The Dangers of Mental Health Challenges for Startup Founders
While deeply fulfilling, establishing and growing a startup poses serious dangers for your mental health. During the expansion stage, a founder will often face brutally long workweeks, pressure from different sources to manage the startup while raising funding, and the stress of having to make many decisions – all at the same time. It isn’t surprising that many startup founders find themselves developing mental health challenges if they don’t take steps to prevent such problems.
Unfortunately, mental health challenges still face serious stigma in entrepreneurial circles, and thus often are not discussed and addressed. Sometimes, these issues are discussed implicitly under the framework of founder burnout or work-life balance, and you might have heard about it through such framings. Perhaps you know that, for instance, burnout manifests in many ways and a startup founder who is burning out may go through different stages. The key is to identify when you are on the verge of burnout and take steps to address it immediately. Otherwise, the effects can be quite damaging.
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A Case Study of Mental Health Challenges for Startup Founders
Mike founded a quickly-growing direct-to-consumer startup in the midstage of expansion, valued at just under $7 million when he hired me as a coach. He already went through a couple of rounds of fundraising and his Board of Directors consisted largely of investors from those early rounds; Mike retained about 32% of the equity, and those on the Board had over 57%.
He brought me in partially because he wanted to figure out what to do. Mike wanted to shift from the rapid growth stage of burning cash to seize market share, focusing instead on more gradual growth funded by revenue rather than investment capital to get to profitability. His Board of Directors overwhelmingly wanted him to keep growing the company rapidly.
While either position might have merit, the underlying challenge that Mike experiences was a sense of growing anxiety – even dread – over asking more investors for money. An introvert, he always felt fear over doing so, and struggled a lot over asking the early investors who now sat on his Board. While there’s extensive advice for entrepreneurs over asking people for money and addressing fears of rejection, such advice generally doesn’t address the clinical anxiety and depression that might develop from repeatedly overcoming your intuitions.
Signs of Mental Health Challenges That Shouldn’t Be Ignored
The stressful period that Mike was going through wasn’t something that should be taken lightly. Often, the kind of pressure he was experiencing posed a serious threat to the mental health and potential for burnout of founders, executives, and employees alike. It’s not only extensive and multiple studies that bear out this claim, but my own on-the-ground experience as a coach to business leaders.
Mike eventually started going to therapy and taking psychiatric medications. However, while I strongly urged him to reveal his mental health condition to the Board, he refused to do so. He expressed high confidence that the Board wouldn’t support him. Mike shared with me a number of instances when he saw other startup founders in other situations hide their mental health challenges due to fears about problematic reactions by Board members.
He even told me he thought they might question his competence to continue to lead the company if he revealed his weakness. As someone struggling with anxiety myself, I empathized with his concerns, but thought he was taking it too far. His fears fit with his broader pessimism bias, an excessive perception of potential threats common for those with anxiety or depression.
Pessimism bias is one of the many dangerous judgment errors that result from how our brains are wired, what scholars in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics call cognitive biases. Fortunately, recent research in these fields shows how you can use pragmatic strategies to address these mental blindspots.
His pessimism did not serve him well. The Board continued to pressure him. Despite his wise decision to seek professional help, his anxiety and stress undercut his fundraising capacity. Since we did not yet have a close relationship, as he retained me in such a troubled time for him, Mike had trouble accepting the uncomfortable information that his gut reactions were failing him.
Turning Point: Timing Matters on Mental Health Challenges
Pretty soon, Mike was close to burnout. At that point – when he told me he considered quitting – I finally convinced him to reveal his condition to the Board, by asking him what he had to lose if he did reveal his mental health status.
Well, guess what? The Board expressed a great deal of support. Several of the Board members who pressured him revealed they did so because of their own anxiety. Namely, they felt fearful of larger competitors who might try to catch up to the early mover advantage held by the startup. As veteran investors, they saw such scenarios happen way too often, and that’s why they were pushing for rapid growth fueled by investor capital.
These Board members suffered from pessimism themselves, taking it out on Mike, pushing him to his breaking point. A couple of the members even revealed their own mental health conditions. The Board agreed to step back from its fundraising goals, focusing instead on more gradual growth.
Nevertheless, the story did not have a happy ending. Badly burned out, Mike couldn’t go on to achieve even these goals. He lost his passion for the company, and started hating to get up to go to work.
He thought he could go on, but he couldn’t make it work no matter how hard he tried. He turned in his resignation letter, and offered to sell his equity at a discounted price to the rest of the investors, just to cut his ties and not have to deal with the situation.
The company launched an extensive search for Mike’s replacement. Unfortunately, this person did not work out very well, as he lacked the credibility and branding that Mike had, which is so important in direct-to-consumer offerings. It didn’t help that many of the startup employees felt loyal to Mike’s leadership and vision, and most of them felt discontented with Mike’s resignation, blaming the Board for the situation. Many of them left in the weeks and months after Mike resigned, further crippling the startup.
In the end, without Mike’s drive and guidance, the company foundered. A larger company that wanted to enter the space bought the startup at under $2.5 million, a fraction of its earlier valuation.
Mental Health Challenges in Hindsight
Part of the blame lies with me: looking back, I believe I could have done a better job supporting Mike’s intent in sharing his mental health challenges with the Board. The whole fiasco could have been prevented with a timelier revelation. An earlier strategic shift to gradual growth would have solved the need for some of the fundraising efforts, thereby letting Mike focus on his passion of satisfying customers and building the brand, instead of forcing him to deal with his most hated task of soliciting investor cash.
He would have had more mental resources and would not have burned out. Mike would have continued to lead the startup, which would have continued to do well.
I share this story, for which I acknowledge a degree of blame, with the hope that startup founders will take it to heart and influence your key stakeholders to be more aware of and attentive to mental health. This story also serves as a cautionary tale for startup founders wary of disclosing their mental health struggles to major investors and Board members, for fear of their competence being questioned. Mike is one of many brilliant startup founders pushed past their breaking point by such stakeholders, and I hope you will never travel in Mike’s shoes. It should also serve as a warning to major investors and Board members to support the founders to take care of their mental health as a major priority.
The Fight to Address Mental Health Challenges
In an increasingly disrupted and uncertain future, which will only breed more stress and anxiety, we cannot afford to lose such talented startup founders by failing to pay attention to the dangers of mental health challenges. Startup founders and employees need to encourage and model transparency around mental wellness, as well as training in how to spot and support colleagues in times of trouble, while fighting the stigma around mental illness in startup settings.
Startup founders can defeat mental health challenges and avoid burnout by paying attention to their mental health, seeking help, and standing up to pressure from major investors and Board members
Questions to Consider (please share your answers below)
What concerns do you have about mental health challenges relating to your work?
Is there anything in the article that will help you support colleagues who are facing mental health challenges?
Which next steps will you take based on reading this article?
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Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally-recognized thought leader on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he is best known for Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic (Changemakers Books, 2020). He has over 550 articles and 450 interviews in Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur, CBS News, Time, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Fast Company, and elsewhere. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, LinkedIn, and register for his free Wise Decision Maker Course.