Starting a business is hard… look after yourself

At the start of a business, the only certainty is uncertainty. The lean start-up movement provides a range of ways to manage this process as an organisation. But how do the founders deal with the uncertainty and pressure of growing a new organisation?

I’m a founder. I’ve been through the process in a couple of businesses, and I’m currently doing it at Nudjed. It’s never been easy, or comfortable. One of the hardest things for me has been dealing with the emotional battering of taking an idea to market.

A study of 243 entrepreneurs in the US identified mental health as a a key concern. Self-reported mental health concerns were present across 72% of the group. A proportion of that was significantly higher than that of the control group.

Why is being a founder tough?

The change is constant. At the start, more things are wrong than are right. Each new client win, product launch or employee hire brings with it another set of pressures. Something is always broken, breaking or on fire in the corner.

As the founder, you fight those fires. Building processes, delegating responsibilities, raising funds. Trying to fingernail back to your strategic road map. To keep an eye on the burn rate and runway. Working late, early, through lunch. Never being great at a job, because you’re doing three of them.

The tough part is there’s nobody else to blame. It’s your creation. In the early days, almost every major decision leads back to you. It’s a requirement you take responsibility. In fact, most of your investors will be keen to tell you: “I invested in the people, I invested in you”. Hello, pressure!

Business is good

You’re struggling, and some urgent problem is knocking on your door. You need help. 5 minutes later you walk into a room of other business owners. Here’s the conversation I have had on more than one occasion.

  • Person 1: How’s business?
  • Me: Good thanks! You?
  • Person 1: Good thanks!

The irony is that the other person could be feeling a similar way. In fact, if you’re in a room full of young SMEs, the likelihood is that you’re all feeling almost exactly the same. But still, we don’t say it. Why?

Leaders don’t show weakness

Leaders are certain. They’re strong. They solve problems. They don’t feel hopeless in the face of a cash flow or worry about a sales call that didn’t convert. They have unflinching belief in what they’re doing.

Belief – the feeling of being ​certain that something ​exists or is true​

Certainty is painful in start-ups. When almost everything you believe at the start will be wrong.

But you are a leader. Leaders don’t show weakness or uncertainty. Not to customers and staff – who will panic if you do. Not to family and friends – who won’t understand anyway. So why not to other founders?

Get your ego out of the way

If we can’t learn how to have honest conversations about how we feel, how can we hope to support each other? The key is feeling comfortable enough to do it.

Start-ups are a male-dominated arena, and I believe we suffer for it. We’re too busy measuring the size of our A-Round to notice that the other guy is crying.

Agile, lean, canvases… There are plenty of tools out there to help businesses plan and execute better. But for me there’s a huge missing element. The people. Often cited as the key components in a business. Then subjected to 90 hour weeks, ramen diets and incredible pressures. I feel it’s time for us to drop the gung-ho attitude and say it how it is.

Founding a business can be a sh** for your mental health

I’ve been through this. I’m hoping some other people have too. In fact I’m betting that if you made it this far, you have. I’m interested in how we can get better at expressing emotions in our companies. No longer being the martyrs for our ideas.

As a logical person, I sometimes struggle to connect and understand my feelings. I’m confident but proud. Asking for help about something I don’t quite understand is tough. But I’m learning to.

In my explorations, I’ve so far found a few things that I’ve found valuable and that I feel may help other people:

  1. You are not your ideas. The more you can stop seeking external validation, the better. Be happy, even if your start up fails. It’s not you.
  2. Find a style that’s authentic to you. Playing a role is something you may find yourself doing. Be sensitive to this. It shouldn’t last forever.
  3. Show vulnerability. Leaders who show vulnerability are actually more successful. It allows you to ask for help. Because nobody is infallible.
  4. Be aware of how you feel. Sensitivity is the first step to understanding and thus avoiding pitfalls. Allow time to reflect on how you feel.

Starting a business is not going to get easier. For the most part, founders are always going to be the thin end of the wedge. If you take the step then please, look after yourself.

Warren Fauvel is the founder and CEO of ehealth start-up Nudjed.

Image credit: Kevin Dooley