The mental cost of being a founder

by MMC
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First published on November 5, 2023

“A startup is a lonely place. You’re working on something that no one believes in, and that you’ve been told over and over again would never work. It’s you against the world. – Marc Randolph, co-founder of Netflix.

The mental health of tech founders is not often discussed in our ecosystem. In the early stages of building, a founder is likely to be constantly traveling, bootstrapping, wearing multiple hats in the business, and often neglecting themselves and forgetting to take a break. These can have cognitive and psychological consequences, leading to stress and anxiety, poor judgment and a breakdown in their personal relationships.

Founders experience a lot of mental stress: imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and a justified need for validation from their team, investors, and customers.

Fundraising is the biggest source of stress for founders | Graphic by Mobolaji Adebayo, TC Insights

“I think being a founder is a lonely journey,” Dennis Mary, founder of web3 startup Yuki, told me. “No one seems to understand you. This includes your team and your family. Being a founder can be mentally exhausting, especially when you’re dealing with rejections from applicants like Techstars, for example. You can start to question yourself. You have to understand things all the time. Sometimes when bad news comes, you have to absorb it first before thinking about how to convey it to your team.

Ope Onaboye, CEO of e-commerce startup Renda, said many founders are afraid of failure but would never make this struggle public. This fear of failure is further compounded by the current shortage of venture capital funding, macroeconomic shocks and, worst of all, the closure of other once-promising startups. Sometimes not having support to lean on (family, friends, or spouse) can be discouraging, especially when they don’t work in the same field as the founder and therefore cannot understand what the founder is building.

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Seventy-two percent of founders said launching their business had a negative impact on their health, according to information obtained from the data-sharing platform, Boot snapshot. Data collected from over 400 startup founders across the world revealed that 81% of founders aren’t really open about their stressors, fears, and challenges, as Onaboye said. Twenty-three percent see a therapist, according to the aforementioned report.

It’s important for founders to jealously protect their health when solving difficult problems every day. Insufficient sleep can lead to health problems such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attacks and strokes. A combination of healthy eating and exercise can make it easier for the body to get the amount of sleep it needs to live a better quality of life. Simple daily exercise routines can give the body the vitality it needs to perform its best while avoiding terminal illness.

Founders need to take breaks when they start to suffer from burnout; they should set realistic goals for their business and not feel undue pressure to prematurely expand their business, for example regionally. Setting realistic projections for success is important so that tech entrepreneurs can save not only themselves but also their team. A founder should not allow the business to revolve around him, his personality or his whims. The company’s activities must not cease if its founder dares to take leave. Delegation of work and involvement of more team members in running the business should be encouraged through open workplace communication, documentation of project progress and the establishment of sustainable systems for the company.

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