Mad, Ambitious a Visionary or Fried - life as an entrepreneur is rarely dull!
I read and 'liked' a thought provoking post How to Save Your Marriage from Your Startup a few weeks back written by the respected Tim Jackson of Walking Ventures. It was about his own experience and also a wider perspective of the impact on relationships that entrepreneurs and company founders can face when starting a business. Tim suggested I might respond with my own thoughts and experiences of my clients.
At the time, I was already thinking about the topic for my first post here on my new website and I’d been reflecting on conversations with clients in recent years that had covered similar scenarios and as I read Tim's post, I could not help relate them to my own past experiences.
It is fair to say relationships impacted by behaviour resulting from the pressure of setting up and running a startup, are not limited to those with partners, husbands and wives but often extends also to friends, co-founders and colleagues, investors, suppliers and even customers. As well as strained relationships, poor decision making and business failure, these scenarios can lead to long term mental health issues, depression and as we have seen increasingly within the startup sector, founders burning out, breaking down or
This Techcrunch article from December 2018 Investors and entrepreneurs need to address the mental health crisis in startups includes examples of successful people at the pinnacle of their careers struggling in silence and sadly, dying too soon. The piece also refers to a study in the USA by Dr. Michael Freeman Are Entrepreneurs “Touched with Fire” and includes some startling figures;
2X more likely to suffer from depression
6X more likely to suffer from ADHD
3X more likely to suffer from substance abuse
10X more likely to suffer from bi-polar disorder
2X more likely to have psychiatric hospitalization
2X more likely to have suicidal thoughts
Another older article on Startup Grind by Benjamin Foley is equally brutal and to the point. Suicide, Entrepreneurship, and The Road Home and shows that this not a new and unknown problem. He also references the study by Dr. Freeman.
As I started to write this post, I intended to reflect positively on my own experiences and those with my clients. I planned to demonstrate the benefits of having a coach and getting things out of your head. But the more I have read in preparation for my post, the more I am persuaded by the statistics, articles and research about the depth of the problem, that it would be as useful to flag these additional references in case you had missed them.
This article by the World Economic Forum paints a sad picture of the unfolding
mental health crisis in entrepreneurship and the impact that poor mental health has on business failure rates and on the individual leaders as well as some suggestions on how the issues could be tackled. It’s not a pretty picture but it is one I recognise. What is clear to me is that there is much more of an awareness about the problem ‘out there’ than I realised and it appears there’s plenty of advice. From what I have seen and heard here in London, there still needs to be more conversations, action and proactive approaches towards prevention by those with a vested interest and working within the startup ecosystem.
This Don’t Lose It initiative looks like the type of project that could stimulate valuable discussions that help to educate and support entrepreneurs and investors.
My first full-on venture as a founder was over twenty years ago having already had two’ careers’ as a paid employee. I did not have a clue about what was to come but the weight of responsibility and pressures and stresses that accompanied it, introduced themselves very quickly. With the added stress of no income that increased over time, there were days when I found it hard to get out of bed or face talking to anybody. I managed to keep smiling, drank a bit and nobody was any wiser.
Knowing what I know now and without the need for a medical diagnosis, I am pretty certain that depression had taken a hold. In fact, many times since when setting up and working on subsequent businesses, even with the support of great co-founders and understanding wife and family, and even though I had an inkling of what to expect and tried to control and avoid it, there were times when my focus, perspective and areas of attention narrowed and my ability to think clearly and make sound decisions was affected. There were darker days when I was so tired that doing the simplest thing even for pleasure and unrelated to the business, became a chore. My general outlook, self confidence, relationships and quality of life suffered across the board.
I experienced the familiar behaviours and pressures Tim describes in his post - being absent, stressed, tired, being inattentive (or committed and focused as I kept telling myself) and inwardly feeling very isolated and lonely. Guy Tolhurst, the founder of Intelligent Partnership and other company founders talked to the Telegraph about the feelings and effects that they experienced here. Many of us will recognise those moments.
For me, these were added to the other weighty feelings I had of guilt and selfishness because I knew if I simply went and got a job and worked for someone else again, I was brilliant and would earn more money in the short term, have more time and headspace for myself and for my neglected family and friends.
I recall as if it were yesterday, those pressures - mental and physical, both internal and external, were immense and inescapable! As well as my general health and well-being suffering, instead of feeling happy about having the freedom to do something I loved and build something amazing, I felt like a fraud, I felt unhappy and alone, frustrated and angry.
The journey of starting a business that can change the world and make an impact on people's lives and the world around us is most definitely a difficult and humbling experience and the statistics tell us, very often likely to fail.
It is no coincidence then that the clients I have over time gravitated towards working with more often are co-founders or leaders of early stage startups committed to positive social or environmental impact or change and those going through a phase of growth or transition into a “proper business” as they’ve often put it. I guess we have a lot in common.
They are intelligent, very bright, nice and well balanced people. Yet, even as they are thinking about ‘doing good’ and the impact they could make, a range of issues arise frequently that stand in the way of their success.
‘Imposter syndrome’ aside, (which I read appears to affect upto 75% of entrepreneurs) these are some of the most common topics, problems or blockers individuals identify as holding them back from being their best self and from having the clarity and more effective energy and focus they desire - and once had!
