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The Outline by Inc42+: Startup Blues

The Outline by Inc42+: Startup Blues

The constant pressure of innovation and responsibility comes with many pitfalls for entrepreneurs in the modern age

This week's The Outline delves into the mental stress and anxiety that many founders face in day-to-day operations

Will recent high-profile incidents bring the focus on entrepreneurs tackling mental health issues by opening up?


How are you feeling today?

This week has been filled with conversations around depression and mental health following the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Every time a public figure takes their own life, observers are often shocked about how achieving success does not make one impervious to the stress of life. The perception of success among society at-large and the reality is never the same.

Even the most successful and charismatic business leaders have confessed to struggling with mental illnesses and stress. Last year, the death of Cafe Coffee Day founder VG Siddhartha highlighted the dark side of entrepreneurship — it is a lonely pursuit. Startup founders have to live by the mantra of ‘move fast and break things’ and this constant pressure of innovation and growth comes with many pitfalls. 

A 2015 study of 242 entrepreneurs from UC Berkeley highlighted that entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to report having a mental health condition, with some specific conditions being more prevalent among founders. A whopping 72% of entrepreneurs surveyed self-reported mental health concerns.

One of the most memorable acknowledgments of the mental challenges in running a startup came from Elon Musk in 2010, when he compared the experience of starting a company to “eating glass and staring into the abyss.”

This side effect of entrepreneurship is not simply limited to Silicon Valley. Startup founders in India have also spoken about battling mental illnesses. Nurturing Green cofounder Annu Grover recently tweeted that he has been struggling with stress and anxiety. Similarly, Yuvaa founder Nikhil Taneja said in a tweet that he has been struggling with clinical anxiety for the past three years but therapy has helped him manage it. 

Harsh Realities

“It’s too lonely, it’s even worse in the Indian ecosystem. Employees won’t care, the government just publicises. You are always behind your bills. You are a worn-out, beaten-up, broken human and Covid-19 just doubled the pressure,” added Grover.  

If you are an entrepreneur, you probably relate to this feeling. Running a business is a stressful job that sometimes results in grave emotional struggles. There’s always a high risk of failure multiplied by the pressure of juggling multiple responsibilities and tackling countless setbacks like losing customers, team shortage, disagreement with partners, and finally the expectation of investors. As the Gartner Hype Cycle which traces the journey of a product or service shows, an innovator’s journey involves peaks during the early stages to troughs of disillusionment as the hype dies down — who has the time to deal with the emotional trauma, as many might say.

Entrepreneurs also tend to attach their self-worth to the success of their companies. This leads to an unhealthy pattern where every setback of the company seems like a personal failure. This peculiarity adds an immense amount of stress on the entrepreneur. 

Nearbuy founder Ankur Warikoo recently referred to a similar phenomenon in a Twitter thread called ‘Truths about being a founder’. “You will take everything personally. Even small things like staplers not working, to employees leaving, to the office being far for people, to stagnant personal growth — everything seems to be your fault. You will share credit for all the good things and kill yourself within for all the things gone wrong,” he wrote

Further, core entrepreneurial traits such as creativity, high ambitious target, and propensity to take risks have been linked to mental health disorders such as psychosis, bipolarity, depression, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and substance abuse. If the Silicon Valley trend of microdosing is any indication, entrepreneurs have sought every way in the book — and outside it —  to deal with the stress. Of course, many have resorted to healthier ways such as vipassana, meditation and yoga, but tales of entrepreneurs burning out and resorting to drug or alcohol abuse are not uncommon.

Stigma Prevails

What makes it worse is the stigma of speaking about mental health brings up feelings of self-doubt among entrepreneurs. As Reddit cofounder, the late Aaron Swartz, once wrote, “I feel ashamed to have an illness. It sounds absurd, but there still is an enormous stigma around being sick. I don’t want to use being ill as an excuse.”

According to First Round’s State of Startups 2019 report which surveyed 950 founders, just 28% of founders under the age of 40 said they are likely to consult a therapist or psychiatrist and this number dropped to 16% of founders for ages 40 and above. Pesto Tech cofounder Ayush Jaiswal told Inc42 in an earlier conversation that there is a definite stigma around talking about mental wellbeing among entrepreneurs. “It’s built into our DNA, I went through depression four years back and I did not take professional help then. You never even think about that as an option.” 

Recounting his experience of battling depression after the failure of his second startup, Rachit Gupta, a serial entrepreneur and an investment advisor at Sequoia India, also said, “I didn’t expect anyone to understand, didn’t feel worthy of asking anyone for help. And my ego didn’t permit me to seek professional help. I kept digging a deeper hole for myself.”

