Business Advice Centre

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Startup diary: When fighting stress, sometimes other founders are the only ones who understand

Collaboration: Being part of a founder group could support your mental health
Collaboration: Being part of a founder group could support your mental health

Richard Rodger, Voxgig founder

It is said that leadership is a lonely road. That is very true, and is the reason founders are often advised to seek partners so that they can share the hard journey of building a business with others.

But if you look at the numbers (from the MIT Sloan School of Management, no less), just over half of all successful exits are by a company with just one founder.

It's hard to find co-founders, and opportunities do not wait.

Even when you have a founding team, someone eventually has to be CEO. Maybe for a little while, things can be grey, and everybody can just call themselves 'founder', but after a while, especially when a few customers turn up, the buck has to stop somewhere.

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Somebody has to step up and take the first step on that lonely road.

The CEO will always suffer the most mental strain, because all roads eventually lead to them.

The CEO has to handle not only the staff and management team (and co-founders), but also the board of the company and investors.

Everybody wants a piece of you, and you can't complain - you signed up for this!

Who do you turn to for help navigating these paths? A mentor, as discussed last week, will be a great help.

But there is another source of support which is just as valuable - other founders. Sometimes, they are the only ones who really understand.

When speaking to another founder, you can share things, and your perspective as CEO, that are difficult to share with others.

For example, you might be about to lose a big client.

While that should be a big topic of internal discussion at management level, you still have to show leadership, so cannot really talk about how the situation makes you feel, or is affecting your mental health.

Another founder can offer a safe space to open up about this aspect of the problem.

They might even have enough of a distance to tell you to 'fire' that customer and move on.

It's hard for your reports to take a position like this because it is socially risky, no matter how hard you work to make discussion open. Group-think is real, and can lead to decisions that keep everyone miserable, most especially you as the CEO.

As well as individual discussions with other founders, try to put together a founder group.

This can be very informal. You probably all see each other at the same conferences anyway.

Discussions in founder groups might not be quite as personal, but you can still open up about your challenges.

It's important that everyone understands that an informal 'founder NDA' is in place - a non-disclosure agreement.

Confidentiality is important to a well-functioning business. It will therefore take a little time for your group to really gel, but it will be worth it.

As well as informal founder groups, there are formal ones.

Voxgig is very privileged to be an Enterprise Ireland-funded company. One of the benefits is the support provided via the Founders Forum programme. You are put together with a small group of other founders at a similar stage of business development.

You get a moderator to look after you, and you meet every two months or so. All conversations are confidential.

Of all the supports offered by Enterprise Ireland, this has been the most help to me in my current endeavour.

It is very liberating to be able to talk openly to other founders, and to be able to share challenges and wins with others in the same boat.

The other founders won't pull punches either, which is just as useful. And you can bare your soul, making the road a little less lonely.

The other benefit of building close relationships with other founders is that you can offer help yourself to others.

Even when you are going through mental hell, and the strain is affecting your physical health, you'll still find a great deal of comfort in helping others.

This may not sound very hard-nosed and business-like, but it's important to remember that business is just about people at the end of the day.

You ignore that fact at your peril - this is a lesson it has taken a techie like me many years to learn.

Managing your mental state as you build a business is a critical task.

You need to be aware that you need to do it.

Just trying to power through will lead to blow-ups and bad, heat-of-the-moment decisions.

Of all the techniques to manage stress, I have found that leaning on other founders is one of the most effective. They care, even if the world does not.

Metrics: this week, we have 41 open issues and 191 closed issues. We've cleaned out a lot of old, irrelevant stuff.

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