Startup Snapshot, a data-sharing platform for the entrepreneurial ecosystem, recently released its latest report, The Untold Toll: The Impact of stress on the well-being of startup founders and CEOs.
Clearly, the emotional state of founders and entrepreneurs in any period, especially now in this economic environment, is a critical driver of success. Yet the emotional, cognitive, and physical toll that founding and leading a startup takes is dangerously overlooked and rarely spoken about.
Startup Snapshot is illuminating the current state of the startup mindset through global data collected from hundreds of founders in startups of all sizes, in all verticals. It’s the largest study of its kind. And it is honest and gritty, with no punches pulled.
After my post about the Founder Mental Health Pledge, I received a note from Kari Palazzari, the Executive Director of Studio Arts Boulder, a local nonprofit that manages a community pottery studio. She lamented that very few members of the Boulder startup community seem to take advantage of their programs.
She said, “Studio Arts Boulder would love to help support the Founder Mental Health Pledge.”
A couple of my local colleagues have taken classes at the pottery studio, and they speak avidly about the impact of working with clay. It helped them be less stressed and more focused, which makes a big difference when tackling a startup’s unique problems. Kari said, “People come out of the studio less twitchy, for sure.”
There’s a lot of data about the impact of the arts. Making art, in particular, helps combat anxiety and depression. It improves cognitive function by making our brains more resilient and flexible, which means we become more creative problem-solvers all around.
We can tackle the mental health challenges within our industry in many ways, and I encourage more of us to try art. Start small with a date night – offered by Studio Arts Boulder every Saturday. Or better yet, schedule a private program for your team at your office or in the pottery studio.
And if clay isn’t your jam, early next year, Studio Arts Boulder is opening a new facility that will include woodworking, blacksmithing, printmaking, and glass art studios. How cool is that?
Since the middle of last week, there has been extreme stress on founders, startup leaders, and the extended startup community. This stress accelerated on Friday when the FDIC shut down and took over Silicon Valley Bank. By late Friday, anyone who banked with SVB was concerned about … well … everything.
Once it became clear that payroll accounts needed to be funded on Monday to make Wednesday’s payroll, we focused on the immediate short-term to ensure our portfolio companies’ thousands of employees got paid on time. We bank at SVB, so our maneuverability was also unknown, so we searched for what I’d consider heroic options from various sources.
While this de-escalated on Sunday night after the US Government took decisive action, the level of stress and anxiety, especially for first-time founders, was extreme. I had many 1:1 conversations, emails, and messages with our portfolio company CEOs, along with several open Zoom lines where people could ask questions and just commiserate and feel part of a shared community. Much of this focused on addressing the immediate problem. But, many founders told me that just feeling part of a larger community was helpful.
Much will be written about this. Maybe I’ll get around to my version someday.
But, once again, I saw and experienced the extreme stress and anxiety that founders, CEOs, and leaders of startup companies face almost daily. It reinforced the importance to me of continuing to help destigmatize mental health (and mental fitness) issues across the startup community.
Yesterday, Aaron Gershenberg, a long-time friend and LP of ours from SVB Capital, emailed an introduction to Naveed Lalani, Founder & CEO of Pioneer Mind. Naveed has launched a Founder Mental Health Pledge for Investors and Startup Leaders.
He’s announcing the first supporters tonight. Foundry is supporting it as a firm, and I’m supporting it personally along with my partner Jaclyn Hester.
The pledge follows:
We make a commitment to take an active role in encouraging mental healthcare for founders and the greater startup community.
We pledge to encourage the founders we partner with to invest in their personal mental health and build a workplace culture that promotes mental health.
Ensuring the mental health of founders and their teams is crucial and leads to the highest probability of startup success. We pledge to be supportive of founders treating the direct cost of caring for their mental health as a legitimate, worthwhile, and encouraged business expense – including therapy, coaching, group support, and app-based solutions. Founders should look at their mental health as a business priority.
David Cohen and I have co-hosted the Give First podcast for 71 episodes. I think our host ratio is 80/20 David/Brad, and he’s covered everything in 2021 because I was burned out on all things public-facing and needed a break.