Once spoken aloud and talked through with someone else, as I know from my experience with my own coaches and mentors, it does help to release the pressure and become easier to see more clearly and move forward positively to figure out the necessary solutions, tools and actions that will help to overcome the problem or worry.
As I have witnessed many times over, it is not necessary to tell someone what they need to do. Most people already have a good idea but for whatever reason, they’ve not had the time or space to pause and detach themselves from everything going on around them and to simply stop, clear their head, reflect, question and see clearly. In the fast 24/7 world we live in, quality time to reflect and think is a worthwhile and precious commodity. Revelations and outcomes from these moments can be game and life changing.
Now, whilst I would be failing in my mission as a coach to mention the value of having a coach at such a time, or talking with someone who is independent of the business and has no ‘skin in the game’ and who is 100% committed to your success, it is a widely written in coaching circles that ‘even a conversation with a lampost can deliver equally spectacular results and insights’. Try it!
So, once the awareness is there and the decision to talk to someone made, what next? I refer you to Tim’s list of useful steps.
To date when coaching with clients, I have seen one outstanding founder I worked with realise that they did not want to be in the business she had set up and built over several years and that she was working on 18 hours a day without much fun. She was unhappy with her lifestyle, disagreed with her co-founder and investors about day to day direction and where the business should be heading in the longer term.
Frustration and resentment had started to build up over more than a year and she could see no way out - she felt trapped and financially, she had little to show for her effort so far. After realising there were other challenges and goals she now wanted to focus her talents on, she left the business and I am pleased to say is now living her life running a new and successful business and with a work life balance that is perfect for her needs.
Another client, a reluctant CEO of a socially focused fintech business in East London was feeling many of the same pressures and the business suffered. He signed off on some poor hires, disagreed and argued with his co-founder, particularly about her own performance and contribution to the business.
Effectively he blamed everyone else for how he felt.
Very quickly after we started to meet, he decided he wanted to step down and focus on the element of the business he loved which was talking to people about the business and winning new clients. With the pressure released on the back of some emotional and honest conversations within the business, he handed over the ‘admin’ and weightly title of ‘boss’ to someone who was brilliant in that role and who had always struggled with the management approach of the previous CEO.
The company is thriving and in further funding rounds, they have secured several £M and the business is set to take on the world.
A third client and his co-founder, finally after years of indecision, released the attachment that they had to the original and long held (3 years since startup) business model and after a pivot and slight tweak of strategy, saw the sales cycle timescale reduce by 75%, sales quadrupled within 12 months and the value of each client also increased. Additional up-sell opportunities also evolved and extended the life cycle of the customers. Happiness levels went through the roof!
There are many more examples of incredible people I have worked with who had honourable ambitions, a great business concept and plenty of drive and although they still struggled, they subsequently addressed the challenge(s) and found a positive way forward once they realised that the choice and power to make a change was theirs alone. Asking questions and having honest conversations were their primary tools.
One final thought.
In established businesses globally, most of the successful and forward thinking leaders understand and accept that they don’t have all the answers and that their responsibility as custodian of a business is to ask questions, learn about the business from those more knowledgeable than them and very often to employ people better than themselves.
Startup founders don’t have that luxury and for large periods of time during the early stages, have to be all-rounders and do things that are out of their comfort zone and which they may not like or initially be very good at. Important decisions often need to be made quickly and focus on one aspect of the business is difficult when there are so many ‘balls in the air’.
Poor decision making and the damaging habits and behaviours of leaders are of course not exclusively the domain of early stage startups as recent events have shown with celebrated unicorns. Look at the issues that have affected Uber, WeWork, Facebook, Apple and Google. An old article from Harvard Business Review at the time focused on Why Startups like Uber Stumble Over Problems They Could Have Avoided makes interesting reading. Central to the piece is the capability and action of the business founders and leadership. This is as equally relevant today as it was back in 2017.
My own advice to any business founder is:
1. Find someone without a stake in the business, who you can trust and talk with openly on a regular basis about what’s on your mind. This will give you the confidence be open and frank knowing that their input is not likely to be influenced at all by any self interest or swayed by personal ties or holding back because they did not want to upset you or tell you what you want to hear. Conversations may not always need to be directly about the business. A mentor you respect, or an independent coach would be a good place to start. Most coaches will be normally be very happy to offer a free session to enable both parties to get a feel for each other and to see how the chemistry works out.
2. Have honest conversations about your feelings and fears with those closest to you. It gets easier the more you do it.
3. If you are struggling, ask for help. People care about you and would love to help. Suffering in silence will not help you. There is no badge of honour for doing so. The upside is that the benefits could be significant and most often, have a positive impact on you and the success of the business.
4. Know that other founders are going through similar experiences to you. Engage with and use professional networks and be prepared to share experiences.
5. Take regular time out of the business. Clear your head, do what you enjoy. A few hours, a day, a weekend for yourself. Put it in the diary, set it in stone…..then repeat!
6. Finally, if you are feeling low, mention it to your doctor or seek professional help and guidance sooner rather than later.
And do remember, if you are worried about talking to someone, make sure you take some time out and find a way to get things out of your head and cut through the fog! If it helps, you could write down whats on your mind or perhaps tell a lampost about your thoughts and feeling first!