Startup Advice

How to manage emotional wellbeing when launching and scaling your startup

Ben Sharp /

One of the hidden challenges when launching a startup is the effect it can have on your emotional wellbeing. When launching a startup you not only have a job but also complete responsibility for the success of the startup and the people within it.

I’ve always wondered how many founders actually have leadership and or management experience prior to launching their startups — and I suspect it’s not the majority. Some of the requirements for being a successful leader include high levels of EQ, the ability to relate to others and to do this as level-headed and objectively as possible despite the stress you may be under.

Stress comes from all angles. Cashflow, sales, how quickly your product and technology is actually coming together, constant rejection from investors and clients are just some of the causes.

As the founder, you will likely be intrinsically linked to the startup almost to the point of being one and the same. The startup’s challenges become your personal challenges and vice versa. It’s no wonder founders suffer from stress. Dealing with it is something really worth talking about.

I sometimes wonder what the stress comparison would be between senior executives and startup founders.

In many cases, the stakes are higher for senior executives — they’re managing large sums of money on other people’s behalf, report to a board of influential people, and can be in the public eye constantly where success or failure is apparent for all to see.

However, in most corporates, mental health is addressed, discussed and there are many support programmes available. Every established corporate has an HR department with support programmes either under development or in place, and will likely offer some form of employee assistance programme.

In comparison, being a founder can be lonely — ask just about any chief executive officer.

There are so many entrepreneurs out there launching a startup or business for the first time, that it can be overwhelming when thinking about how to deal the challenges inside your startup, but more importantly, how to look after yourself.

While I may not have all the answers, the list below is a suggestion on areas to think about when dealing with stress and some places to turn for support.

Healthy body, healthy mind

No matter who you are, looking after yourself physically is a priority. Eating healthy, exercising regularly and taking time out is essential.

Balance the needs of your day-to-day with the ability to go for a run, do yoga, go to F45 or just a walk around the block each morning.

If for nothing else, it’s a good chance to reflect on what you have on at work in a completely different environment. Personally, I find I do my best thinking when I’m either running (no headphones, no phone) or sitting out the back waiting for that next set to roll through at Manly beach.

In addition to exercise you absolutely must have a healthy diet. When I say diet I don’t mean the latest fad (think Keto or a juice diet) or for you to suddenly decide to go vegan. I’m sure all these options have their place and I’m not criticising anyone’s dietary choices, but having a healthy balance of food and ensuring you eat regularly throughout the day is essential.

While we’re talking about a healthy body, let’s talk about drinking.

Yes, we probably all drink, and it’s a big part of any business culture. I get it — it’s awesome having a great night out with your mates or work friends, and it’s sometimes at the core for team building. But really think about how much and how often you drink.

If alcohol is something you feel you have to do every day to cope with the stress of your business, maybe this is a sign. I’d suggest scaling the drinking back and supplementing this with some exercise instead. You might be pleasantly surprised that within a couple of weeks, you’re not relying on alcohol as your crutch, but feel like there’s more balance entering your lifestyle.

Sleep — and make sure you switch off

Getting a good night’s sleep is essential, and an absolute imperative to operating at full capacity the next day.

So yes, put those devices away. There’s heaps of research that proves being connected to our phones, tablets and laptops in the hours leading up to bed cause sleep issues.

Remember those days you bounded out of bed, went for a 5km run, got home for a quick and healthy breakkie and rushed off to work feeling a million bucks? I bet it was because you slept like a baby. 

Get back to this. Stop drinking before you go to bed. Establish a calming routine: do meditation or breathing exercises, make notes on what you achieved that day and your plan for tomorrow, or read a book (an actual book, not from a device).

The best place to start is having the same routine and go to bed at the same time every night. Set your alarm for the same time each morning, and before long you’ll have a routine down pat that just works.

Those of us that are parents probably ‘trained’ our newborns almost the same way: dinner (or a bottle), followed by a calming bath, then a bedtime story, lights off and (fingers crossed) straight to sleep. The same theory should apply to us adults — we sometimes just need a bit of a reminder!

