Tired, anxious and scared: startups have a mental health problem

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It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Rob McElhenney’s darkly comic masterpiece, has become known for embedding serious social commentary within its frequently absurd narratives.

In one of its newest episodes, the show mocked how the sitcom format frequently trivialises serious issues. For instance, Dennis, a lead protagonist and, frankly, a psychopath, discovers that by putting a laugh track behind it, another character’s crippling OCD becomes a whimsical spectacle.

The episode’s treatment of a serious mental illness wasn’t just to make you laugh. It skewers how flippantly our society can approach mental health problems. These serious illnesses, bereft of any physical, visible wounds are all too easily ignored or transmuted into something comic or admirable.

This theme reared its head once again during a recent - and absolutely superb - report for CNN by Mostly Human’s Laurie Segall. It's worth watching in full, but one of the stories recounted by Segall is that of a Silicon Valley exec named Eric Salvatierra. During his career, Salvatierra was known for pulling all-nighters. He was celebrated for his commitment and work ethic.

The truth was far darker, though: it was Salvatierra’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder - a mental health condition typified by manic bursts of productivity and deep lows - that enabled him to work these superhuman hours. Essentially, one of the symptoms of Salvatierra’s illness had made him a hero to his colleagues.

Although he was eventually diagnosed, Salvatierra lost his battle and took his own life. The heartbreaking theme that emerges from this tragedy is how startup culture fed these issues. “When you’re swimming, you don’t notice there’s water all around you,” Moz’s founder Rand Fishkin tells CNN in the report. “It’s a badge of honour to show how busy you are. Sleep is not cool, pregnancy is not cool. All these things that normal people need ... are excluded from the acceptable portion of the culture.”

In one of the report’s segments, Segall mentions Startups Anonymous. Something akin to PostSecret, the site is an anonymous forum where founders post deeply personal stories about failure, anxiety, depression and feelings of inadequacy.

My lowest point was definitely towards the end of Wahooly’s life. It left me with a lot of questions.

The site’s top post is simply titled: “We’re shutting down and I’m scared.” It reads: “I’m scared. I’m also sad, disappointed, ashamed, embarrassed and deflated. But mostly just scared.” The fear is something the site’s founder Dana Severson identifies with.

Now working as the director of marketing at Promoter.io, Severson previously founded the crowdfunding platform Wahooly and helmed it until its failure in 2014. “My lowest point was definitely towards the end of Wahooly’s life. It left me with a lot of questions,” Severson tells BusinessZone.

“I was going to lose the trust of my investors, my employees, I didn’t know how I was going to deal with it financially because we had debt that we didn’t have money to pay off. There were a lot of factors that went into that shut down. It came down to me being really scared.”

More generally, Severson also deals with generalised anxiety disorder. The disorder, Severson explains, adds stress to the already taxing life of a founder. Even something as simple as air travel - particularly flying over water - harbours considerable fear for him. These struggles were coupled with the oft lonely life of founding a business.

In a column for BusinessZone, Blue Cliff Media’s founder Gavin Bell admitted the “loneliness of it all has been the hardest thing”. “Being an ‘internet’ business, I’ve been able to run my business from my bedroom. I could literally roll out of bed and get on with a good day's work in my PJs.” To fight this isolation, Bell explained, he makes a concerted effort to get out and meet people.

This loneliness is one of the main reasons why Severson founded Startup’s Anonymous. “I was looking for help and similar experiences. And what I found when I was looking for answers, a lot of time people will only speak about their experiences after they succeeded,” he explains. “I didn’t need it at that moment, I didn’t want to hear about success. I wanted to hear from people that were in the weeds that were going through the same things I was going through.

One of the big ones people don’t talk about is: you can control your exposure to risk.

“That experience of relating to people and getting through your struggles is a lot to do with mental health. That’s how I dealt with anxiety in the past is finding people with similar issues. It gives you a sense of belonging and helps you understand you’re not alone.”

Rob Fitzpatrick, a Y Combinator alum and serial entrepreneur, has experienced some stultifying lows, too. Most acutely, it was the failure of his startup Habit Industries. “I was super burned out afterwards,” he says. “I spent two or three years in burn out. I killed my savings, I had raised a million dollars straight out of university and it was more money than I had ever seen and I’d lost it. It weighed heavy and it took a while before I felt ambitious again. I wasn’t able to put that burden on my shoulders again.”

By his own admission, the burnout he felt after Habit’s failure was compounded by his inability to ask for help. It wasn’t necessarily deliberate, he explains. ““In my first startup, I couldn’t do that and I had no idea whether this was going well or not. I didn’t even know whether I should ask for help.

