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Is founder's depression real?

Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Last night, to be very precise, past midnight, over a long, long call, someone said ‘founder’s depression’ is on a rise in the pandemic. I was blissfully unaware of the term but very familiar with living that nightmare for exactly three times now.

My life as a startup CEO has been anything but glamorous on the internet, social media, LinkedIn, and on some leading media platforms. As a three-time founder, I had a jet setting lifestyle, the world-class, an envy-invoking gorgeous apartment, the crown of the CEO, power, authority, media attention, honours, and awards.

For the longest time, I was the poster girl for topics like ‘women in tech’, ‘women empowerment’, ‘women CEO’, ‘women in power’ and got an opportunity to voice my opinions and thoughts at INSEAD, French Chambers of Commerce and UN Women, to name a few.

And all this on the Brink of the ’30s. It sounds so much fun!

However, underneath, as a startup CEO, I was living an emotional rollercoaster, unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life before. It flipped rapidly from day-to-day. One day I was euphorically convinced I am going to own the world, to another day in which doom seemed only days away and I felt completely ruined, and then the very next day back to euphoria again.

This went on over and over and over. And by the way, this is something that happens when the startup is on stable grounds. Imagine what would happen if the startup was not doing well or if there is no capital runway, disputes with the co-founders and investors, pending litigations, regulatory issues?

If you are unfamiliar with this dingy, dark world of entrepreneurship, I would say just imagine the magnitude of the stress I mentioned above amplified to 100 times.

There are immense uncertainty and unexplainable risk associated with practically everything that a startup CEO does. The level of stress that I was under, would magnify the incredible highs and unbelievable lows at whiplash speed and huge magnitude.

And that coupled with a difficult relationship marked with long-distance, an abusive individual and a huge cultural gap between us. Sounds like fun? Not anymore, right? This difficulty is the living nightmare of 99 per cent of the founders.

Double-edged sword

This isn’t just my story but that of all the entrepreneurs. In addition to the professional woes, for most founders, a personal relationship is perpetually on shaky ground because their partners cannot truly comprehend the demands and challenges associated with the crown of a CEO. A double-edged sword I would say. And it is the combination of these very circumstances that drown most startup founders into depression, including me.

The paragraphs above articulate the mere situation but the core of the fragility lies in the individuals and entrepreneurs; it is a gap that leads to depression. Over the past year, I have spent significant time on self-reflection and self-awareness and I understood the key factors that led to depression in my case, as mentioned below:

Impostor syndrome

I suffer from the sense that I don’t belong where I am; that eventually I will be exposed as a fraud. This led me to chalk up success to luck, but to take all the blame for any failures of my company.

I-am-my-company syndrome

In my head, I blurred the line between myself and the company in such a way that I started believing company failure is my personal failure. Losing employees, declining revenues, missed targets, failure to secure additional funding– felt like a deep deep personal rejection.

I-am-a-superwoman syndrome

Investors, founders, and poorly trained middle managers all perpetuate a myth in the startup ecosystem that the only way to be successful is to grind yourself inexorably to the bone. And I am thoroughly guilty of treating myself so bad, working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, catching sleep only on flights, and carrying on without any vacations, or breaks.

To be honest I am yet to meet a founder who has a budgeted line item for self-care or who takes guilt-free vacations. I wish I would have understood earlier that I am not a superwoman and I don’t have to fix it all.

Feeling of loneliness

The all-encompassing nature of a startup often caused me to spend less time with family and friends, and required me to relocate away from my support networks. As a result, I often found myself alone when I needed others the most. I felt that I cannot talk with the co-founders, especially when the problem is with the co-founder, I could not pass the burden of worry on to the employees and felt like friends and family do not understand or are tired of hearing about my issues. This was probably the loneliest I ever felt in my life to date.

Financial uncertainty

I had a high paying job in management consulting and Private Equity previously, with pay in excess of US$240,000 annually. In addition to opportunity cost, as a founder for the longest time, I went without a paycheck and/or coughing up a lot of my savings into the project.

This created a scenario where a business failure would actually lead to financial ruin. I suffered from acute anxiety, such that the thought of failure would make me sick physically.

I strongly feel that everyone who participates in the startup ecosystem contributes to the problem of poor founder health. Few of the things that we can do immediately is to circumvent this curse is to:

  • Destigmatise mental health
  • Connect, connect, connect and create a stronger support system
  • Prioritise and make time for personal well-being and relationships
  • Set aside resources and funds for mental and physical well-being

I also strongly believe that the investors should make sure that the founders they work with know that they take mental health issues seriously. Investors, in their on-boarding process with founders, should explicitly touch on their support for the founders’ seeking mental health services when they feel compelled to do so. Being an investor is different from being a founder.

If investors want to support their founders, they need to be authentic and vulnerable in front of them. Investors need to show founders it’s okay to open up and that it’s OK to have doubts or to struggle with mental health.

Building a company is inherently hard – mentally, physically, and emotionally, but the ecosystem is a toxic one, with dozens of factors all contributing to make it even more so. As entrepreneurs and founders, we are literally killing ourselves and thereby sabotaging our long-term competitiveness.

At the end of the day, I believe most of the actions boil down to treating each other and ourselves as human beings. If we recognise and embrace our weaknesses and support our own imperfections, we will start seeing a healthier and more sustainable entrepreneurial stint.

This article was first published on e27, Jul. 8, 2020.