Ask for help

There’s nothing wrong with admitting to yourself or those you trust that you’re not superwoman or superman. While there are times you may feel invincible, at the end of the day, you’re not. Sorry to break it to you.

Asking for help and talking about your challenges — both personal and business — takes courage and shows maturity. If anything it will help you develop as an individual, which can only mean you become more effective as a leader.

There’s a bunch of places to ask for help, the challenge is to decide where to start and to find out what you actually need. Here are some of your options.

Find a mentor

There are a bunch of people associated with the startup community that want to give back.

These are typically successful entrepreneurs themselves who have previously benefited from their own mentors and now want to pay it forward to the next generation.

Just about all mentors will want to do this for free (I hope they would), and as a mentor you get a chance to learn about yourself as well.

Look to your network of investors, ask your peers at other startups if they can suggest a mentor, or look up Jamie Pride on LinkedIn to see some of the founder support he and others provide

Get a coach

I’ve benefited from an executive coach previously and found it invaluable.  They can help you decide on your business and personal priorities, have this personalised to your own unique situation and ensure your goals are realistic and achievable.

At the same time, a coach should help you plan the resources and tactics you’ll need and help keep you on track from one session to the next.

Join a networking group

Networking comes in all shapes and sizes, and one of the welcome trends we’re seeing is meetup groups and industry forums focused on emotional wellbeing and founder health. TechSydney’s Founder Forums is a place to look if you’re in Sydney — it combines similar-sized startups together for monthly confidential sessions, moderated by an experienced executive that focuses exclusively on the shared challenges of the group and how these impact both their personal and business lives.

Speak to your family and friends

While your closest family and friends all want you to be successful at work, they actually really want you to be happy and healthy. If work is impacting everything else, they’ve probably recognised it before you have.

Let them know what you’re going through, what help you may need, or whether you just need to vent. Carrying all those competing challenges in your head at the same time can feel like a millstone.

You’ll be surprised how much it helps just to download the thousand challenges you have, and how much your family and friends can actually help with a completely different perspective.

Go to the doctor

If your level of stress is getting out of hand there is a lot of professional help out there. Go to your GP first, ask for help and find out what your options are.

Medication is not always the answer, but a professional psychologist can do wonders in just a few sessions. Medicare provides an option where you can receive up to 10 free (or heavily discounted) sessions with a GP referral.

If you already have a board, board advisors and investors, let them know what’s challenging you and what type of help you need. You’ll be surprised how much they’ll all want to help. As with your friends and family — they want you to be successful, as that’s what will drive ultimate success for your startup.

Create a culture that helps you and your staff deliver your best work

Values and culture are at the heart of what builds a successful startup. Without it, we’re just sitting in a room together doing work with no real direction.

Think about what values and culture you want to build for your startup — they should challenge you and your team to perform, but also encourages a balanced lifestyle.

Talk about the challenges in the startup and how this impacts each of you. Celebrate your wins.

Set an example for the rest of your staff by leaving work at a reasonable time, have a balanced life and hang out with your mates. Take your holidays — and when you do, turn your phone and email off (unless it’s an absolute emergency).

And recognise when others are feeling stressed and look for ways to help them.

While this is not an all-inclusive list of ways to help (there’s probably several book ideas just in my comments above), it’s a thought starter to help you think about your level of stress, how this impacts your emotional wellbeing and provides some coping strategies and places to turn for help.

If you or someone you know is living with mental health issues, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

NOW READ: Practical tips for businesses to promote good mental health that won’t break the bank

NOW READ: Separating self from startup: Founders open up about how to manage your mental health in the stressful business world

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Ben Sharp

Ben, or Sharpie as he's typically referred to, has extensive experience in starting, scaling and managing disruptive Australian technology businesses. He co-founded digital publisher Allure Media, launched ad technology platform AdRoll into Australia, currently works as head of revenue and operations at Pureprofile, and has invested into a range of Australian technology businesses, including Conversant Media, Audience Republic, Brandollo and First Rung.

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