We need to keep talking about founder mental health

People are not OK. Founders are really not OK. We need to talk about it.

There are record amounts of capital going to companies in Canada. Fancy innovations in Web3 have created new and exciting opportunities. There is the excitement that decades of work and effort are finally resulting in widespread success for founders, their teams, and their investors.

The success is not evenly distributed. Early-stage funding is facing challenges, the cost of hyper-focus on your company comes at the expense of other human relationships, a two-year-long global pandemic has made real human connection harder, and all of us face uncertainty regarding things that we didn’t probably worry about before.

An important message for every founder is that building a company is really hard with a huge element of luck at play. It is normal to find it scary and difficult along with having uncertainty dominate your day. There are no pots of money being thrown around (especially for early-stage companies) and nothing is as simple as tech reporters and savvy comms people make it sound.

People are not OK. Founders are really not OK. We need to talk about it.

Recently, a highly-successful founder pinged a group chat asking if anyone knew another very successful founder and if anyone could check in on them. It was one of a few recent comments in different group chats where people were sharing concern for other founders that have ‘gone dark’ or ‘texting weird messages.’

This opened the door to more stories shared of people that are withdrawn, sad, and/or generally frustrated. Not the ‘typical’ stress of, “is my company going to make payroll?’ but this other stress that is really hard to see because founders are embarrassed to admit it or think it will hurt their chances at long-term success.

Dan, a founder in Toronto, shared an important insight on the StartupNorth Facebook group:

The implicit message to the founders who aren’t there yet, is that we don’t have the licence to talk about our struggles until we’ve proven ourselves worthy of that privilege by reaching a certain milestone. Most people would agree that this shouldn’t be the case but it is deeply ingrained in most high-performance cultures.

His message resonates as I have seen not just the fear of sharing weakness in early-stage founders but over the years I have seen experienced and successful founders berate a founder for doing a side job for income as they work on their company.

RELATED: Not fine, and that’s ok. A model for managing teams through crisis

High-performance culture sucks. We know it. Work environments and expectations may have changed for some (parental leave, flexible work, more vacation, etc), but not for most.

The pressure founders feel to perform is immense at the best of times. The loneliness of leading a company mixed with the complexity of relationships as we all get older can lead to isolation. None of that is good for humans.

What can be done about founder mental health?

At a high level, I believe the stuff that helps is a sense of community, friends, and a trusted network. Online is full of less-than-ideal to very poor tools for most of that, and with COVID-19 and restrictions, Canada’s tech communities have lost all events where you can make actual contact with humans. But that doesn’t prevent us from doing more now and in the future.

First, it is important to encourage people to reach out in their network if they need a simple pep talk or something more. Please know people do care, and sometimes a conversation can help frame a problem differently.

RELATED: How counselling changed my life as a startup founder and CEO

We do need to work on our sense of community. Organizations and brands have become gatekeepers for connections. Big events are fine and valuable, but so are community-driven projects like the Founder City Project or CEO peer groups, or joining a Rotary. Find spaces where you build relationships with other humans, in meatspace or the metaverse.

Finally, we need to rethink support for founders in Canada so that it does not focus on activities, but on long-term outcomes. The short-term focus on what they are doing now and where their company must get to obscures the fact that success takes time. No amount of pressure (self-imposed or otherwise) will shorten the time it takes to find success.

The tech community can’t solve the big challenges Canada faces with its health system, and specifically the mental health system, but we can do more to help people so founders aren’t devastated by both the failure or success of their company.

More conversation about the human stuff is needed, because there is no single answer to the challenges founders face with their mental health.

Jesse Rodgers

Jesse Rodgers is the co-founder of Eigenspace.com, an early stage investor and coach. He has been working with early stage founders across Canada for over 15 years having built Velocity in Waterloo, Creative Destruction Lab in Toronto, and lead Volta in Halifax. He has a deep understanding of how to support and grow founder-led ecosystems and is always looking to help people see the less obvious opportunities that exist all around them.

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