations about your mental health. Take time to network with other founders in similar situations.

Also, trust and leverage your team. You have a team for a reason. A team that you have chosen to accompany you on your startup venture, trusting them will alleviate some of the stress that comes with leading. Give them the opportunity to be accountable.

Take a break Taking a holiday does not mean that you are neglecting your startup, a change of environment is just what you need and will allow you to recharge and feel rejuvenated. Remember that even as a entrepreneur, you are still a human being. Running a startup is a marathon, not a sprint. Learn to pace yourself.

Spending time with family and friends outside of work will help boost not only your mental wellbeing but also your emotional and physical health, especially when you communicate face-to-face as opposed to using technology. And you find out that your kids still love you. Your partner still loves you. Your dog still loves you.

Focus on your minimums, not your maximums One founder I work with wanted to focus on work-life integration, a common challenge for any founder. My goal was to have her focus on her minimums and not her maximums, to manage the feelings of being overwhelmed. It starts with a simple question: What do you need minimally in your life? 

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. 

One thing at a time The founders who survive are the ones who relentlessly focus on one thing and one thing only – taking the next step. Ruthlessly focus on what is under your control and the next step in your action plan. It may succeed, it may not, you do not know. Waste no time thinking about the outcome. Put all your energy into the actions that you can take. 

Most founders are like border collies, they have to run, and want to do so all day. If you keep a border collie inside, they chew up the furniture. They go crazy, they just pace around, they need to be busy, active, engaged. So, make sure you have clear objectives, and do one thing at a time.

Follow your out-of-work passions Following hobbies that are separated from your startup gives you breathing space, unplug, and even focus more on your work when the right time comes. What’s your way of unwinding? Gardening, painting 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. Other dimensions of your life should be part of your identity, not just your startup. Whether you’re raising a family, volunteering for a local charity, growing sunflowers in the backyard, or learning a new language at weekends, it’s important to feel successful in areas unrelated to work.

Deliberately pushing yourself to burnout is usually celebrated and seen as a ‘good’ imbalance in the startup world. Whilst start-ups thrive on the blood, sweat and tears of the founders, it is counter-intuitive when it comes to the human factors. The constant stream of stories about ‘overnight success’ and ‘crushing it’ create unattainable expectations.

Mental health conditions undermine founder performance and put their own and their startup success in jeopardy. This realisation together with the stigma of mental health makes it much harder for entrepreneurs to get out of the loop of mental health erosion – they are seen as super-humans and speaking up about it feels like weakness. Yet good mental health is as essential for knowledge work. Creativity, ingenuity, insight, planning, and analysis are often the cognitive cornerstones of breakthrough value creation by entrepreneurs, therefore personal founder wellbeing is intrinsically linked with the wellbeing of a startup.

We can deal with this issue, and it starts with destigmatising mental health, alongside being more realistic about the challenges of a startup and dropping the faux-glamour. It’s Emperor’s New Clothes, it’s a slog, simple as that. ‘Seize the moment’ is often the startup cry, but I’ve discovered for me it also means being present, doing what you want to do for yourself in the moment. This moment I’m appreciating being fully present in comfy slippers with peppermint tea as I write this blog. It feels great.

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