Managing Wellbeing as a Startup Founder

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“An entrepreneur is someone who is willing to work 80 hours a week in order to not work 40 hours a week. But how do we manage burnout?” – Megan Flamer, Program Director of Xcelerate at BlueChilli

If there’s one certainty of running a startup or new business, it’s that you’ll find yourself staring down the cliff face of uncertainty. That can be both physically and mentally taxing — so how do you manage to stay healthy and maintain sanity and wellbeing at the coal-face of startup life?

We hosted a panel in Melbourne during Knowledge Week, at the fabulous Inspire9 Richmond offices to talk turkey about founder wellbeing. There were some surprises, laughs and audible groans of agreement throughout the evening, and we all agreed: it was nice to know so many of us have “been there”.

Our panelists for the evening were Jessica Christiansen-Franks, CEO & Co-Founder of Neighbourlytics, Tom Howard, Startup Advisor & Co-Founder of Adioso, Renece Brewster, CEO & Co-Founder of Visual Domain and Megan Flamer, Director of Xcelerate (panel facilitator).

Here are some of the highlights, truth bombs and favourite insights from the evening…

On the “guilt” of working too hard

Five minutes prior to the event, Jess was fitting in time to answer “just a few more” emails and worried she might be a bad example for wellbeing, when really it was a perfect example of the balance we were there to talk about. Where do we draw the line between working too hard and just being a passionate, hard working founder?

“It’s almost like we give away our personal wellbeing in the name of our business so we can help create a new world,” Christiansen-Franks said. “So if we can’t do that, we should stay in corporates, get paid well and live a more comfortable life.”

Tom Howard has been working as both a founder, and with founders, since Myspace was a thing. Hepointed out the big difference between founders and corporate workers: “People who come into entrepreneurship are the people that often find full time work unsatisfying. They’re critical of themself and the world, often in a state of discontentment,” he said. You’re often not tuned into the idea that you don’t have to feel that way. It’s not about living in a state of bliss, but it’s a process of setting challenges, striving to achieving and reassess, and be able to sleep at night.”

“You can’t always be on top all the time.”

It’s about balancing the guilt of working too hard with living the best life you’re capable of. For some people, that might be finding two minutes of mindfulness, for others it might be switching off for an entire weekend. There is no singular truth for everyone.

Renece Brewster’s company has been in the market for a decade, so she has experienced both startup pains, and scaling up. She said it’s both important to have breaks and truly enjoy what you do. “Mum likes to remind me I could earn more at McDonalds if I work out my hourly rate” she joked. “She’s probably right, but knowing that I’m doing what’s right for me, I wouldn’t want my journey to be any other way.”

On imposter syndrome

A stressor that comes up frequently on startup panels is the topic of “imposter syndrome”, and how to manage it.

Jess noted that “Leadership is making it up as you go. Just because you haven’t done it before, but you’re learning how to do it, whatever you end up with is going to be better than nothing.”

“It’s tough to put something out that’s not perfect.” – Jessica Christiansen-Franks, CEO & Co-Founder of Neighbourlytics

Tom mentioned that the fear of imposter syndrome made it difficult to do great things in San Francisco: “We were having all this validation and success, but we were just two guys from Melbourne who had never been in the travel industry, never been around San Francisco or venture capital — and we felt seriously out of our depth.”

A consensus was drawn on the fact that there were always going to be times we are  not happy with something. Instead of lamenting it, it’s worthwhile to reflect and appreciate the impact you’ve made, and own your mistakes without beating yourself up about them.

On managing “tiredness”

“Understanding what tiredness means to you, whether it’s relaxing, sleeping, etc knowing what works for you and making sure you do that.” – Renece Brewster, CEO of Visual Domain

Renece pointed out that how often you have to change gears can make you feel much more tired. “From finance to videos to weekend things, you need little breaks, time away or downtime where your brain can just stop thinking for a bit,” she said. If I don’t have that release of a workout (or something else that resets my mind), I can feel it very quickly.”

Jess takes the time to step away from the hustle and bustle. “When I started Neighbourlytics, emotionally I couldn’t handle working that many hours. I actually can’t do more than 50 hours a week. Now I retreat to the country, so I can’t have meetings with people and I catch up on what’s important. I feel more connected to the rest of my life when I spend these weekends away.”

Megan quizzed Tom on his tiredness triggers, to which he replied “I don’t know whether I’m good at identifying them. I was at a stage of real burnout, trying to survive. I’ve learned that you need to listen to your body and your mind, especially when you’re trying to build something. If there’s something inside you saying “No you’re wrong, you need a time-out,” you’d better listen”.

On staying motivated

A question from the audience touched on the motivation it takes to keep going, rather than knowing when to quit.

Renece illustrated the importance of having a network of people around you who you have been through it before: “A lot of pressure can be self-imposing. It took me a few years to get that and my confidence has totally changed,” she said. “Being self aware, and knowing yourself is important, especially when someone is telling you “no”.”  

Tom brought it all back to the power of the user, saying “there’s no substitute for focusing on your users. Just being obsessed with them, listening to them, communicating with them, discussing new features and getting feedback. All those things guide you towards customer satisfaction.”

Everyone agreed that having a good support group or a group of people going through the same challenges is one of the most valuable safety nets you can install. Programs like accelerator programs, incubators and communities. These install a ready made family to bounce ideas off, share ideas and develop together.

“The rest of the world might think you’re crazy but when you’re together with these people, they understand you.” – Tom Howard, Co-Founder of Adioso.

It’s not a one size fits all approach to maintaining wellbeing as a founder. However, finding moments of happiness and space, allowing yourself to stuff up and learn, and having a good support network are a pretty darn good place to start!