The Unchosen Co-founder: on Depression and Entrepreneurship

The entrepreneurship journey and the unwanted companions that come along for the ride.
The Unchosen Co-founder: on Depression and Entrepreneurship

Loneliness, shame, guilt and depression are the real co-founders of any entrepreneur attempting to build a startup. Yes, those feelings come hand in hand with the attempt to materialize visions, lead teams and succeed under fierce competition. 

Since 2012, I have been offering one to one mentoring sessions for entrepreneurs, helping them with their startup journey. My sessions are focussed on the design and validation of business models and value propositions. 

For some time now, I have been hearing the following statements repeatedly in the sessions: 

“I feel I am not doing enough.”

“I cannot sleep until I can secure that funding/launch my product/hire a talent.” 

“I have no one to talk to about my challenges that would understand them.” 

“I feel like a failure and I feel ashamed/beaten.” 

But wait, it goes even further: 

“I want my life to end” 

“If I die, would people miss me or make fun of me?” 

“I am afraid to go back to my team and face them”

 “I can not eat or sleep” 

When I suggested  they seek professional help, I discovered that most entrepreneurs actually cannot afford it. And worse, the recommendation invoked a sense of guilt over spending money on anything else other than their startup. 

When I suggest they reach out to family and friends, I get the following answers: 

“I cannot trust anyone with this, I might lose my investment round”
“My family/team/ investor will lose faith in me”
“My family members will tell me “I told you so”
“Most of my friends have full time jobs and they do not have time for me” 

Dear entrepreneurs, if you are feeling sad, alone or isolated, please understand that you are not alone. What you are going through is not different from what many other entrepreneurs are going through. I hear you.

Now please hear me. 

You Are Not Your Startup  

Many of you confuse the success of the startup with their own personal success. 

This is a wrong metric! If your startup fails, you did not fail. 

You just learned a hard lesson of what not to do. It is critical that you understand why it failed. On your next attempt, I bet you anything that you will do much, much better. The key lesson here is that you no longer insist on learning the hard way and decide to make your learning ability an intentional endeavor. 

Your startup is your job, not your life.  It can be a great source of learning and personal development. 

And like any job, it can end but life will move on. 

Your Startup Is Not your Altar  of Sacrifice 

Almost all entrepreneurs I worked with think that success must come as the result of sacrifice and hard work. Well that can be partly true. Building a startup will require a lot of hard work and yes, it will for sure require some sacrifices. 

But, you also need to feed the machine (your mind and body) by eating right, exercising regularly, taking vacations, spending time with loved ones and working passionately on a hobby. These physical and mental activities are essential for your regeneration and absolutely benefits your overall productivity. 

Your startup might require a large portion of your time but it is not why you exist. You are sacrificing your time but not your wellbeing. This balance will allow you the much needed opportunity to look at things from different perspectives, away from the usual pressuring influences. Your happiness and wellbeing, will offer you the fuel you will need to perform better on your startup journey. 

Your startup is not your life! It is the reflection of who you are, a healthy  and entrepreneurial human. 

Entrepreneurship Is Not Just About the Results, it Is About the Journey 

When you are building a startup, you are building a profitable solution to a specific problem. What you learn while building it, is much more important than the result or outcome. Why? Because it allows you the opportunity to iterate your product or service to a better fit with the customer’s needs. As an entrepreneur on a startup journey, it is exactly the same. Your entrepreneurial mindset starts as an MVP. As you progress on your journey, all those challenges that you must go through, give you the opportunity to be more aware of what you can do and what you need to develop to become better. No matter what the result of the business turns out to be at the end, you now know more about yourself and what you are capable of. You moved from the MVP state to a better, more knowledgeable version of your entrepreneurial mindset. Do not confuse the personal results with the business results. 

At the end of the day, entrepreneurs build startups. 

Startups only accelerate development. Learn and grow with and from the journey. 

Opinions Are Not Facts 

Many entrepreneurs ask me for my opinion about their ideas on our first sessions. 

Opinions are not that important. 

No one can give you a good evaluation of your startup after a short conversation. So do not  be devastated when a big VC or a well known entrepreneur tells you that your idea is wrong or it won’t work. You know how many people did not invest in AirBnB because they did not like the idea? Do you know how many people invested in WeWork because they liked the idea? Well the answer is, they both regret it today. 

Opinions are just opinions, they are relative and mostly subjective. Do not give them more weight than they deserve. 

You Want Self Validation? 

Define yourself by all those moments you were hit hard in and still decided to stand up and keep fighting. Self validation should come from when you solved tough problems, empowered your team, managed your startup in hard times, bootstrapped when you could have spent money  and most importantly, every time you took a rejection gracefully. 

These are all moments of self validation that you should be proud of. 

Do not confuse your need to validate your startup idea with validating yourself. You are not gaining anything by getting a compliment or two from someone you hold in high regard . You will eventually make all the difference with the results of your own work. It is only a matter of time. 

You want confirmation of your startup idea? Seek to validate it with your customers. Design experiments with measurable call to actions, because asking customers whether or not they like your idea is also a waste of time. Do not seek opinions that tell you, you are right, seek facts that confirm you are wrong. Fix it and push forward. 

Dear Entrepreneurs, 

It is critical that you do not leave your mindset under the sword of depression, loneliness or constant stress. There are many people who are willing to listen and help. 

I hear you and appreciate what you are going through. You are amazing and you inspire me on a daily basis. 

You must understand that you are not your startup. Whether or not the  startup succeeds, you will either win or you will learn. In both cases, you will end up experienced. Make sure to have a daily routine that gives you room to breath. Make sure to have time for yourself, to your hobbies and to your loved ones. It will require discipline, give it time and slowly build up to it. 

Most importantly, when needed, seek professional support. Do not shy away from it. 

As one entrepreneur always tells me: “ it is never about disappointing others, it is more about not disappointing yourself. ” 

Do your future self a favor, focus on balancing what matters. Focus on the why more than the what or the how. 

I hear you. Do you hear me? 

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