How to Beat Founder Burnout
How to Beat Founder Burnout
Business founders play one of the most important roles in industry, not just in terms of economic prosperity but also as pioneers, disrupters, job creators and passionate advocates for innovation. We rarely hear the stories of founders for whom success remained elusive, but this is no reflection on their vision and commitment. Something at the heart of their startup strategy simply wasn’t right.
By contrast, we hear a lot about founders who had to wait years to see their plans come to fruition, but the most appealing stories are of the visionaries who steered their startup to almost instant success, presided over it during a period of scaleup and saw their business become an indelible feature of the business landscape.
Having climbed that mountain, how could any entrepreneur at the summit of their achievement feel anything but pride, happiness and renewed motivation? It’s easy to reel off the names of founders whose drive has only grown: Branson, Bezos, Musk for starters. But their trajectory is not everyone’s. Fame, fortune and vindication are not always enough and it is not uncommon to hear of founders who fell out of love with their dream, or found that the stress and expectations which accompany success made them feel enslaved by their own creation.
Founder burnout is hard to understand from the outside, especially if a business is in the ascendant, with new funding secured and fresh markets opening up. But if you consider the gargantuan amounts of time, energy and tears poured into a startup or scaleup, and the realisation that life is destined to continue at that intensity, you start to have some idea of the gilded cage in which many founders perceive themselves to be trapped.
It has become such a widespread phenomenon that in 2019 the World Health Organisation recognised it as an occupational syndrome characterised by three symptoms. These are a feeling of depleted energy or exhaustion; negative thoughts and a sense of alienation from one’s job resulting in impaired professional performance.
The syndrome can affect anyone in any industry but there are exacerbating pressures that are particular to life sciences businesses. The landscape is slightly different in the US but many early stage European biotech companies have suffered from two intractable industry problems. One is the constant struggle to obtain venture capital over the long term that biotech and life sciences research and testing require. The other is the protracted, labyrinthine nature of the path to certification and ultimately to market. If the founder of a business that achieves rapid success can experience burnout, then how much harder is it for the founder of a biotech or life science business to sustain their energy, motivation and optimism?
There are several strategies and techniques for preventing burnout that have been shown to be effective. They involve many practical, organisational changes but they also require some fundamental adjustments to a founder’s thinking and state of mind.
What Do You Want?
In the headlong rush of scaleup success, it can be easy to lose sight of what drove you to found your business. Growth takes on a life of its own and without your noticing, it can get out of your control. Separate the aims of the company from your own personal goals and give yourself the freedom to look after yourself, taking a step back if necessary. Identify the point at which your business has crossed the line from startup or scaleup to stability and treat it accordingly. Staying in the startup mindset is a quick route to burnout.
Not every founder has co-founders, but if you do, it is essential to share the burdens as well as the rewards with your partners and not think you have to shoulder all the responsibilities. The temptation is to stay on top of every issue all the time but this is impossible and you need to have the faith to ask for support and let some things go. Many venture capital firms actually prefer to deal with startups that have more than one founder for this very reason. They feel understandably nervous about effectively investing in one person.
If you don’t have co-founders then find someone you trust in whom you can confide – possibly your life partner but, even better, a friend. If you are in sole charge, a solid foundation for your company is vital. You are not a one-person operation so even if you are the boss you need to have in place a strong team that gives you the confidence to switch off when necessary.
As an adjunct to finding support, remember that in addition to looking after your company and employees, you need first of all to look after yourself. In aviation safety drills you’re told to put your own oxygen mask on before trying to help others. It’s a good tip for staving off burnout.
Part of self-care is psychological. It involves being honest about your fears and vulnerabilities, with yourself and others. But it is also practical. Simply taking time off, for a holiday or just to spend time at home with the family, not only gives you a breathing space but enables you to restore perspective. Pausing for a short time can stop you from opting out for good.
Fortunately, the business world has matured sufficiently to reject the idea of the stiff upper lip or keeping calm and carrying on. Mental health and well-being are accepted as being central concerns for any responsible business. This doesn’t apply exclusively to your employees. If counselling or any other form of professional talking therapy works for the people you employ, it can work for you. Even Tony Soprano had a therapist.
If you’re in the life sciences business, you know you’re in it for the long haul. The vision that inspired you is very valuable and the contribution you can make to the lives of others, while securing your own prosperity, is too great to risk. Avoiding burnout should be your top priority.