He figured a good way to get me back in the mix would be to interview me about entrepreneurship and mental health, so that’s what Episode 71 is about.
It’s time for the 2nd annual Emerge Virtual 5k Run produced by Rise Against Suicide (formerly Second Wind Fund of Boulder County). It’ll be from 8:00 am to Midnight MT on Sunday, May 2, 2021. Amy and I are helping underwrite it as we did last year and I just signed up to run it.
Rise Against Suicide provides access to funded counseling services for at-risk youth struggling with suicidal ideation in the geographic areas included in Boulder Valley School District and St. Vrain Valley School District. Youth up to the age of 19 who are at elevated risk for suicide, uninsured, or underinsured are eligible for funded counseling services through Rise Against Suicide. The organization receives referrals from private and public elementary, middle and high schools, community social workers, psychologists and mental health professionals, hospitals, and mental health facilities. Within hours of receiving a request for help, at-risk youth can be connected with qualified, private therapists. This immediate response is unique to Rise Against Suicide.
The mental health crisis has been dramatically accelerated as part of the Covid crisis. Now, more than ever, communities need to engage with and help support organizations that provide mental health related services. Recently, this challenge has been particularly acute with children our community given the unique stressors of the Covid crisis.
The Emerge Virtual 5k Run is free to anyone, but also provides an opportunity to give financial support to Rise Against Suicide. Please join us.
The Covid crisis has generated an extraordinary amount of what I like to call “false reassurance.”
Consider how many times you heard something general like the following some time in 2020.
Or, consider all of the messages you heard about the severity of the disease over the past year. Most of the messaging, until recently, was not “79,000 people in the US are going to die of Covid in the first 26 days of 2021.”
Or, “By the end of January 2021, over 425,000 people in the US will have died of Covid.”
It’s tough to focus on what is actually happening and what to do when bombarded by false reassurance. It doesn’t matter what the context is – Covid, business, relationships, health, sports, …
Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times is a powerful place to start when considering false reassurance. But, an even more grounding place is Jerry Colonna’s comment that “things are falling apart all the time.”
I’ve always loved the clichés about mortality, such as “Life is a fatal disease” or “Life is a process of continual oxidation.” I’m sure the physics majors out there can add to the clichés, especially since entropy always wins in the long run.
Amy and I work hard to eliminate false reassurance in our life. Instead of saying, “It’s going to be ok,” we try to address what is in front of us. Instead of denying reality, we deal with it. I try to do this in my work, although it’s much harder as the number of people in a system increase beyond two.
2020 has been brutal for many people, on many different dimensions. I expect 2021 will continue to be brutal, in some similar ways, but many that are different. There will be wonderful things mixed in, but they won’t be distributed evenly or equitably.
If you defer your own reality because of false reassurances, consider what would change if you deleted the false reassurance and started considering what was directly in front of you.
Mental health has been an issue among tech entrepreneurs for a long time, but has been exacerbated by the stresses of the Covid crisis.
On March 31, I wrote a post called The Three Crises in which I suggested that the Covid crisis was the collision of three crises, each of which is a complex system. The health crisis (the disease) created the economic crisis (our economy was in strong shape before Covid), which would accelerate a mental health crisis. In the US, we have a fourth crisis amplified – the racial equity crisis – which has been going on since the inception of our country.
Since these are complex systems, they are interconnected and don’t have a deterministic outcome. There are endless unintended consequences from actions in one crisis that have long term and unexpected impacts on other of the crises.
Humans are not built to be isolated in their homes for months at a time. Founders, who are already under immense pressure from many directions, now have to contend with that dynamic for themselves in an uncertain business environment, connected only by video conferencing and email to their teams, investors, and customers. At the same time, there is no relief from the endless intensity of creating and leading a business.
It should be no surprise that the mental health part of the crisis is real and accelerating. Toss in the dissonance in our society. Some tech companies stock prices are at record highs, while established businesses are in a complete retreat or freefall. Many small businesses are on the verge of extinction – ponder all the local retail businesses and restaurants in your city. Local and state governments are under economic and functional stress. We have record unemployment and a macro communication environment (media, politics, news) that is divisive rather than unifying. We are in an election year in the US. Oh yeah, and the disease.
