Being a founder isn’t easy. It comes with exhaustion, stress and the overwhelming pressure to succeed. And that’s before you factor in startup growing pains or the personal challenges that crop up when you least expect them.
The pandemic was a time of immense stress for me. I was a medical student at the same time I launched Motics with my cofounder Salinna. At Motics, we enable people to improve adherence to physiotherapy using wearable technology and gamification. At the time we were grappling to secure funding, going through pilot studies and trying to get the product to market — all while still at university.
All of this stopped when my father suddenly passed away. He was a huge source of inspiration for me, and his loss was deeply felt. I felt lost, and I wasn’t sure what to do.
As a founder, what do you do? How do you juggle personal and professional life when the demands on your startup don’t stop?
Turning to ‘founder therapy’
Early on, my core source of business support was Salinna. During the mourning period, she took the lead on Motics and gave me the chance to clear my headspace and focus on myself. It allowed me time to process what was happening, and be with and support my family. Away from the pressure of medical school and startup life, I was able to step back and introspect about what kind of person I wanted to become, and how I could use my father’s legacy as inspiration, rather than letting grief consume me. I think it was my first form of therapy.
Though that helped, it doubled Salinna’s workload and put the pressure of investor calls and product development onto her shoulders. We soon realised that we were trying to balance too much and we lacked focus — we were moving laterally rather than forward.
I find that this is a common problem founders face. We tend to be stoic, particularly around our workload — most founders I know are used to regularly grinding out 12+ hours a day. But in the end, it’s counterproductive. This level of stoicism lends itself to being too fixated on a singular idea, and often on the solution rather than the problem itself.
Early on in our Motics journey, I saw myself and the company as being one entity, which led me to handle feedback poorly for fear it was a personal diatribe
Salinna and I knew we needed to do something, which is when we started to discover “founder therapy” by spending time with other founders. Many of us were facing the same set of challenges and problems. Things like imposter syndrome, your sense of identity wrapped around your company, the fear of making a wrong decision leading to the demise of your startup. Founders experience these feelings in buckets, but often think they’re the only ones. By opening up and speaking to other founders it became clear to me that these feelings are commonplace.
Routine founder therapy can go some way to solving the feelings of isolation you can encounter while building a company, and supporting peers in an ecosystem where it can feel like you’re alone in the challenges you experience. While I had spoken to close friends about these things at the time, I hadn’t thought of founder therapy as something that would help.
Time in founder therapy helped me to see things in a way that I hadn’t previously considered. For example, early on in our Motics journey, I saw myself and the company as being one entity, which led me to handle feedback poorly for fear it was a personal diatribe. By speaking with seasoned founders, I was able to step back and realise this for what it was — untrue. It enabled me to regain my sense of identity and helped me to become myself again after years of feeling defined by the successes or failures of the company.
This was the first time that the benefits of therapy and support in the context of being a founder became clear to me. I saw that it enables you to effectively manage stress, handle uncertainty and celebrate wins together.
Where to find it
Salinna and I initially stumbled upon it informally, by meeting other founders at networking events and being open about the problems we were having. We found that other founders were often open about their struggles, allowing us to all learn from and help each other. We also became part of a support network of founders when we joined the accelerator Techstars London’s 2022 cohort.
The support at Techstars London was structured in hour-long, weekly sessions, with the cohort’s founders being given a chance to sit together and talk through any issues, concerns, successes and feelings. Having this opportunity to sit and talk things through with a group of founders with a similar goal and understanding is a vital level of support that a lot of founders don’t have or aren’t aware of.
Many founders without access to such networks are at risk of becoming isolated — solo founders doubly so without the support of a cofounder, as well as the challenge of limited insight, only being able to identify and solve problems from one perspective.
If nothing else, you’ll find someone willing to listen to your problems — they’re also likely to have the same ones too
I now take advantage of being a cofounder, with Salinna and I being able to support each other and tackle problems together. Every Monday, we go through all key issues across the company and bring our individual perspectives on how to tackle them, enabling an open conversation and ensuring that we create the best solution we can.
If you’re a solo founder, or cofounders looking to expand your support network, you could look to other groups such as Entrepreneurs’ Organization, made up of founders across the world supporting each other on the entrepreneurship journey. Its forum format allows entrepreneurs to bring their experiences and the lessons they learnt. Equally, there are many smaller groups of support in universities for student founders, such as the Imperial College Enterprise Lab, and regionally for founders outside of large cities — whoever you are, wherever you are, there’s support for you.
Cofounders, founder networks and accelerators are all great ways to find founder therapy. The right people will be able to help you deal with challenges, such as feeling isolated, as well as decision-making, particularly when you’re wrapped up in the daily startup grind.
If nothing else, you’ll find someone willing to listen to your problems — they’re also likely to have the same ones too. It’s important to remember that whilst you may be a founder, you’re also a person first and foremost, and supporting your mental health is vital to be sustainable.
Dr Harvinder Power is the cofounder and CEO of Motics.