“If you’re just there and you don’t know why or how to change it, it’s just like ‘this feels bad, but I don’t know what to do about it’. For me, the most important thing was to have other people around I could say ‘this feels hard’ to, and realising it's meant to be hard and it’s not just me.

“So now, when I’m working on a company, I know when I’m screwing up and I know when I have screwed up. I can recognise the question and say ‘oh that’s a problem and I don’t know how to answer it’. So I’ll go and proactively seek help.”

If you’re leading a company it's a very stressful process and you’re expected to always be on call and clear-headed.

One of the most recurring themes on Startups Anonymous are founders who feel they are shouldering the brunt of their companies. The stress and anxiety in many of the posts are tangible. “There are a lot of people that put their faith and trust into you,” says Severson. “Your co-founders, your investors, your employees; if you’re leading a company it's a very stressful process and you’re expected to always be on call and clear-headed.”

It doesn’t leave much room for your own well-being. “Often times that leads to stress or a trigger that brings about anxiety and depression. The impostor syndrome is particularly prevalent; pretending everything's okay.”

It’s something that Fitzpatrick has ruminated on extensively, too. “One of the big ones people don’t talk about is: you can control your exposure to risk,” he says. “Certain types of ideas expose you to more risk than others; running your business in a certain way exposes you to more risk than others.

“There are also things you can do that expose you to guilt - or emotional risk, let’s say. If you bluff your investors, let’s say you lie to get them on board: ‘yeah, we’re fucking killing it, we’re amazing’ and they give you money and then you lose it, you feel bad because you cheated them.

“But if you speak to investors differently and say: ‘Obviously, it’s a startup. We don’t have these answers, these are the real numbers, here’s what we’re struggling with, this is what might kill us.’ And they make their decision as adults, then I have no guilt.

“The biggest thing is not that I’ve become more callous. Instead, I’ve become better at managing my exposure to financial and emotional risk.”     

About Francois Badenhorst

Francois

Francois is the deputy editor of BusinessZone and UK Business Forums.

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12th May 2017 13:05

Thanks so much for this article on the mental health of start up owners. This is the third brilliant article you've written on real life issues that the hypernormalised world of the business media will not tackle.

I've recently started my never ending '4 Futuristic Lessons' speaking tour, next stop a theatre in Newcastle on Thursday, to tell it like you tell it and how to survive and thrive in your own business in the future. It is for those thinking about, starting or running their own micro enterprises (95% of all biz) and although it re-affirms 'micro is magic' it explains many of the 'snakes' which your article mentions that can be avoided.

Whilst extreme wealth may not be achieved by this alternative approach (including 'ladders' like test trading, multiple income streams and bootstrapping) to starting and running your own business it is still worth it in terms of earning a living in an independent, fulfilling and happy way. Keep up the great writing - thanks.

Thanks (2)
to tonyrobbo
26th May 2017 09:51

tonyrobbo wrote:

Whilst extreme wealth may not be achieved by this alternative approach (including 'ladders' like test trading, multiple income streams and bootstrapping) to starting and running your own business it is still worth it in terms of earning a living in an independent, fulfilling and happy way. Keep up the great writing - thanks.

Thanks for the kind words, Tony. Completely agree with this sentiment, too. It's not an argument against ambition - some business owners will experience fabulous success - but for the rest of us, it can still be an immensely rewarding way to make a living.

How about you? Have you ever struggled with any of these issues in your career, through overwork and stress?

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22nd May 2017 09:13

A major difference here though, is that the mental anxiety and fears etc are externally motivated - created and curated by running a business that could so easily fail as succeed. This certainly should not be dismissed but it should also be recognised as a conscious decision to start and run that business.
There is another form of mental ill health that is inherent to that person no matter what scenario they find themselves in. Rich footballer, film actor, driving instructor or office admin - those mental issues prevail no matter the career path and need to be dealt with in a very different way indeed.

Thanks (3)
to Adam Pritchard
26th May 2017 09:58

Hi Adam, thank you for your thoughts. I agree many of these issues are environmental and cultural origins (which can also exacerbate pre-existing mental health troubles, too).

It bothers me, though, that this culture of working yourself to a standstill is valorised. I understand sometimes it might be necessary (especially if you're very ambitious) - but we should acknowledge that it's not healthy and should be curtailed as quickly as possible. And it's not just about founders, it's about the people they employ.

How have you dealt with these stressors? What is your take on the culture of overwork?

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11th Sep 2017 08:17

Great, and honest, writing. We all sometimes struggle with mental issues, whether on the surface or below, so it's important to learn how to be more in control of our emotional state. I've recently came across the ideas of Denise Shull who is a mental skills coacher. It might sound lofty, but she works with both athletes and Wall Street-ers. Really interesting, definitely worth looking into. Her site is therethinkgroup-dot-net.

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