Founder #burnout is real and serious. As a former founder myself, I’ve felt it. As a mentor, advisor and investor, I’ve seen it in others many times.
But before I go further, I will say that I am not a mental health professional. Founder burnout can lead to serious mental health issues and if you are concerned in any way about your mental health then please seek professional help right away. This stuff is serious.
Burnout is not just about long hours and fatigue. Long hours and fatigue are table stakes for startup founders. But when physical and emotional exhaustion is chronic and unrelenting it becomes something much worse. At full force, it leads to a deep-seated sense of overwhelm (that you feel in your gut everyday) and it can set a founder on a dangerous course.
I’ve seen it manifest as cynicism, detachment, and indifference — even for the thing that was their heartfelt passion. I also know from experience that it can inhibit creativity, strategic thinking, and empathy — some of the very qualities that make a founder a good leader. The founder struggles to focus, their performance inevitably diminishes… leading to more challenges that lead to more worry which leads to less sleep and greater and greater exhaustion. It’s vicious.
Eventually, burnout will creep outside the bounds of your startup and it will impact your relationships. When this happens, the results are very bad.
Of course, burnout can happen to anyone. But what’s especially insidious about founder burnout is the reticence of founders to share their experience with literally anyone. Their reticence is often based on the perceived consequences of sharing their situation with others. And those perceptions are not unfounded.
Founders are the anchor, the cornerstone, the lynchpin of their startup. Founders fear that showing any signs of weakness will send a message that the foundation of the company is in jeopardy. Startups exist in a land of uncertainty and belief is the coin of the realm. Founders need others to believe that they can beat the odds — investors, partners, customers, family. What would happen if any (or all) of these folks loose faith?! If you’re a founder, I don’t have to tell you what you think will happen.
Compounding the gravity is the fact that very few people can relate to what it’s really like to be a startup founder. The perception of most folks who have not been a founder (or not been deeply involved with founders for a good long time) is that it’s somehow glamorous and fun, that the founder has total freedom and is getting rich day by day. What a privileged life to lead… how could you be so burned out on THAT?
But the truth is far from that. The life of a founder is immensely stressful. The only freedom they have is the freedom to choose which 80 hours they work each week. Loneliness is par. Fear of failure is ever present. Other founders are often the only one’s who really “get’ that.
What’s a founder to do?
If you’re feeling severely burned out, don’t think it will just get better. As I said at the start, seek professional help right away if you have any concerns at all about your mental health. This stuff is serious.
Beyond that, know that you’re not alone. In fact, you are an exception if you go the distance as a startup founder and never end up in this state of mind. Find other experienced founders to talk to.
If you are a founder and you’re not experiencing burnout yet, be on guard. And move your company forward as quickly as possible. Not achieving strategic milestones quickly is the most reliable cause of founder burnout.