Setting up your own company can be one of life’s most rewarding decisions. Whether your motivation is freedom, a lasting legacy, the ability to do good or simply money and prestige, becoming a founder is a way to make it a reality.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Check out social media or read some opinion pieces online to see hundreds of founders showcasing how they live the dream. However, as with nearly everything online, the reality is different. There is a seldom talked about, unpalatable cost of being a founder – the impact on mental health.
I am in no way a mental health expert. But what I do know from both my own experience and speaking to scores of business owners I work with is that being a founder is an inherently lonely job. Pressure is high and uncertainty pervades every decision. Fear of failure is ever present. Unaddressed, these issues can take a serious toll.
Recent months have only made the situation worse. The global recession has damaged many companies and working from home has contributed to feelings of isolation. While in the background, social media continues to promote an unhealthy fetisisation of hustle culture and founding myths. Many founders tell me that they have constant feelings of inadequacy and guilt when they compare themselves to the startup gurus who celebrate working 24/7, are constantly selling, raising money or making their millions. They feel they should be working harder or be doing better – just like all the people they read about.
So how do we address this? The first step is talking about it. This means letting the mask slip and being honest that not everything is always fine. Speaking to a fellow founder, not about commercial concerns, but about personal worries can be revelatory. I’ve seen it happen in our community. It’s like an emperor’s new clothes moment. The myth of the bulletproof, genius, hustling founder can disappear in a puff of smoke as people suddenly realise they are not alone. Their concerns are often shared right across the board with the anxiety and uncertainty they feel almost universal.
Experienced founders can provide invaluable support to people new to the startup scene. They can share their experiences, both failures and success, and reveal some of their coping mechanisms. I would strongly advise founders who are experiencing some of the worries I’ve outlined to actively seek out advice from both their peers and potential mentors. Much in the way they may seek out commercial guidance.
Next, we need to address how we tackle the culture and myths around being a founder.
Business owners need to know that many of the extraordinary ‘success stories’ they see celebrated online are exactly that – extraordinary. Similarly, those that promote the principle that working all hours is the only way to be successful are at best talking about what works for them, and are at worst engaging in a performance to achieve attention.
The online world seldom reflects reality, and success in the startup scene is all relative. For some owning a small business that makes them a decent income with a good work life balance is the goal. For others, it is simply being able to do what they love in a way that they want. Very few will get the exit that makes them a millionaire, and a tiny, tiny minority will build the globe-spanning corporation. I cannot stress enough how important it is for founders to keep their aims and ambitions in perspective and ignore the noise they hear online.
More broadly, the industry, including the media, does need to get wiser about how it views and represents founders. For example, a pervasive myth is that some of the biggest tech companies in the world started in basements or garages with no money, then through the genius and sheer bloodymindedness of their founder they were grown into a massive corporation. The reality is that the vast majority of tech companies benefited from substantial seed capital almost from day one. These founders were also quickly surrounded by highly talented people who did a lot of the empire building aided by a massive dollop of luck. In short, the idea of the superhuman founder perpetuated in the industry is, in nearly all cases, nonsense, and not something founders should measure themselves against.
In a similar vein, there are also issues around how we frame success and failure.
Success, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is nearly always couched in the most basic numerical terms. The label ‘unicorn’ is bandied about so often that many people fail to realise that it’s simply a valuation that a few investors have given a company. It does not reflect whether the business is actually successful in the traditional sense – i.e. making money. Generally the startup scene celebrates and idolises founders who make big exits or achieve ‘unicorn status’ – less is spoken about the thousands of SMEs that employ people, develop and patent new tech, make a tidy profit and pay taxes.
With failure, there is an altogether different problem. The startup scene loves to downplay failure as par for the course. On one hand, that’s great – nothing to be embarrassed about. On the other, it actually minimises real world fears nearly all founders have. Failure cannot just be brushed off if you’ve devoted years of your life, spent a lot of money and have staff who rely on you. By simply thinking of failure as part of the process we cannot address and talk about a real source of concern for business owners. ‘Fail fast’ only works for those who can afford it.
Individually, these issues may seem like nothing but white noise and the cure for suffering founders may simply be to get off social media. However, it is actually indicative of a wider culture that fails to reflect the reality of owning and running a business. Put simply, founders are expected to be genius, fearless, visionaries and any deviation from this, such as vulnerability around mental health, is, by inference, failure.
The startup scene is known for people’s willingness to teach and collaborate, and this should also be true for addressing ‘taboo’ issues such as mental health. By sharing our problems and concerns, as well as tackling the hagiography around founders, we can create a more open startup scene that ensures people don’t suffer alone.
Featured image credit: Gordon Johnson / Pixabay