Fortunately, the stigma associated with mental health, especially among founders, is lessening. It’s still real, but more are talking about it. There are many more coaching options like Reboot to help founders, CEOs, and leaders through this. There are companies, like Meru Health (which we recently funded) that are working to make mental health services more broadly accessible and affordable. And, many leaders are speaking out regularly about their struggles with their mental health, making it much easier to start and navigate conversations about mental health.
In the future, I hope we are much more effective as a species around addressing and helping with mental health issues. The sooner we can eliminate the stigma around mental health, especially in entrepreneurship, the better.
I got a note from someone who recently saw my Techstars mental health video. He said that could relate to how I describe depression as the “absence of joy.” He went on to write me a long, thoughtful, and brave note about his experience with depression.
One thing stood out to me was a statement near the end:
“I can’t convince myself to “speak to someone” because it feels wrong if I am paying them. It doesn’t feel whole.“
I responded with a long note that follows:
When I was in my mid-20s, I had my first major depressive episode (it lasted over two years – very deep clinical depression.) I was functional at work, but that was it. Zero anything else …
I resisted therapy for about a year. I was ashamed of many things, including how I felt. I didn’t think someone would be able to help me. Early on, my dad, who is a retired endocrinologist, said to me, “Just shake it off” which was profoundly unhelpful, but just reinforced my shame.
Finally, my PhD advisor said something like, “Brad, there is no downside to trying therapy. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But if it does, it’ll make a big difference. It did for me. Give it a one year commitment. Here’s the name and phone number of my long-term therapist.”
It still took me a while to call. I did, and committed to a year.
It changed my life. I ended therapy in my late 20s, but started again (with a new therapist) at 47 when I had another major depressive episode.
The way I think about it is that I “go to planet Brad for 50 minutes a week.” (I now go every other week). My therapist gets to hang out with me on planet Brad. Sometimes he guides me into a new part of the planet that I haven’t yet explored. Sometimes we get out shovels and dig holes in the ground to look for buried treasure. Sometimes we sit on a rock together and just stare into the distance. And lots of other things that you would do with a guide on a planet as you explore around.
About a year ago, I had a massive depression for a short time (less than a week) that in hindsight was induced by ambien. I rarely take ambien, but was on a multi-week international trip, had a bad cold, and was having trouble sleeping. About 10 days into the trip I feel off an emotion cliff into one of the deepest holes I’d ever experienced. Fortunately, I was safe and with my wife Amy, and after about three days realized it might be the ambien after randomly surfing around on the web looking at depression+travel and other stuff like that. 48 hours I was fine.
Three days of complete absence of joy was awful. But I knew I could call my therapist in an emergency if I needed to. I was a few days away from going home and had a session right after I got home, so just knowing he was there helped a lot.
Therapy isn’t “the only answer”, but – like my PhD suggested many years ago, there’s no downside to trying.
The Covid crisis has generated, or amplified, a number of separate crises. One of them is a mental health (or mental wellness) crisis. As humans, our entire way of living has been dramatically impacted by Covid. We are isolated from each other, many of us are afraid of being in public, and we are feeling enormous weight from economic, social, familial, and organization pressure.
One of our goals with Energize Colorado is to create a non-profit for the extended business community of “Coloradans helping Coloradans”. We decided to make providing Mental Health Resources one of the primary initiatives.
The Energize Colorado website has a comprehensive list of mental health resources that are available, but here are two new ones.
Free or low-cost therapy or mental health support with a licensed therapist: As of the other day, we currently have therapists in Colorado who have donated a total of up to 1,000 free hours. If you are a therapist and you are open to donating up to five hours of free therapy, please sign up on the Therapist Volunteer page.
3 Free months of Simple Habit: Sign up to access meditations, sleep content, and movement exercises, designed to help you care for your mind — all free for 3 months.
Also, Energize Colorado now has a mailing list so you can stay informed on upcoming webinars as well as information from Energize Colorado.