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Real stories of startup crisis and survival, told by founders

The Founders Aren’t Alright

Amanda Castleman

Founders and CEOs often feel the need to lead by example, working the hardest and the longest. However, between managing the demands of VCs, stakeholders, and team members, to overseeing all aspects of running a business and ensuring that the right startup insurance is in place, founders are struggling to stay above water. According to a recent report by the consulting firm The Kung Group, 78% of tech leaders feel their mental wellbeing has suffered since the onset of COVID-19. Even more—83%—say the lack of contact, professionally and socially, has exacerbated stress, anxiety, or depression. But only 44% have sought help from a therapist or mental health professional.

“Everyone is feeling additional pressure from the pandemic, which also is amplifying incredible inequities across many dimensions,” says Foundry Group Co-founder Brad Feld. “Just acknowledging what is going on, and having empathy for everyone around you, is a great starting point.”

Feld has an impressive track record as an early-stage investor and entrepreneur since the late-eighties; he’s the author of The Startup Community Way, and the cofounder of the seed accelerator Techstars. Even though he’s experienced many cornerstones of success, he’s dealt with major depressive episodes since his mid-20s. “I encourage other founders to start by acknowledging the additional stresses for themselves, their employees, and everyone's significant others, children, and families now,” he says. “Then extend this to customers, service providers, and everyone else you are interacting with.”

Independence and pushing hard are usually positive traits for founders. But the pandemic can take them to punishing extremes, explains Joe Grasso, PhD, a clinical psychologist and clinical director of partnerships at Lyra Health, a mental health platform.

“Founders often take on an overwhelming work volume and blur the boundaries between work and the rest of life, which is a recipe for burnout,” he says.

Grasso recommends awareness as a first step: analyzing your self-care and the barriers to it. Then start small with regular breaks away from the computer, which can—counterintuitively—enhance productivity. “You need to deliberately and proactively shift your attention away from work,” Grasso says. “Hold yourself accountable by building these breaks into your schedule and sharing your intentions with others.”

MIT’s delta v accelerator endorses this tactic as well. In 2019, it started the first self-awareness program for entrepreneurs, encouraging breaks and a growth mindset toward challenges, among other tools. Ninety-three percent of participants felt these practices can create more successful businesses. In a press release, the program’s creator Kathleen Stetson explains: “Understanding yourself is essential to managing stress and it is a skill that can be taught. Mindfulness and meditation have proven positive effects in other industries, and now we have data that shows they can be significantly beneficial to founders and their team members. It’s great for entrepreneurs, and it could be great for their startups’ bottom line too.”

Resets are especially vital for people who no longer commute, points out Psychotherapist and Executive Consultant Blair Glaser. The lack of alone time—or having a transition between work roles and personal lives—can really add up.

“Businesses actually thrive when the founder has time away,” she says. “Take a break—a real week or weekend off—somewhere other than your house. If money is an issue, get creative: camp, house swap, etc. One early-stage founder got into a conversation with an investor who was traveling and ended up house sitting for him, for example!”

Additionally, Glaser encourages founders to set aside time with peer groups or advisors: a place to synthesize everything that's happening. “Taking stock increases the functionality of the leader and the success of the business in a myriad of ways.”

Trauma Therapist Adriana Alejandre also recommends reaching out: “Consult with someone, get into a mentorship program, or create a community to receive support.” She has experienced these benefits firsthand. In 2018, she founded Latinx Therapy; the company had just hit its stride when the pandemic began. “We lost renters at our newly opened community center in Burbank and had to close it, losing the deposit. Learning to navigate the uncertainty as an entrepreneur was anxiety-provoking and I experienced three panic attacks, mostly due to financial stress.”

“Realizing that I shouldn’t have an emotional connection to a dream that wasn’t sustainable helped me overcome this.”

Alejandre had a big assist from her friends and family. She felt grateful to be able to vent in front of them, and to connect with others facing the same struggles. Thankfully, she also found a grant to help with some of the center’s closure expenses.

The journey’s far from over, though. She points out that many BIPOC founders have contracted the coronavirus or lost someone to the disease. (The CDC reports people from Black, Latinx, and Native communities have 1.9 to 2.4 times the death rates of whites and Asians.) Additionally, many have been hit harder by the pressures typical of startup creators. “Founders are conditioned to believe that the more we do, the more value we carry… the more tired we are, the more inspiring we look. All of which is very toxic and fuels burnout and resentment in our work and passions. It’s challenging because many people of color also grow up with this mentality in order to prove ourselves to others.”

In Toronto, Matt Zerker is also facing super-sized challenges with his new business. He sold his home to fund his dream: launching tethr, the first peer-to-peer, mental health and support network for men, in November 2019.

“I don’t want this to come across as woe-is-me,” he says. “I was very privileged to have a home to sell—many people don’t have that choice. But you already have this isolating experience of starting a company, where there’s so much pressure. And then the pandemic hit.”

Over the holidays, Zerker contracted COVID-19, isolating him even further for three weeks. “I’m feeling scared. I’m feeling anxious,” he shares. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing now or how this is supposed to look.”

But he counts himself lucky to have supportive co-founders, family and friends, plus a global network through the San Francisco Accelerator Program, run by the venture capital firm 500 Startups.

“For a lot of founders and CEOs, there’s an expectation that you need to be bulletproof,” he says. “One of the things that has saved me is my willingness to be vulnerable and not pretend I have everything together.”


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