Breaking Taboos: Dear Founders, It’s Time To Speak Up About Mental Health

Breaking Taboos: Dear Founders, It’s Time To Speak Up About Mental Health


A 2019 study said 55% of Indian entrepreneurs aged 20-40 years report anxiety as a dominant feeling, while many others have suicidal thoughts due to the everyday pressures

Startup founders say society-at-large doesn’t understand the mental pressures of running a business and the responsibility of managing employees

Though experts believe speaking about mental health issues is crucial, even the tragic death of CCD founder VG Siddhartha last year didn’t spark open conversations around mental health.

How will my customers behave? How will my investors react? How do I ensure the employees and families continue to be supported? Will my idea still hold its worth in the post-Covid world? How do I ensure productivity with work from home? How will I keep the team motivated? Should I open my office? How do I ensure all my employees are safe? How should I break the news of a layoff or a salary cut to my team member? What if I or someone I love gets sick?…

It’s an internal monologue that may be familiar to founders and entrepreneurs. And while the idea that not all founders have to think about things in such drastic terms is true, these days the crisis is no longer at the door — it’s well and truly inside the home — and founders and entrepreneurs don’t have the luxury of not having to deal with these questions.

But the fear of the unknown affects each one of us in different ways, these are surely nerve-wracking times, to say the least, for entrepreneurs across the globe. “We have everything at stake. We will be on the streets if things don’t normalise soon. That is the kind of pressure we are in now. We have 150+ employees. But, we cannot and will not let any of them down,” said Aditi Bhosale Walunj, cofounder of Ratan Tata-backed Repos Energy, a Pune-based startup that enables door-to-door delivery of diesel.

For early-stage startups, the circumstances have been grimmer as many of their dreams came crashing down when the realisation that the pandemic may not go away soon dawned on them. As founders of Aiisma, a data marketplace startup, told us, the first few days after the lockdown were full of fear since the company was looking to raise a pre-seed round at that time and that was definitely not going to be easy. Even for established startups, it is not the same anymore. As a well-known founder, who didn’t want to be named, told us, “It is like the last four years have been wiped off and I’m just starting a new company.”

Lonely At The Top: Why Entrepreneurs Need To Speak Up About Mental Health

We are certain there are many other such stories where startup founders are on the verge of breaking down. But it cannot only be due to Covid-19. Anxiety and stress are part of the job on a daily basis for a founder or employer, so shouldn’t mental wellbeing be an ongoing effort?

As someone who keeps a close eye on the startup ecosystem, we have rarely seen entrepreneurs ask themselves these questions in a constructive manner. So the answer to many of them is WE DON’T KNOW, as we as a society and certainly as a community of thought leaders and entrepreneurs never talk about mental health!

Trials and tribulations are as much a part of an entrepreneur’s life as triumphs and accolades. However, the first is never spoken and the later is often celebrated. Even after Cafe Coffee Day founder VG Siddhartha’s untimely demise in July 2019, not many entrepreneurs came out and accepted that entrepreneurship is indeed a stressful job, and there’s no beating around the bush. Even the strongest need help.

For entrepreneurs, stress is part of the territory, something they signed up for knowingly or unknowingly from day one. Every founder goes through emotional breakdowns when a deal hasn’t gone through or when one still has outstandings to clear and revenues aren’t coming in.

“If you’re a startup founder, you will have at least one psychological breakdown, and anyone who tells you is not being honest,” said Akshit Mehta, founder of Vorqspace and executive partner in Sridham, a seed fund investment company.

Fear Factor

The journey of an entrepreneur is full of highs and lows, sometimes extreme highs and extreme lows. Work hours are erratic and there are always high-pressure decisions one needs to make. There are also commitments towards family.

In India, on the one hand, startups are booming, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t casualties According to DataLabs by Inc42+, out of 3.1K Indian startups funded between 2014 and June 2020, 385 funded startups have shut down, and with these come the job losses and impact on income.

