How Founders Avoid Burnout

November 22, 2023
How Founders Avoid Burnout

What is the true cost of pursuing entrepreneurial ambitions in the dynamic startup landscape? Embarking on the entrepreneurial journey to start a company is a thrilling yet high-stakes endeavor. The prospect of creating something impactful and innovative fuels the ambition of many founders. However, a new report from Startup Snapshot, a data-sharing platform for the entrepreneurial ecosystem, pulls back the curtain on a less glamorous aspect of the startup world — its toll on the mental health of founders and CEOs.

In the midst of a challenging economic environment marked by funding cuts and a downturn in the startup landscape, the emotional state of founders is emerging as a critical determinant of success. The recently released report, titled "The Untold Toll: The Impact of Stress on the Well-being of Startup Founders and CEOs," not only exposes the harsh realities of the startup mindset but also underscores the often-overlooked emotional, cognitive, and physical toll that comes with the territory of founding and leading a startup.

Additionally, we have had the privilege of engaging in insightful interviews with two prominent founders, providing valuable perspectives on how they navigate the demanding terrain of startup life while prioritizing their mental health. Our conversations with Barnaby Ferreno, Co-Founder/CEO of Prodigy Network, and Michele Travierso, Founder at Atmosoar.io and Entrepreneur in residence for Orbit Startups / SOSV, at the NextAge program, offer firsthand insights into the strategies and approaches they employ to tackle the challenges unique to their entrepreneurial journeys.

Join us on this journey as we unravel practical strategies aimed at not only decoding the stark numbers but also offering tangible guidance for founders seeking to navigate the often tumultuous waters of startup life while preserving their mental health.

Navigating the Stress Paradox of Founding a Business

Launching a business can be a thrilling and daunting process, filled with ups and downs. Founders, who tend to be adrenaline seekers, often underestimate the impact of pressure on their well-being. The startup journey involves a complex blend of interrelated stresses, including financial, emotional, familial, and health issues, which have yet to be fully explored. Additionally, the current macro-economic climate has intensified these underlying pressures, with terms such as "down rounds" and "layoffs" becoming more frequent.


The Silent Struggle

Startup founders are renowned for their innovative spirit, yet the emotional toll of their journey is often overlooked. A staggering 72% of founders reported that entrepreneurship adversely affected their mental health, with 37% grappling with anxiety and 36% experiencing burnout. Despite these challenges, only 23% sought professional help, revealing a pervasive stigma around mental health support.

Sleep Deprivation - More worry and less sleep exacerbates the stress

The demanding nature of being a startup founder often leads to decreased sleep, exacerbating stress levels. As the report indicates, 59% of founders sleep less since starting their venture. The negative impact on mental health becomes a vicious cycle, with increased worries and decreased sleep creating additional challenges. In the face of a global economic downturn, the pressure on founders has intensified, with fundraising taking center stage as venture capitalists become more cautious.

Bridging the Gap between Venture Capitalists and Founders

In the world of startups, founders often feel a disconnect between themselves and their venture capitalist supporters. It's common for only 10% of founders to confide in investors about their struggles, fearing potential consequences for future funding. This reluctance is often due to concerns about appearing vulnerable, unprepared, or risking their financial backing.

However, it's important for founders to realize that investors are more than just financial supporters; they are invested partners in the success of the business. By embracing transparency and openness with investors, strong and collaborative relationships can be built. Sharing challenges with investors not only fosters trust but also opens doors to potential solutions and insights that can significantly benefit the business.

Breaking the Silence

The reluctance to seek help among founders is pervasive, with 81% choosing not to openly share their stress and challenges. The stigma around mental health support is particularly pronounced among younger founders, with 59% reporting a negative perception.

Surprisingly, investors rank last as a source of support, as founders fear that transparency could affect their chances of securing additional funding.

Being a founder is a lonely job

Being a startup founder can be an isolating journey. Introducing innovative ideas is frequently met with skepticism, and persuading others of their potential can be an uphill battle. The demands of initiating and expanding a business are intense, often leaving little room for social connections and support. The expectation to uphold a positive image and project an appearance of success, even in the face of challenges, can deepen feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Perspective from the Trenches | Expert Insight

In the dynamic realm of startups, where passion and burnout teeter on a delicate balance, founders grapple with the formidable task of steering their ventures toward success while safeguarding their well-being.

Our dialogue with two accomplished entrepreneurs, Barnaby Ferreno, Co-Founder/CEO of Prodigy Network, and Michele Travierso, Founder at Atmosoar.io, Entrepreneur in residence for Orbit Startups / SOSV, at the NextAge program, provides a candid exploration of the intricate dance founders perform to prevent burnout without compromising the lofty goals essential for startup growth.

Barnaby Ferreno - Prodigy Network

Barnaby Ferreno, Co-Founder/CEO of Prodigy Network, is renowned for his results-driven philosophy. In an effort to build a cohesive team, Ferreno encourages his team members to set their own goals. He believes that accountability is more than just a mandate, it's a personal commitment that individuals make to exceed their own expectations.

Ferreno candidly reflects on the delicate balance of the startup world and emphasizes the inevitability of trial and error. In a lighthearted manner, he acknowledges that there is no set playbook and that mistakes are a necessary part of the startup journey.

