The Loneliness Of The Modern-Day Founder
We work in a fast-paced and often glamorous industry that thrives on disruption and technological advancement. Mark Zuckerberg’s famous motto of ”move fast and break things” perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the start-up community, conveying an image of excitement and disruption, of hard work and high earnings, and – when success comes knocking – of incredible rewards.
Yet this Mental Health Week, it’s worth taking a step back and acknowledging that, like every other industry, ours also has a dark side. A side where a person’s mental health can suffer. A side where hard work can easily morph into burnout, where lofty ambition can lead to financial ruin, and where constant disruption can cause as much anxiety as innovation.
Mental health is increasingly an issue that the startup community is having to face, particularly in the tech world. Many young entrepreneurs and their employees are fed images of what success in their field looks like and feel a need to conform to lifestyle habits that are often both unhealthy and unsustainable.
However, while these aspirational images of the high-powered CEO lifestyle may play well on social media, what we see on Instagram and LinkedIn usually represents only a fraction of the reality of starting a business and raising funding.
We’re only human. We all get sucked in by dreams of wealth and success. But what if those dreams are actually contributing to a lifestyle that leads not to delight but to depression?
Sure, we all want to be part of the next Facebook, Tesla, or Uber. But at what cost?
The theme for this year’s Mental Health Week is loneliness, so it’s worth highlighting perhaps the loneliest position of them all: the founder.
Many business are started by a single person who sits alone in their proverbial garage on evenings and weekends, maxing out their credit cards to fulfil their dream. After all, that’s what Jeff Bezos did and it worked out OK for him.
Not only is this a lonely endeavour but it also puts incredible pressure on the founder, who now finds themself fighting a difficult battle to manage not only their time and finances, but also their mental health as they wait impatiently for that one breakthrough that will change their lives. They often end up throwing good time and money after bad, and coming too far to turn back, whatever their better instincts might be telling them.
Being a founder is one of the most rewarding vocations possible… when it works out. But until then, it might also be one of the most stressful, and certainly one of the loneliest.
In recent years, the cult of the founder has become pervasive throughout our society, and their eccentricities only feed into their mythology. No longer are they known only within the stuffy suit-wearing boardrooms of Wall Street or the City. These are the new rockstars of our times.
We idolise the likes of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, visionaries who took on the world from their living rooms and revolutionised our lives. We sometimes take random facets of their routines out of context in the hope that a single habit (such as waking up at 4am every day) will unlock the gateway to success for us too. We hero-worship their twenty-hour workdays and their lack of sleep as they make billions of dollars every year.
We rarely verify whether these lifestyle choices are, in fact, real over the long-term or just clickbait for social media posts. We certainly don’t ask whether they are healthy or sustainable.
For emerging entrepreneurs, this image of success can be as dangerous as it is inspiring. Every time they open Instagram, they see their peers getting into expensive cars or flying first-class across the world. And every time they open LinkedIn, they are greeted by another success story of a fellow founder who has closed a seven-figure round, or by cherry-picked statistics that more money is being invested into startups now than ever before and that there has never been a better time to start a business.
It’s only natural then, as they receive another rejection e-mail and another credit card bill they can’t pay, that they ask when it will be their turn, and what they’re doing wrong when they thought they’d been doing everything right. Founders are only human, and it’s enough to make even the most confident of entrepreneurs question their ability and purpose.
The harsh reality is that a large number of startups fail every year, often through no fault of the founder, and the unfair stigma that comes with this is a silent burden that troubles many throughout our industry.
So, what can we in the startup and investment communities do to address this?
Fortunately, I’ve begun to encounter more and more founders who seem increasingly comfortable talking about the strain that this takes on both their physical and mental health, and who are sharing their experiences.
Success should be rewarded and celebrated. We should feel happy for the founders who worked hard to achieve their dreams and are now enjoying the benefits. But we can also endeavour to create an environment where the human side of a tech-centric business is prioritised just as greatly as success, where it’s OK to try hard and still fail sometimes, and where getting eight hours of sleep every night is not seen as a sign of weakness.
We can create an environment where even the lone founder ploughs ahead towards success knowing that there is some kind of community to back them up when necessary.
Sounds like a dream? Well, maybe. But to any founders out there with whom with message might resonate, just know this: the majority of successful founders that I’ve come across in my career are “real” people just like you and me. They lead fairly routine working lives. They don’t drive Ferraris or fly first-class. They are a vision of success that won’t get many clicks on social media, but which most of us would aspire to nonetheless. They work hard and enjoy the benefits with little fuss and few frills.
They failed multiple times before they achieved this success, and were humbled by those experiences. And, on the whole, they are happy to give back to the community and inspire the next generation of founders just like you.
In an industry that constantly encourages us to be thinking bigger, faster, and more more more every step of the way, it’s no wonder that founders often find themselves overwhelmed, taking on far too much and then struggling to cope. I hope that this Mental Health Week, with its focus on loneliness, will inspire discussion in our community about how it’s OK to be a leader and a human being after all, with all the weakness and vulnerability that this entails.