This guest post comes courtesy of Kris Kelso, Healthcare Blocks founder and CEO. Kris will be participating in the Launch Pad:PITCH on the morning of Wednesday, April 27th.
Recently, a young man (I’ll call him Sean) reached out to me via LinkedIn, and said he’d like to have coffee. As we talked, I learned that he had founded his company shortly after leaving college, had landed a big-name investor, and was getting some positive press.
I could tell, though, that Sean was struggling to manage the stress. He was still living with his parents, working a crazy amount of hours, and not making any money. He hadn’t closed a sale for his new product, and it was wearing on him.
I had seen this before. In fact, I have been there myself.
Jessica Bruder wrote an award-winning article in 2014, dealing with the largely unrecognized and underreported prevalence of depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues among entrepreneurs. In it, she quoted Toby Thomas, CEO of EnSite Solutions, using an illustration that has become my go-to description of entrepreneurship: A man riding on a lion.
“People look at him and think, This guy’s really got it together! He’s brave!” says Thomas. “And the man riding the lion is thinking, How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?”
The imagery here is remarkably accurate. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been given accolades, admiration, and verbal high-fives for the risks I’ve taken and the things I’ve accomplished as an entrepreneur. Yet on the inside, I’m not celebrating – I’m usually freaking out. What looks to others like strength and resolve feels to me like a series of near-catastrophes.
But beyond the difference in perspective, there are several reasons why entrepreneurship is psychologically challenging:
- Entrepreneurship is lonely. Regardless of the number of people you add to your team, no one else is ever quite in the same boat as a founder. It’s one of the reasons many investors will not invest in single-founder companies – they know it’s hard to deal with the pressure on your own, and you can never hire someone that will shoulder that burden the same way as you will.
- Everyone is always “on”. There’s plenty of opportunity to interact with other entrepreneurs. Most major cities have entrepreneurial hubs, centers, co-working spaces, and meet-ups. There are numerous organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, working to foster the entrepreneurial ecosystems around the country, and bring people together to network and share ideas.While these are great and valuable resources, they can have as much a negative influence as positive, because everyone is projecting success. In order to attract investors, customers, and talent, everyone is putting their best face on, and very few are willing to be honest about the difficulties they are experiencing. As a result, many individuals feel they are the only ones “faking it”.
- Raising money is an exercise in perpetual rejection. I was describing to a professional salesman the process of raising funding from investors. He didn’t think it should be all that difficult, since it’s basically just another type of sale. I asked him “How many people do you typically have to talk to in order to make a sale?”. He said that he usually knew he could close a deal with one out of ten prospects.I explained to him that a typical professional investor looks at about 100 deals for every one that he/she chooses. That means, conversely, that an average entrepreneur must talk to 100 investors before finding one that is willing to invest. The look on his face told me that he understood how challenging that can be – not only physically, but emotionally.
Between the steady stream of rejection (not only from investors, but from skeptical customers), the feeling of being the only one struggling, and the requirement to constantly put your best foot forward, even when you feel like you are stepping off a cliff… it can wear on your emotions.
What’s the remedy, then? I believe there are three keys to maintaining your sanity as an Entrepreneur:
- You must have peers. In Nashville, TN (where I live and work), the local Entrepreneur Center has created a specific event called “Founders Therapy”, where company founders (only founders allowed) can get together for some very real conversation about the struggles of growing a startup. Spending time with other entrepreneurs, in an environment where people can drop their masks and get honest with each other, is really important for maintaining a realistic perspective on your own situation.Hearing another entrepreneur tell their story of struggle can not only help you realize that you are not alone, but it can even convince you that your own problems aren’t so bad! Hearing others laugh off the struggles in their past also makes you realize that every situation is temporary, and you will survive it.
- You must have mentors. I have been blessed with some amazing influences in my life (thank you David Jones, Michael Powers, Roger Hall, Tom Hill, Robby McGee, Julia Polk… I could go on and on). Many of them are entrepreneurs themselves, or have been in the past. I have had formal coaching relationships and informal advisors that I’ve regularly spent time with, and asked them to challenge my thinking.They encourage me when I’m down, support me when I’m making the difficult decisions, and protect me from my own craziness.
- You must recalibrate. Entrepreneurship can be all-consuming. If you let it, it will take over not only your entire life, but your entire worldview, and that is not healthy. It’s important to regularly reset your perspective.One of the best ways to do that is to take time out to serve others. As busy and demanding as your workload may be, it’s time well spent to go to a church, a homeless shelter or a food bank, and give to people who are less fortunate than you.Here’s a dirty little secret about charitable / volunteer work: It benefits you as much as the people you are helping! Spending a day serving the hungry will help you realize that your struggles and stress are perhaps things to be thankful for. It will give you a new perspective, and may give you new energy to tackle your own challenges.
As I spoke to Sean at the coffee shop, I told him about the man riding on the lion. I shared with him some of my own struggles, fears, and self-doubt. His eyes began to water, and he said “this is the first real conversation I’ve had with anyone about how hard this is”. I think it was just what he needed to hear.
Since then, I’ve been working on being more real with people. When I’m asked how my startup is going, instead of giving the token “great” or standard answers like “we’re growing”, I’ve tried to be as honest as I can be about the challenges I’m facing and the areas where I’m struggling. It’s not always appropriate to go into detail about the ups and the downs, but it’s definitely not right to pretend they don’t exist.
At the same time, I am careful to balance my acknowledgement of the struggles with the reality of how blessed I am. My marriage is strong, my kids are healthy, my church is growing, and my friendships are meaningful, even if I don’t get to spend as much time with them as I might like. And for a job, I get to do the work of building companies – something very few people ever have the opportunity to take on. It’s challenging, but it’s also very rewarding.
Perspective is important.