Serial entrepreneur Vicky Brock, 46, is founder and CEO at Get Market Fit, a Scottish corporate innovation firm which this year launched the data technology startup VistalWorks. Brock was previously founder and CEO at e-commerce refunds company Clear Returns and has founded five businesses to date.

She follows startup founders Alex Depledge (Resi) and David Brudö (Remente) in sharing her experiences in Sifted’s debut series on mental health. 

I’ve always pushed myself hard, but my mental health only became a problem during the most difficult period of my professional life. This was towards the end of my tenure as Founder/CEO at Clear Returns and the period after my departure.

What had come to feel like endless, unwinnable battles; exhausting power games; permanent under-capitalisation and more hands-on angel investors than I could practically manage, began to really exacerbate the day to day challenges of a startup that wasn’t growing as effectively as I desperately wanted it to.

I had near permanent, chronically high levels of stress, crippling isolation, too little sleep, virtually no headspace or time away from work, and that took a major toll on both my physical and mental health.

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I couldn’t get away from it — I was the company, I was a poster child, a role model and had won all these awards, and so when it all started to go wrong there was this constant gnawing fear that it was all about to fall apart and I was going to let everyone down.

Suicidal thoughts

After a particularly harrowing board meeting, I spent the entire flight home to Scotland actively willing the plane to fall out of the sky. In that moment it really felt like the least bad way out of the situation I was in and when we landed safely I felt genuinely hopeless.

Obviously, I appreciate that was not a healthy place to be in any sense – I was even aware of it in the moment, but I felt I was outside myself, as though I was observing this emotional car crash but not able to change it.

I spent the entire flight home to Scotland actively willing the plane to fall out of the sky.

I remember as I left the meeting I said “I’m done – emotionally, physically, psychologically done”. It was true. This thing I’d created was now destroying me.

I was trying to carry on and work through it but my staff could see the effect it was having on me, I was losing the ability to summon up the ability to care as much as I should and I could feel I just wasn’t as good and sharp as I needed to be.

I got physically ill too, which was where it all really started to go wrong – the stress gave me an inner ear infection, Labyrinthitis, which affects your balance and vision. I was signed off for a few weeks and prescribed a high dose of antipsychotics to manage the dizziness, which just zones you out from the world.

In the middle of that sick leave the power play really cranked up, there was a decisive board meeting and I wasn’t able to think fast enough and I just didn’t have the stamina or the energy left for the fight anymore.

Feeling like an investors’ racehorse

There is definitely a stigma when it comes to founders/CEO and their boards and investors – you’re their racehorse in effect and if you’re not performing at your best there’s always the implication they’ll find someone who is.

It’s a vicious, paranoid circle.

More than that, I had a clause in my employment contract and shareholder agreement that meant I could be removed and lose a proportion of my shares due to any mental health issues, which is hardly conducive to seeking help (especially when I felt the source of a lot of the unhealthy pressure was coming from the very people with the power to take my job away).

It’s a vicious, paranoid circle and dreadful for founder health and business performance.

It is very difficult to know who you can talk to as a founder – definitely not your board and investors, they control your job; not your employees — you can’t freak them out or make them worried about their own jobs. Plus I was doing pretty much nothing but work — I barely saw my partner or family, even less so my friends. Nearly everyone else I knew was connected to work somehow.

I mistakenly believed I would be letting them all down, my company most of all, if I admitted how scared and out of my depth I was feeling.

As your identity as founder and individual become so publicly intertwined, you lose yourself. That makes it hard to see what life can look like after the company either fails or you are removed from it. It is very scary, but hard for non-founders to really understand.

Banishing booze & embracing yoga

I have given up alcohol completely — that has made a huge difference to my emotional balance and stress management. I did yoga for a while which helped to get past the worst. Now I have structured my working week better and have found reserves of resilience I never knew I had.

Things do get better, but you have to actively make changes to your life, including creating downtime and prioritising your physical and mental health, otherwise you won’t be in the right state to do your next startup when the time comes.

I no longer bother with the awards, the checking out who raised what, benchmarking myself against others, or worrying that other entrepreneurs are getting further and faster. That is unhelpful pressure that is 100% within your power to eliminate, giving you emotional space to handle the pressures you cannot control.

What I want from my startups has also changed a lot: I no longer see doing it alone as a viable option. I have co-founders, we are three equals who share responsibility and rewards and we don’t have investors or an external board.

Late nights and weekend work are the exceptions not the rule, and we have regular co-founder “dates” where we talk, eat, laugh and focus on what we want and why we’re doing what we do. It’s liberating.

Don’t be put off by your peers’ amazing PR and their supposed success — the reality is always tougher and rougher than it seems from the outside looking in. Understand it is OK to not be OK. Getting it wrong is the best teacher and leveller.

We all lose our mind at times. The scary thing is just how dark those dark places can be. So seek each other out, talk to each other and remember, you are not alone, however lonely you feel.

Vicky Brock has delivered two TED talks on her experiences: check out How to cope with an involuntary pause here.

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