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Startup Stress

‘Dream it. Believe it. Achieve it.’ So reads the meme, it’s that easy, chasing your dream has never been so simple, or has it?

Many platforms, LinkedIn included, are full of positive stories of founders raising gazillions for their latest app or project, but increasingly the mental health toll of setting out on your own is becoming a much-needed topic of conversation.

The most recent headline hit Business Insider yesterday ‘Startup founders’ mental health is crumbling under the stress of a turbulent economic year and uncertain funding. Yet many suffer in silence’. That’s a big headline, both in terms of the number of words used, but more importantly what lies beneath it (thanks Zeina Tabbara for the initial heads-up).

While it reports on a very US-centric landscape, many of its findings resonate through this region.

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • Founders are struggling with their mental health as startups contend with dried-up funding.
  • Many of them suffer in silence because they worry talking openly will shred their credibility.
  • “It’s like don’t ask, don’t tell,” Josh Felser, a successful founder and outspoken investor, said.

I shan’t reprise too much more of Melia Russell‘s powerful article out of respect for her journalism, and her title’s subscription policy, but if you are a start-up it is worth the investment, perhaps for a dose of reality.

But I will quote this: “The experience of being a stressed-out founder is widely shared, and still many suffer in silence, according to interviews with more than a dozen founders and investors. They worry that talking openly about their mental health could shred their credibility with their team. Investors might see their mental-health struggles as a weakness and seek to replace them. So some founders hide behind a steely, hard-driving exterior. Many tell their secret only to other founders or spouses.”

Again, I ask does this resonate?

Currently, I’m at the foot of the mountain, starting out with mentl, so we are a startup focused on mental health, our DNA is to tackle the stigma attached to it head-on (hence the name), and endeavour to have more open conversations. Which is where the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ reference really hits home.

I know I’m staring at the tip of the iceberg in terms of the stresses involved, for me I’m still in the honeymoon phase, the freedom of entrepreneurship combined with my passion for the impact we want to make, is a heady mix, right now paid employment looks like a Ponzi-scheme (one I bought into for more than three decades).

But, already there have been stresses. Take, for example, the difference between how employees and entrepreneurs are treated when it comes to health insurance, some providers (I won’t name) withholding benefits such as direct billing on some services, purely because the customer is an individual starting out, rather than a company employee. As a founder what I don’t want is more paperwork thanks very much.

And, setting up a business bank account? Had the Italian poet Dante been alive today I’m sure he would have included this as one of his circles of hell (I’m still in Limbo, the first). Indeed, these circular conversations with call centres do seem to be a Divine Comedy.

The Business Insider piece reminded me of an excellent research piece a year ago, last August, when Wamda ومضة and @Microsoft for Startups published a research report on the impact of Covid-19 on the state of mental health and wellbeing of entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) in partnership with Ally Salama علي سلامة and EMPWR House and H.A.D Consultants.

To quote that report…

“Founders typically endure higher stress levels when compared to the general population, and are twice as likely to develop depression. Their stress levels have been further compounded since the outbreak of the pandemic, resulting in a rise in demand for mental health and wellbeing services in the region. 

“The impact of Covid-19 on the state of mental health and wellbeing of entrepreneurs report” features findings based on data collected from 101 startup founders from across the Mena region. More than a third of founders rate their mental health as ‘bad’. The vast majority (55 percent) of the respondents said that raising investment has caused them the most stress. The pandemic was the second most-cited reason for entrepreneurial stress with 33.7 percent of all founders facing struggles, a rate identical to those struggling with scaling their business.”

“Concern for mental health wellbeing is on the rise across the region, with 40 percent of founders stating they would like access to mental health support from the wider entrepreneurship ecosystem.”

Talk to Derek Watson, of the N2 platform, he’ll speak openly about ‘toxic positivity’. This belief is underpinned by media headlines that all startups rise, that your idea will be funded, and that you will succeed. Of course, it can’t be like that, common wisdom says that nine out of ten new businesses will fail.

But, before you, or indeed me, get too downhearted I believe in the old adage ‘the first step is admitting you’ve got a problem’. Indeed, our central message at mentl is that we all need to speak more about our mental health, and that applies equally to founders. We cannot thrive in a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell environment’.

We need to create a more psychologically safe space for entrepreneurs to open up because the support they receive could just be the difference in them becoming one of ten percent who do succeed (or indeed maybe we can shift the needle on that ratio).

Looking back at the meme..

Dream it.

Believe it.

Achieve it

Talk about it….

To read the full Business Insider article click here – note subscription is required.