“It’s like riding on a tiger where you are in a momentum and committed, yet cannot get off. The low phase or meltdown happens very often as a founder is dealing with multiple issues related to funding, hiring, product development and revenue,” said Piyush Kumar, CEO and founder of Rooter, a sports community platform that recently raised a Pre-Series A round of $1.7 Mn.

There is also accountability towards one’s employees that adds to the anxiety. Enterprise tech startup ORI’s founders, for instance, were once threatened with legal notices since they couldn’t pay salaries on time and the mental pressure is not something anyone on a regular job can fathom, said many entrepreneurs.

If you are a founder even on your toughest days, you have to get up and fix things, and then the morning after that, and after that till it is sorted — there are no breaks. As Sulajja Firodia Motwani, founder and CEO of Kinetic Green Energy and Power Solutions, tells us, “It is true that entrepreneurship has rewards. You are passionate about something and you have a purpose. But it is not easy either. No matter how you feel you have to show up every single day. You are the sponge taking up the financial and other stress and at the same time motivating the team.”

 Lonely At The Top: Why Entrepreneurs Need To Speak Up About Mental Health

Vulnerability Is Not A Weakness

According to a 2019 study, over 50% of entrepreneurs in India experience anxiety, confusion, irritability, and frustration sometimes — yet so few speak about it. While Twitter threads are seen aplenty when celebrating growth and scale, it takes a high-profile tragedy such as Sushant Singh Rajput’s death to start a conversation around mental illness. And often, even those debates fade away like any other trend, everyone pretends that things are back to normal.

Admitting and giving in to pressures is still considered a taboo. There are a lot of founders who try to put up a brave face for the sake of how the outside world perceives business leaders — it’s not just in reality either. Bosses hiding their visits to therapists or seeking mental help surreptitiously is a modern-day trope in entertainment as seen in the likes of The Sopranos and Analyse This. In fact, if anything, there is always a comical touch to these interactions as if leading a team and feeling the pressure is a laughing matter.

“There have been instances where I have also followed impression management. But honestly, I’m not afraid to accept my vulnerabilities anymore, because at the end of the day, even though I’m a founder, I’m a human first,” added Vorqspace’s Mehta.

Nikhil Taneja, cofounder and CEO of Yuvaa, a mental health startup, said the key reasons for the dialogue not starting is the fact that people think it’s a weakness.

“Vulnerability is considered weak. No top VCs or entrepreneurs talk about the pressures involved in a startup. We may hear every now and then somebody talking about it, but that is less than 1% of entrepreneurs world over,” he said.

Founders fear that if they don’t show agility to deal with pressure and stress, investors may start doubting their skills and capabilities. No one is trained to look at failure as something normal in this day and age, which is also part of the problem. According to Sanjay Goel, a business consultant, if a startup fails, its founders are also turned away from regular jobs in many companies.

 Lonely At The Top: Why Entrepreneurs Need To Speak Up About Mental Health

Walking The Lonely Road

So an entrepreneur’s journey can be quite lonely, particularly in India, where starting one’s own venture is considered too risky a move — and often people leave founders to their own device without inquiring about the stress and the pressure they feel. Family and friends, generally find themselves bemused by the risk, whereas a corporate job is considered the safe option.

“It is so difficult to even begin to explain to them why you did take this step. This, unfortunately, also means that you often find yourself with no options, when you need an empathetic, non-judgemental, and unbiased ear to hear you out, or a shoulder to cry on,” said Puneet Manuja, COO and cofounder, YourDost, a mental health startup.

For Yuvaa’s Taneja, creating awareness about mental health is not talk — as someone who has gone through clinical anxiety and nine months of therapy, it is close to his heart. He has no qualms talking about the pressures of entrepreneurship. “I have worked in leadership roles in many companies including Yash Raj Films, but I can easily say that so far hands down being an entrepreneur is the toughest. When I started Yuvaa I couldn’t sleep on many nights,” he said.

Taneja said he understood a long time ago the need to talk about the low points. However, that is not the case with most others who feel society at large doesn’t and cannot understand the pressures a founder goes through and also mental health in general. Even when funding rounds are celebrated, a founder is thinking about the tough times often.

