8 October 2018

Start-up founders: why your mental health can make or break your business

When people think of a stereotypical start-up founder, they likely imagine a happy Richard Branson sipping champagne and taking his superyacht out for a spin around his private island in the Caribbean. But the reality is that, for your everyday founder, this image couldn’t be further from the truth.

This study from the USA found that, among 242 founders surveyed, 72% had some level of mental health issues, while 49% reported having one or more lifetime mental health conditions.

At Hall & Wilcox, we work closely with countless start-ups through our dedicated start-up practice, Frank, as well as through our recently launched 12-month legal scale-up program for start-ups, Frank Lab.

With lawyers ranking consistently in the top two generalist occupations with the highest rates of mental health issues, mental health is a concern we share with our founder clients and which, in turn, presents an opportunity for us to meaningfully connect.

This side of entrepreneurship is rarely seen. Whether out of ego, insecurity, denial, or a combination of the above, founders have traditionally tended to block out conversations about wellbeing and hide their inner struggles as they focus desperately on building their business.

Far from being superhuman, start-up founders are prone to the same pitfalls as the rest of us. In particular, there’s the temptation to compare themselves to other founders – many of whom might outwardly appear to be ‘killing it’ (ie by raising millions in VC funding or being touted as the next Facebook or Atlassian).

However, like many people in this age of social media, founders will naturally project a rose-tinted version of themselves and their start-up online, without sharing the soul-destroying moments and self-doubt that is so often inextricably part of the start-up journey.

Who, or what, is to blame for the mental health struggles of our founders?

While mental health is a deeply personal matter that affects each person differently, a recent report published by KPMG Australia explored many of the likely contributors:

  • Working constantly: Of surveyed participants, the average workweek for founders is 64 hours long, or more than 50% higher than the average employee working a 40-hour week. A larger proportion of founders (around 40%) also reported having had no days off for the past three months.
  • Never switching off: A majority reported that they almost never ‘switch off’, but are almost constantly thinking about their start-up.
  • Struggling to find a balance: Typically, founders, in their sole pursuit of start-up success, do not prioritise work-life balance by taking time to do physical exercise or foster important relationships with family or friends.

Partner Heather Gray  is a director of mental health organisation SANE Australia, said:

Founders need to look after themselves, take time to decompress, talk openly about their issues with their co-founders and other colleagues, and ultimately ask for help if they need it.

Kristian Martinow, founder of social enterprise startup The Timekeeper, said he had found it difficult to view himself and his business separately, he said:

Being so personally connected to our mission at The Timekeeper, I’ve found it difficult to separate my self-worth and the results of the business. As these results have not yet met my high expectations, this has had a huge impact on my confidence on self-esteem.

10 lessons for founders to help protect their mental health

Some entrepreneurs might understandably think:

Of course I work constantly, don’t see my friends and never switch off. I don’t have a choice because that is what is required to succeed in this game’.

Sadly, the mental health statistics speak for themselves.

The good news is that there are steps every founder can take to look after themselves. Rather than thinking of self-care as a weakness, founders should think of it as an insurance policy to ensure their start-up is sustainable long-term.

1. Separate your self-worth from your start-up’s success

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking of your start-up’s success (or lack thereof) reflects your own.

2. Trust and empower your team

Remember that your team are talented and intelligent people and that you hired them for a reason. Ask yourself: ‘What is sucking my time that I can outsource to someone else so I can focus on the important stuff?’

3. Redefine failure

It’s become a cliché, but often failure is simply part of the discovery and testing process. Thomas Edison famously said (in inventing the light bulb):

I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’

4. Find a community

Sydney is now home to the Founder Circle, a support group for founders. Start-up hubs such as Stone & Chalk, a corporate partner of Hall & Wilcox, can also be great for sharing your challenges and finding a compassionate ear.

5. Say ‘no’

Everyone only has 24 hours in a day, including founders. Sometimes saying ‘yes’ to something can really mean saying ‘no’ to something else, so choose wisely and learn to say ‘no’ when you don’t have capacity to do more.

6. Forge a ritual

Especially one that incorporates regular self-care practices such as exercise or meditation.

7. Be authentic

Don’t try to be something or someone you’re not. Try to focus on bringing your whole unadulterated self to your start-up.

8. Take a break

Otherwise, you may be forced to take one due to burnout or poor health.

9. Help tackle the stigma

Talk about the issue of mental health, especially with other founders. Studies show that simply checking in with someone who is struggling can greatly assist them.

10. Get help if you need it

You’re not alone and there’s no shame in admitting you need a helping hand.

Ultimately, founders play a huge and indispensable role in society in driving innovation and change in our communities. But they also have the world on their shoulders.

If you are a founder who is struggling, you should reach out to a friend, trusted mental health professional or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or SANE Australia on 1800 187 263.

This blog was written by:

Dan Poole – a member of our Frank start-up practice and a serial founder, having founded social enterprises home.one, Crêpes for Change and The Coffee Cart Changing Lives.

Partner, Jacqui Barrett – part of the Frank team.

Senior Associate, James Bull – head of the Frank team nationally.