Published on August 8, 2023

Balancing Ambition and Sanity: The uphill battle with mental health in the founder community…

Published by Michael Zbyszewski

Balancing Ambition and Sanity: The uphill battle with mental health in the founder community…

The outside world is quick to admire the final product entrepreneurs successfully deliver to the world. The fame and fortune that comes with this triumph is certainly well deserved.

However, behind the veil of success stories the mainstream media feeds us lies a graveyard of startups that failed after complicated, tiresome, and often dispiriting journeys.

Behind these failures, and even the successes, are entrepreneurs fighting internal battles of their own.

Jake Millar, John McAfee, Tony Hsieh. Recognize any of these names? These are the founders behind Unfiltered, McAfee, and Zappos. These high-profile, successful founders died by suicide or suspected suicide.

For a short news cycle, stories of their battles with mental health dominate the media, but then quickly dissipate.

The truth is that founders voluntarily put themselves under pressure day in and day out. Oftentimes, their stress and responsibilities provide fertile ground for mental health issues to grow.

Considering this, we decided to do a deep dive by researching and speaking with real founders. What we discovered did not just provide important insights, but offered hope that there are effective ways of combating this crisis.

Before diving in, it’s important to convey why we chose to set up our research the way we did. We not only wanted to collect data from research online, but we wanted to speak directly with the founders. We spoke with founders ranging from successful YC-selected builders to founders just starting to grow their own businesses within the past couple of months.

From a bird's eye view, the problem is quite startling. Founders are 2x as likely to suffer from depression, have suicidal thoughts, or experience psychiatric hospitalization. Founders are also 3x more likely to suffer from substance abuse, and 10x more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder.

These basic stats prove that merely embarking on your entrepreneurial journey makes you more susceptible to these dangerous conditions.

But what are some of the drivers of this widespread problem? Many studies claim that stress is at the root of this issue. It frequently affects those in positions of leadership with great responsibility.

There are two types of stress, however. Acute stress is a type of stress that comes in waves and only affects someone for short periods of time. This type of stress is most common and is usually a harmless side effect for working individuals. Chronic stress is a different type of stress which dominates the psyche throughout the entirety of the day. This type of stress is an indicator of poor mental health and can lead to more serious side effects if not addressed.

According to Clinical Psychologist  Dr. Sherry Walling, many founders battle the effects of chronic stress. This stress often comes from the pressures and expectations of running a startup which can lead to cases of depression and severe anxiety.

The scary reality of this “chronic stress” is that it is isolating. No founder wants to dishearten anyone who believes, works for, or invests in their startup by venting to them about their issues. It’s reported that 81% of founders do not share their stress, fears, and challenges with the dread that it might sink their reputation or chances at success.

Now, is loneliness a necessary sacrifice for some founders? There are plenty of entrepreneurs that go at it alone and win. Jeff Bezos, Henry Ford, Pierre Omidyar. These founders practically changed the reality we live in as solo founders. It’s important to make a distinction, however, between solo founders, and founders who face social isolation.

A solo founder who surrounds themself with people they can trust and people they confide in will better manage their mental health than co-founders who lack communication. Loneliness itself can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, depression, and cognitive decline. Throw that in with the rest of the pressure and fear founders face and you’re looking at our current problem.

So, what do real founders have to say about this?

The first founder we interviewed was in the YC W23 batch building a Generative-AI powered B2B SaaS. After being asked how being a founder impacted his mental health, he recalled feeling extraordinarily nervous all the time. He described how he would simply shut down and not be able to make decisions when overwhelmed.

Luckily for this founder, he had a good relationship with his co-founder. He described how being open and communicating his stress with his co-founder enhanced his ability to manage stress and deliver results. It’s important to recognize, however, that this founder had built a previous relationship with his co-founder in college and felt comfortable being vulnerable.

Not all founders are as lucky. An interview that stood out to me was with a young founder of a fintech platform. Based out of Las Vegas, he had gone to a prestigious university and worked at Goldman Sachs. He is also a solo founder with a family history of mental health issues. When asked about what stressed him out the most, it was his investors. He recalls being ghosted, lied to, and played by people whom he trusted. Investment continues to prove to be a double-edged sword for founders. You may receive more funding which allows you to grow, but you also may be burdened by the sacrifice in time, equity, and stress these investors cost you.

Because of this betrayal, his stress levels and mental health were at their worst. Thankfully, however, his family history of mental health prepared him with strategies to cope with the adversity. His outlet was exercise and meditation. Both of these two activities, he claimed, allowed him to practice control. Absolute control is something most founders lack in their lives. The ability to have absolute control for short periods of time every day helped this founder center his mental state.

One of the later founder interviews we conducted shed light on yet another interesting aspect of this challenge. I interviewed this serial founder out of Prague and initially asked him if the pressure of his job affected his mental health. He disclosed to me how the pressure of managing 20+ employees was a tremendous weight on his shoulders.

He resorted to drinking and using drugs as his coping mechanism because he had no concrete habits to fall back on. Thankfully, this founder was able to obtain coaches and a psychologist to correct his unhealthy tendencies. He was then able to develop healthy self-care and communication skills to thrive.

Now let’s take a look back and analyze these three very different interviews. We have a founder who was able to cope with his chronic stress by communicating with a co-founder. We have a founder who was able to cope with the pressure of the role because of previously developed healthy habits. And we have a founder who fell into bad times but could afford guidance and mentorship.

It was not an accident that we chose to highlight these three interviews. These interviews are representative of a larger pool of results from speaking with founders. Many founders who are succeeding have used these different strategies to battle isolation, pressure, and chronic stress.

The founders who continue to struggle seem to lack these strategies altogether. The ability to master or get a grip on the chaos of the mind either through any of the previously mentioned ways is essential to fend off symptoms of depression and anxiety. Yet still, while none of the strategies mentioned above are kept secret, most founders still suffer. Why?

50% of founders report a stigma within the founder community surrounding mental health support. On top of this, only 23% of founders reportedly seek to go to a psychologist or coach for help.

There is a serious culture problem here. As a founder, you’re supposed to have the utmost belief in your vision. But what if you don't have the utmost belief in yourself? More often than not, the latter rings true.

It’s impossible to eradicate the fear of failure from this industry. And it’s impossible to eliminate the insecurities and struggles founders face. What matters is making sure these founders are not suffering in silence.

It’s hard to prescribe a call to action, so we’ll just point to examples. Take Unistart. Unistart is building a community of founders for anyone to tap into. This community encourages shared ideas, communication, and the celebration of the work young founders have accomplished.

We need more companies that prioritize building a community and bringing people together. Founders are fragmented, and they experience their problems in silence. We need more than Twitter to bring them together to share their grievances and achievements.

Major Takeaways

  1. Success is not the cure for mental health struggles. Seek professional help.
  2. Isolation is a founder killer…be vulnerable and remain close to your team, friends, and family.
  3. Great mental health is infectious and can uplift and inspire others…prioritize it!