Q.1. Do you establish specific boundaries for work hours, and how do you go about communicating and enforcing these boundaries with your team and stakeholders?

A: No. Outcomes-based only. Everyone sets their own weekly goals, and then I stay on top of everyone to reach their goals, then set harder ones the following week.

Q.2. When it comes to preventing burnout, how do you navigate the delicate balance between setting ambitious goals and maintaining realistic expectations?

A: There is no delicate balance at a startup just trial and error and lots of mistakes. But back to (1) I let people set their own goals and then hold them accountable to themselves. The person people least want to let down is themselves. Then we can see the quality of a team member, their expectations, and their commitment based on how aggressively they set and pursue their own goals.

Michele Travierso - Atmosoar.io

Michele Travierso, the founder of Atmosoar.io, offers a unique perspective on the delicate balance between avoiding burnout and staying committed to a startup. He shares his personal experience of pushing himself to the brink of exhaustion while navigating the unpredictable challenges of the pandemic. While recognizing the importance of pursuing success, Travierso advises against playing a dangerous game of burnout "chicken" and highlights the difficulty of saying 'no' when the entrepreneurial momentum is high. He sheds light on the formidable demands of the startup landscape and the importance of recognizing one's limits.

Q.1. As a founder, how do you navigate the fine line between being deeply committed to your startup and avoiding the risk of overcommitting to the point of burnout?

A: To be entirely honest, I don’t think I’ve cracked the code yet: I push pretty hard, to the point of exhaustion, and at some point, inevitably, my brain decides that enough is enough and takes some time off on its own. Needless to say, that’s not the healthiest way to do it. The pandemic exacerbated this tendency, with its accelerated cycles of lean and fat years and, at least for me, costly distractions in terms of mental energy. I’ve got very close to being burned out, but my brain wisely pulled the plug just shy of it. It’s a game of chicken I don’t recommend to anyone. The harsh truth however is that when things get going, it’s hard to say no. Perhaps you struggled to find product market fit, or to raise, or to assemble the right team, but when the rocket starts you wanna hold on to it for dear life and that means doing what needs to be done, day in, day out.

Q.2. In the fast-paced startup environment, how do you prioritize self-care without compromising the growth of your company?

A: The reality is that I don’t. Not now anyway. I’m lucky to have a strong passion for nature, mountains, the sea, and flying, for things that when you do them absorb you completely. But all this takes second place when things are growing and you need to be present and fresh for that call or that meeting. I do try to schedule proper time off but it ain’t easy to unplug for real.

As we delve into their responses, we uncover the nuanced strategies these founders employ to maintain resilience, tackle burnout, and prioritize self-care in the whirlwind of startup life. Their candid insights shed light on the realities of the entrepreneurial journey and offer valuable lessons for founders navigating the delicate balance between ambition, commitment, and well-being.

Breaking the Stigma

In 2023, despite societal progress, a persistent stigma surrounds seeking mental health support, especially in the entrepreneurial sphere. The reluctance to engage with psychologists is palpable, with varying degrees of apprehension observed among different demographics.

Questions arise:

  • Why do men perceive a greater stigma compared to women?
  • What factors contribute to the prevalent stigma among the younger generation?
  • Why is the stigma particularly pronounced in the EMEA region?

These questions reflect the complex landscape surrounding mental health discussions, especially for entrepreneurs. Notably, nearly half of entrepreneurs, irrespective of gender or age, believe there is a stigma attached to seeking support.

Even in the contemporary landscape, the startup community grapples with an enduring stigma around therapy and mental health resources. This hesitancy is not exclusive to entrepreneurs, but for founders navigating the high-stress and high-stakes entrepreneurial journey, seeking therapy can feel particularly daunting.

Considering this, some founders may ponder:

  • Is seeking help perceived as a sign of weakness in the entrepreneurial realm?
  • Could reaching out for support adversely affect one's reputation or chances of success?

The prevalence of this stigma is widespread within the entrepreneurial community, with men and younger founders often feeling a heightened need to prove themselves. Despite the strides made in societal awareness, fostering a more supportive and accepting environment remains crucial. Encouraging open conversations about mental health is essential to dismantle the barriers that impede founders from seeking the help they may need. How can we collectively work towards creating an environment that embraces vulnerability and prioritizes mental well-being in the entrepreneurial landscape?

Caring for the Mental Health of Startup Founders

Startup founders have to deal with a unique set of challenges that can negatively impact their mental well-being. To avoid burnout, they need to break the silence around mental health, address sleep deprivation, and navigate economic uncertainties.

Barnaby Ferreno's perspective suggests that embracing trial and error, learning from mistakes, and allowing individuals to set their own goals can help make the startup journey healthier and more sustainable. By prioritizing mental health and creating a supportive ecosystem, startup founders can navigate the ups and downs of entrepreneurship more effectively.

Ever wondered about the mental well-being of your startup team?

Bring EMOTAI to your office for a day dedicated to understanding and nurturing the well-being of your team and yourself. Our workshops provide a unique opportunity to assess mental health, offering results the very next day. Book your slot today and prioritize the holistic well-being of your startup journey.

Resource: Startup Snapshot, The Untold Toll: The impact of stress on the well-being of startup founders and CEO's, Seventh Edition, April 2023 | https://startup-snapshot.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Startup-Survey_Final.pdf

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