From the outside the startup world seems exciting, fast-paced and glamorous with its free beer, relaxed dress codes, and constant venture capital raises, but the reality of this high-pressure lifestyle can more sinister.
Cris Pearson is the co-founder of photo-editing app Skitch. He says he “got caught up in the cult of the startup world” after moving to the US and it affected his physical and mental health.
Pearson shared his struggles with depression, and his journey to improve his mental health, during a fireside chat at LaunchVic’s Yeah Nah conference in Melbourne last week.
After founding creative-drawing app plasq in 2005 and winning an Apple Design Award for the software, Pearson was inspired in 2010 to create Skitch, an image-manipulation app boasting 10 million users, he told the crowd.
It was after US software company Evernote acquired Skitch for an undisclosed amount in 2011 that Pearson and chief operating officer Keith Lang relocated to California. They made the move in order to work more closely with Evernote, but the startup life began to take a toll on Pearson.
“I sold Skitch to Evernote and I got to a point where I really needed to look at my health,” he said.
“You experience many struggles as a founder — there’s a lot of long hours, and a lot of introverts [in the tech startup space].”
Pearson said that he “used alcohol to push through my social anxiety”, and coupled with his introversion this created “a perfect storm to end up unwell”.
“Getting out of the mind and into the heart”
Pearson left Evernote in 2015 and is now back living in Australia, planning his “next thing”, according to his website.
He’s also choosing to spend more time in country areas, where he has been “gardening and getting dirty, and living by rivers” to increase the good bacteria in his digestive system —something he says has a direct correlation with his own mental well being.
“It’s all about getting back to nature — we are all very divorced from nature,” he said.
Pearson describes the startup journey as being a “roller coaster of mental and physical health”, explaining to the conference how the startup culture of beer, pizza and late-nights affected his physical health, which in turn affected his mental health.
But the experience has taught him some important lessons, which he shared with fellow founders at Yeah Nah.
Pearson says maintaining a healthy state of mind in the stress-filled startup world means being able to “meditate from the outset” to encourage “getting out of the mind and into the heart.”
It also means understanding that networking is a necessary part of a startup founder’s journey, even for those who experience social anxiety or introversion.
“Being outgoing and extroverted seems to be what the world wants in a founder,” Pearson said.
If you don’t feel comfortable being extroverted, Pearson advised against avoiding networking altogether, or turning to alcohol to ease social anxieties as he did.
“If you don’t want to do that [networking] don’t beaver away at home or the office,” he said.
“Networking is important, but do it your own way.”
Pearson believes the Australian startup ecosystem should “give other founders tools so they don’t completely collapse” like he did, suggesting greater support networks and increased education in mindfulness and meditation would be good starting points.
Ultimately, every founder’s experience will be different, and Pearson advises they should “feel from the heart and do what’s best for you”.
He said it’s vital that founders feel safe to admit when they’re struggling, and shouldn’t be afraid to turn to others for support.
“Cry in front of your mates — shit gets hard and you aren’t alone,” he said.