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Mental Health Struggles Amongst Founders Of Startups:How Best To Deal With Failures, An Intrinsic Part Of The Learning Curve

The Covid-19 pandemic took control out of the hands of many entrepreneurs and having never dealt with potential failure in their lives, some of them have found it almost impossible to cope.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented focus onto mental health given the stress, anxiety and isolation that lockdowns around the world have resulted in. However, one silver lining in this cloud of despair is the acceptance of and support for mental health issues in the workplace, something that decades of mental health advocacy had failed to do. Employers around the world have finally realised that support systems need to be in place for employee mental health, without which employees will simply be unable to perform their best.

I would argue, however, that startup founders face an even more challenging situation predominantly due to their inability to deal with failure as a natural part of the learning curve. The typical Indian start-up founder has been a star their entire life – from being a topper in school to a topper in University and being feted at all important milestones in their lives. Dealing with pressure has become second nature to them and they have handled this pressure with aplomb. Startup founders are Type-A personalities, needing to have control over all aspects of their surroundings. While this often leads to very successful companies and exits for investors, the toll that this takes on their mental health when things start to go wrong cannot be taken lightly.

The Covid-19 pandemic took control out of the hands of many entrepreneurs and having never dealt with potential failure in their lives, some of them have found it almost impossible to cope. Ironically, the startup ecosystem is awash in liquidity due to loose monetary and fiscal policies globally, resulting in multimillion dollar funding rounds being announced on almost a daily basis for many startups. However, not every startup has been so lucky and the cauldron of pressure resulting from decreasing revenues, lack of funding, irate investors and slower sales cycles can be almost debilitating.

As an angel investor, I find it is very important to find a balance between putting pressure on a startup founder to push forward harder, faster, stronger and taking a step back when recognising that things haven’t been going as well as projected due to circumstances out of their control. I have personally found it amusing when people say that they are able to compartmentalise different parts of their lives successfully. The sports world is rife with examples of athletes whose on-the-field performance has suffered due to personal issues behind the scenes, most recently exemplified by Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, two of the most famous athletes in the world today. Why should entrepreneurs be any different?

This is why I usually end every review meeting with the simple question “And how are you doing?” It takes time to build trust between an investor and an entrepreneur and I argue that an investor needs to wear many hats – from giving business advice to, in some cases, being an avenue for the entrepreneur to vent and potentially discuss personal issues which they are unable to discuss with anyone else. I would also urge founders to read about the mental health struggles that other well-known CEOs have talked about such as Piyush Gupta, the CEO of DBS Bank, who recently talked about the acute anxiety that resulted from his dot-com failing earlier in his career.

What I would like to tell any startup founder reading this article is the following – It’s ok to fail as long as you tried your best and gave it your all. Everyone forgets that 80% of startups fail and as long you learn lessons from that failure, don’t let this one failure override all the other successes you have achieved in your life. There will always be schadenfreude – people happy to see you fail – but there will also be loved ones around you to help catch you when you fall. And more importantly, if you are struggling mentally, go and seek help. A good mental health professional can help you find a valve to deal with the pressure, a lot of which is self-imposed.

Mental wellbeing, one has to fundamentally remember, is not mental weakness. In the same way that we work out to take care of our physical health, taking care of our mental health is equally important as it gives us the tools to deal with adversity when it strikes. A few years ago, Elon Musk tweeted the following about entrepreneurial life – “The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress. Don’t think people want to hear about the last two.”

I would urge Mr Musk to talk more about the last two. I think people today would want to listen.

Source: Business World

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