This article intends to raise awareness of the problem of Burnout in Startup Founders, what is one of the main causes, and how we fall for it unless it’s appropriately addressed.
Sam (fictitious name) is the founder and CEO of a software development company with more than 300 employees.
When Sam started, nine years ago, he realized that he could do better than other similar companies in the space. So, he decided to quit his job at a big and well-known software giant.
Friends and family thought that Sam was crazy to leave such a great job and risk going out on his own. He did it anyway.
Sam started working by himself as a sole developer. Because he loved it, he never considered it “work”. He began hiring more developers, one at a time, slowly adding building blocks to the business.
Through grit, perseverance, and a relentless pursuit of his vision, Sam saw his hard work come to fruition during his third year running the company.
In the years that followed, the company continued to grow, doubling revenue each year, building a great reputation and brand.
To keep up with the company’s growing demands, Sam began increasing his daily coffee intake and popping Adderall once in a while to stay focused and be more productive. He had to stop coding to focus more on the administrative and strategic tasks of the business. He was now operating a company of 500 people with locations in three countries.
Then Covid hit. This saw the company lose 60% of its customers overnight. Sam had to make the toughest decisions of his business career, downsizing and bargaining to keep his company alive.
While Sam’s work demands had been increasing, his personal life had been facing its own challenges with strain in his marriage. This could not be overcome and led to the breakdown of the marriage.
Sam threw himself into work even more, it’s all he knew to do.
He had already been suffering from insomnia and then it got worse. His body started showing visible signs of strain, with weight and hair loss, along with gastrointestinal issues. One day it all became too much, Sam’s body collapsed and he lost all drive. He had pushed himself to breaking point. This is a classic example of burnout.
Unfortunately, this is not an exceptional case coming from my list of clients.
Very often, I see a slight variation of Sam’s story: a goal-getter, highly-driven individual that has a plan to turn his vision into a reality.
But, I couldn’t agree more with Mike Tyson’s quote: “Everyone has a plan…until they get punched in the mouth.“
The leaders of companies that have not learned how to deal effectively with daily doses of stress find themselves quickly, deeply, and painfully in the Burnout Zone.
What makes Founders Burn Out
As of 2020, the WHO identified four symptoms of Burnout in Work Environments:
Different theories from experts on the topic coincide with these symptoms. Based on that, organizations of all kinds deploy initiatives to help their employees deal with stress and burnout.
So far, very clear.
The key point to notice is that the majority of research about Burnout is performed on a large and standard employee sample.
But, Startup Founders are another breed and they are a minority in themselves.
By default, Founders are goal-getters, massive action-takers, and change agents. Their internal monologue is usually the opposite of “maintaining the status quo” or “keeping things the way they are“. Their narrative is nothing like that.
Their narrative is something like “I will make this thing better” and “I will solve this problem“. And because of that, they have more than enough fuel to drive real change.
The problem is that when that fuel is not properly managed, it can backfire.
Because of the high expectations they have for their company and themselves, they can easily get into narratives that sound like: “If I don’t achieve this, I am a failure“, or “This is my only option“.
These narratives are unconscious to the individual (blindspots or Unknown Knowns) and they live at the foundation of their mental architecture. This means that all opportunities encountered and decisions made are filtered through this narrative.
Now, pair those narratives with the current volatility of the markets at a global scale, plus an under-exercised Emotional Resilience Muscle, and you have a recipe for Burnout.
The Only Rule about Burnout
The risk of being a Startup Founder relies on the fact that your drive and passion fuel your tank to achieve your mission, and at the same time, they grant you an Express Ticket to Burnout Land.
The question is not how founders burn out, but instead, how do you, as a startup founder, leverage the Burnout state (or even better, the initial Burnout symptoms) to get the best out of that situation?
Learning about one’s Burnout can be a blessing in disguise. It is irrefutable feedback about your true mental, emotional, and physical capabilities and limits.
The only rule for Founders about Burnout is not to avoid Burnout. The only rule is to extract the lessons from it and avoid getting Burnout from the same recipe twice.
Going back to Sam’s story. Shortly after he and I started working together, he realized that by solely focusing on the operational tasks of his business, he had severed the connection with what he loved doing – coding. This is something that happens to so many business founders. They have to stop what they love about the business, to run the business.
It didn’t take much for him to also realize that he, being the CEO and founder, had diminishing returns as a person by investing his time and effort in the operational aspect of the business.
Consequently, he delegated those tasks and proceeded to create a small team of Elite Developers, himself being one of those. The purpose: working on a few promising ideas that he had postponed for several years.
After a few months, Sam’s company stabilized and started to recover ground solidly.
More importantly, Sam decided to incorporate the lessons into a new way of operating his company, and himself. Never disconnecting from his original passion, and at the same time, investing in his own recovery.
Burnout Recovery Retreats for Founders
As I mentioned at the start of this article, I intend to bring awareness to the fact that, if you consider yourself a change agent at your company, you may be experiencing Burnout and not realizing it.
You may have an inner knowing, an intuition, a gut feeling that something is off.
The point is: I encourage you to invest in yourself. The ROI is guaranteed.