Startup Mental Health

I was on Facebook recently when Mick Liubinskas posted this piece about founder mental health. I realised there's things I've learned about this in Silicon Valley that could be useful to the startup ecosystem in Sydney so I'd like to share that.

It's no secret that entrepreneurship is a very psychologically difficult process to participate in. We all love talking about the big success stories and the triumph over adversity but scant attention is paid to the startups that didn't work out.

The people close to the founders and employees of startups that died are the ones who witness the strain it places on the people they love and in that sense it's an issue that affects more than just the founder herself.

Founders are understandably reluctant to talk about issues they might be having. The fear is that no matter how open minded and tolerant investors, journalists and potential hires might profess to be they may deep down still hold the belief that a founder who admits to mental health issues is a shaky bet in an already high-risk field.

And when there's the added layer of 'I'm might not think that way as an investor but others might and if others don't fund them I won't either' and it becomes a problem that's hard to fix. After all, we all know some investors are less evolved on these issues than others.

Given that the vast majority of investors make their decision based on who else will invest in you there's a strong incentive to always project strength and confidence. That's why everyone in Silicon Valley is "killing it!" when you ask how their startup is going. To admit to anything less would have the other person thinking "Wow, you can't say that, nobody will fund you if you keep saying that".

So the founders smile to the world even if they're dying inside. Then they self-medicate or turn to other 'solutions' to deal with the problems the stress, depression and other issues. Given how many young people are dropping out of college and getting into startups without a lot of life experience and emotional self-care skills the problem can get worse. Here's some examples:

  • I know one founder who got black-out drunk every night just to sleep when the going was tough. They're past that now (I think) and doing very well career-wise.

  • Another founder I know is probably a paranoid schizophrenic and believes the startup world is conspiring with the Stone Masons to orchestrate his downfall. He refers to himself as the King of the Vatican. This might have a genetic or brain chemistry component but the pressure of startups would be a contributing factor in my view (I am not a doctor though).

  • And many examples of using alcohol, drugs and porn to escape from it all even if just for a little while.

So how can you tackle the issue of founder mental health in such an environment?

Well here are my current thoughts, happy to hear yours in the comments:

  • Donut Club. A friend of mine goes to an informal event organised by a founder who has had their own roller-coaster in startups. This involves getting together in a small group at a set time each week and talking about the issues they're dealing with.

    It's a safe space and what gets said there stays there. It's also not about problem solving, it's about sharing it with someone else. Lord knows there's enough practical advice out there but what founders often need to hear is: "Wow, that sucks. It's OK, I'd feel the same way, too." And then they're ready to get back out there.

  • The key thing is that it isn't a networking event and nobody talks outside of the donut club about anything that gets said there. It's always held in a run of the mill donut chain near a train station and something about how banal that is works in its favour I guess.

    You can start your own donut club with a small group for the area you're in.

  • Have a mentor you can talk to about it one on one. This is the key advice I've heard over and over again. Find someone who is an entrepreneur themselves or has been and make sure they're a good listener.

    I'm fortunate to have just such a person in our angel investor, Mike Casey. I've spoken to him about all sorts of stressful things that aren't always startup related and all I needed was just someone to listen. It's rare that it will be an actual investor but there you go.

  • Ask other people if they're OK when you're one on one. Be proactive about helping others. You never know who will open up to you and you might be surprised if you just ask.

  • When Sean Percival was running 500 Startups in Mountain View he organised "Founder Real Talk". It's where founders would come in and tell the brutal truth of their startup (not the airbrushed media-ready version) with a focus on all the things that went wrong, how it felt and how they dealt with it on a personal level. The rules were no posting about it online anywhere and no talking about it outside the group.

    Still the founders showed tremendous courage to share and I think just knowing someone else has gone through something similar and came out of it OK is very validating for founders.Sean has written publicly about this issue and he told us he often gets emails from founders in distress. He also mentioned many of them would express what was upsetting them and sign off with: "It's OK. I'm fine, I just really wanted to tell someone, that's all."

  • Create "RUOKWeek" for the first week of every month. Ask three other founders if they're OK one-on-one. Re-iterate they can always come and talk to you and you wouldn't tell anyone.

Would a public conversation where investors and the startup media talking about how it's OK to ask for help have positive outcomes? Maybe but I'm skeptical. Most founders think tech media is just nice sounding tokenism based on their experiences with it.

After all, founders are used to thinking anything can be gamed including media and we've all seen how green washing and the diversity in tech issues have a big discrepancy in print versus reality so why would they expect this to be any different?

You can understand where the cynicism comes from. Still, it might be worth trying so I wouldn't rule it out entirely.

By it's nature though it's a very personal issue and one that will probably take personal or small group approaches to solving.

Also, if you like you can always take advantage of our anonymity and email me: cefthurston@gmail.com. Or if we're friends then let's grab a coffee and talk it out. If you're in distress seek professional help: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 in USA or LifeLine in Australia on 13 11 14.