That’s how most of the conversation around mental health runs in the public sphere too. Everyone talks about mental health as a mountain that they have conquered in the past and not something that they are going through currently. It’s a rare sight for entrepreneurs to open up and say that they are battling depression right now and that they need help. 

This does not help the public perception of success — whether it is a movie star or a startup founder. The fact is no one is immune to mental illness, not even entrepreneurs and not even those who claim to be content with a hard day’s work. It can happen to anyone regardless of age, wealth, or background. People shouldn’t have to wait until they are ‘successful’ (or have learnt to handle their illness) to talk about mental health.

While every public acknowledgment of vulnerability loosens one brick in the wall of stigma, it also endows other entrepreneurs the courage to deal with their pain. Talking is not enough, we have to battle out the problem structurally. Like always, the money part of the equation — investors have a major role to play in bringing down the stigma and help founders get the help that they deserve. 

Former Paytm Money CEO and Wishberg (acquired by Freecharge) cofounder, Pravin Jadhav also noted that the startup ecosystem collectively needs to do more for the mental well-being of the founders. “Simply cheering up a fellow founder keeps him or her motivated for days. Please do that often,” he added.

Industry Blues 

A motorcycling enthusiast and one of the most beloved founders in the Indian startup ecosystem, Samir Bangara passed away last week in a motorbike accident. Bangara, the co-founder and chief executive of digital music platform Qyuki Digital Media, inspired a number of founders and investors. In a career spanning over two decades, he donned many caps including as an investor, investment banker, CXO-level positions, friend, father, life partner and entrepreneur. The startup ecosystem will be lesser without his presence. 

In many ways, things will never be the same for many startups businesses. Restaurants certainly don’t want to deal with the stress of managing revenue and also trying to survive through the workforce crunch. Restaurants are urging Swiggy and Zomato to review their commission structure, reduce discounts and levy new fees for deliveries. Beyond restaurants, even Flipkart has decided to increase the commission it charges sellers from July, which could impact the price of FMCG products, suppressing demand further. 

In the entertainment industry, movie halls might soon have to contend with the reality that big releases will now be going online. Following the release of Gulabo Sitabo on Prime Video last week, now Disney+ Hotstar is set to release actor Sushant Singh’s last film, ‘Dil Bechara’. This at a time when the late actor’s fans have also called for a full release of the in movie halls. 

Human loss continued to dominate the headlines after another week where the Covid-19 infection curve continued to climb. The biggest story was of course the violent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan valley in eastern Ladakh. It resulted in 20 Indian soldiers being martyred. The clashes amplified the call for boycott of China and Chinese products in the country, which had already started with the Vocal For Local campaign. 

While the department of telecom (DoT) asked telecom operators to stay away from Chinese equipment providers, Indian intelligence agencies advised the government to block 52 apps linked to China. On social media, the boycott narrative took on smartphone brands, startups funded by Chinese investors and even celebrities endorsing Chinese brands. 

It’s certainly not the end of the anti-China rhetoric, though one does wonder whether Indian products can fill the gaps in terms of quality and volume of production. 

Search Blues

Following the reports of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death on Sunday, June 14, there was a sudden spike in the number of Google searches about suicide, depression and mental health throughout India. While the volume of searches for suicide was highest in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Kerala had the highest number of searches for depression, and Sikkim led in terms of search volume for ‘mental health’.

Layoff Blues 

The Covid-19 outbreak has amplified the struggles of entrepreneurs globally, who are now facing the worst funding winter of the past five years. According to DataLabs analysis, Indian startups secured almost 68% and 33% less funding in May compared to the same in 2019 and 2018. This is the lowest funding secured by Indian startups in May in the last five years.

The monthly growth rate for funding in Indian startups has also fallen by -39% as opposed to positive growth in the past two years. Meanwhile, the total capital inflow plunged by a whopping 55% between March and April. 

As a result, even the celebrated game-changers startups such as Ola, Swiggy, Curefit, Zomato have undergone mass layoffs. As per Inc42+ DataLabs estimates, the average percentage of layoffs in the total workforce in Indian startups is 22% for the past three months (based on the data set of 40 startups that announced layoffs). Further, with employee wages becoming a big burden, prominent startups have resorted to ESOPs and appointing cofounders from among the ranks to retain talent. 

Entrepreneurship is a lonely road, the demands of this job can sometimes get hard and unpredictable. But in those moments, remember it’s not the end of the world — it’s just work and you are not alone. You’ll be surprised by how many people are willing to listen, give them a chance. If you are having a hard time, reply to us; we’re here for you! 


Yatti Soni


Yatti Soni

Inc42 Staff

She writes about technology, startups, and policy frameworks around them. You can reach her at [email protected]
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