“With every funding round, people around think founders are getting wealthier while the fact is that founder goes through a tough time closing a round right from term sheet to getting funds and also gives away a portion of their stake to make this happen. Very few people also know that founders have a lock-in clause where they cannot sell their equity for a long long time,” said Rooter’s Piyush Kumar.

Even before starting up, there can be setbacks. Pulkit Sharma, cofounder and CEO, Khabri shares one such event in his life. “There was this person, a well-known figure, who I used to admire the most before starting Khabri. I went to him sharing my idea. And he said this would not work out. He substantiated with data points. I was completely shattered. I was in my bed for many days.”

Sharma, however, was one of those few lucky people, who are able to pull themselves out of the pit. What should others do?

“Well, the very first thing required is a change in mindset. Like most people, entrepreneurs can also feel hesitant about seeking the help of counselors. This needs to change,” said YourDost’s Manuja. Therapy has been a great step in the journey for many entrepreneurs. “I think talking to an outsider who can help you solve issues and make you more aware about mental health is very important,” said Piyush, who recently started taking therapy.

 Lonely At The Top: Why Entrepreneurs Need To Speak Up About Mental Health

Zen And The Art Of Startups

Even when one decides to seek help, finding the right counselling is not easy. When pi Ventures founding partner Manish Singhal tweeted recently about his wife Deepti Singhal, a psychotherapist, and him volunteering time to help those under stress, more than 68 people — entrepreneurs, managers, students and many others — booked an appointment.

“The tweet went viral and people started booking sessions immediately. The response was way more than we expected. The tweet went out at 9pm and we woke to over 25 appointments between both of us. Sessions are booked till well into July,” Deepti told Inc42. But there are several other platforms offering help for entrepreneurs and others in need.

It also becomes important for founders to know that they would have to manage stress from day one — often a cofounder can help immeasurably and be a listening ear and a bouncing board. Others are finding that leading a healthier lifestyle and physical fitness also help. “Society does not understand what a founder goes through. But another founder in that same crowd would totally understand,” said Vorqspace’s Mehta.

There is always a certain pressure on a founder to stay positive for the sake of the employees, investors and the public perception, especially on social media. At such times, cofounders are of great help. “I feel having a cofounder makes a lot of difference. You have support. It is a unique journey and a cofounder is the only one who can truly understand,” said Yulu cofounder and CEO Amit Gupta, who founded the company along with Hemant Gupta, Naveen Dachuri and RK Misra.

It also helps to find ways to beat stress on an everyday basis. For some its music, for others it is having a pet. For many others it is meditation or playing a sport. “What helped me specifically was letting go my emotional burden by crying out aloud. Whoever said that strong men don’t cry was out of his mind,” advises Ankit Chaudhari, CEO and cofounder, Aiisma.

 Lonely At The Top: Why Entrepreneurs Need To Speak Up About Mental Health

Reading, writing, watching engaging content or just talking to family members are other ways that founders are dealing with stress on an everyday basis these days, especially with many spending more time with family than before. But one thing that many founders told us is that the stress never ends, one only learns to handle it in a better way.

As more and more entrepreneurs learn to empathise with their own issues, the benefits are likely to trickle down to their teams and how they deal with the same stress. It also creates a welcome and open work culture that’s the hallmark of the best startups in the world. Founders feel society in general needs to appreciate the tough journey — since they are not creating personal wealth, but adding to jobs and the public wealth. But without this support, things can be rough.

“It is a downward spiral, the crevices of which can be unnerving. A collective like Alcoholics Anonymous where people share their problems could really help everyone introspect. I’ve seen that talking to others usually makes you realise that you aren’t cornered and you aren’t alone,” said Maaz Ansari, cofounder and director, ORI.

The community needs to come together to address issues and help each other see the bright side of what one is doing which is why she or he got into this in the first place. There is always a silver lining. “There can be better community support wherein founders can reach out to each other for support when things get too overwhelming,” summed up YourDost’s Manuja.

The idea of the article is to start a conversation around entrepreneurship and mental health. Share your story with a fellow founder today and create a chain that never breaks! Or, you can write to us sharing the dark days and we promise to lend an ear!

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