In the second of a Sifted series about founder mental health and startup depression, we hear from David Brudö, 39, the cofounder and chief executive at Swedish health startup Remente. He follows Resi founder Alex Depledge, speaking out about startup life and depression.
Since my teens I have had recurring brief depressions. This culminated when I ventured into startup life, resulting in burnout symptoms. The symptoms were stress, anxiety, irritation and memory loss. Running a startup is like the extreme sports of the business world. You live and breathe your startup (whether you're at work or not), you are supposed to perform at your A-game 24/7 and your ambitions are bigger than the resources you have at play.
Statistically, you are doomed to fail and there are no clear cut paths to success.
You need to find your own way, and often that is through failing forward. This takes a big toll on founders’ mental health. At the same time you are supposed to be a role model for your team, investors and customers. Because there is so much to do and so little time or money and you're constantly balancing on the edge of failure or success, you work around the clock to make things happen.
Feeling hopeless and useless
My deepest struggle with mental health was at a time when I was involved in several startups at a time. I felt hopeless and useless. I kept on doing my work but I felt really bad on the inside. There was no joy in the work and the work I did was more reactive than proactive. I was more in a putting-out-fire mode than preventing fires from occurring. I became more irritated, easily stressed, worried and had difficulties in being strategic and long term in my way of working. My focus was on problems and difficulties instead of solutions and possibilities.
In general, there is a view of the entrepreneur as the hard working go-getter who never gives up and does what it takes to make the company succeed. There's definitely a stigma around talking about startup depression, or voicing that it's tough to cope with and live up to an image that many times is unattainable.
Would your investors have invested in you if they knew about the pressure you were feeling? Would your team trust you? Because you often feel that everything relies on you, and that people have invested in you as a person, it's hard to admit when times are tough. And often it's hard when times are good as well, because it's in the entrepreneur's nature to push boundaries and move forward. It’s a paradox we face.
Talking is key — even when you feel like shit
The first thing is as simple as it’s hard, and that is to talk about the pressure. Talk about it, and seek professional help.
Don't "wait and see"; act if you feel you have mental health issues as there is great help out there. If you don't know who to talk to or how, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. There are statistics showing that about 50% of everyone will experience some degree of mental health conditions during their lifetime, so you're not weird for feeling the way you do. Approach your mental health from a proactive perspective. By managing yourself mentally from a wellbeing standpoint, you'll be able to perform and feel better, and reduce the likelihood of ending up with a mental health condition.
It’s important that people share their experiences, to reduce the stigma around them. I've spoken to many successful entrepreneurs who still are feeling like shit, even when their startup turned into the business they always wanted and more.
Make your mental wellbeing a priority
If you live a lifestyle that takes a mental toll, that won't change just because your years of struggle turn into a successful business. You'll probably continue on the same path and, as Notorious B.I.G put it: more money, more problems.
Instead we need to learn and live in the now, which is a challenge as entrepreneurs are often thinking: "if I just make it, everything will be fine".
I encourage entrepreneurs to talk about their experiences and shine a light on the topic of startup depression or burnout, to support new entrepreneurs. I also encourage investors and stakeholders – such as a board of directors – to open up about this issue and provide support.
In the US, venture capital firms with foresight suggest that chief executives and founders get a coach to help them manage their role, which I think is a step in the right direction. I also think it's important that tech sites like Sifted and others bring up the topic.
I’ve learned the importance of reflection, mindfulness, to be kind to yourself and let go of the prestige – that there are many factors that influence my mood, thinking and behaviour such as sleep, and just because I feel a certain way, it's not the truth and doesn't define me, unless I let it.
More importantly than being an entrepreneur, I am a father of two and a husband. For me to be successful, it's not only about the business, but also the relationship with my family. I'm far from a perfect person, but the insights and techniques I have at hand help me improve one baby step at a time.
The cool thing with all this is that the same techniques that help me perform better also help me manage stress better, for instance through goal setting and breaking goals down to daily routines. One of my main takeaways is that we can do so much with our brain and basically reprogram ourselves, if we just understand how the brain works. It takes time and training though, just like physical exercise. But it's possible.