Tom was an ambitious young entrepreneur. He started a successful tech company in the healthcare industry — an object of envy among his business peers.

Despite all the admiration, Tom was under a lot of pressures. Working from 6 am to 10 pm on a daily basis started to take its toll. He came home physically and mentally tired, but his brain could not stop working. Constant worry and stress gave him terrible insomnia. Tom realised his health was getting worse. He lost his appetite and survived mostly on black coffee and toast.

There were times when Tom had suicidal thoughts. His mind was clouded in darkness, and the air felt dirty; it was difficult to breathe in.

But his success mattered more than anything else.

He kept going in denial of his fractured sanity.


The Stigma

Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘Founder Depression’?

Founder depression looks a lot like a typical depression. Sadness, loss of interest, lack of energy and constant fatigue.

Sounds familiar?

Look it up, it is real, and it is happening. Maybe you have experienced it yourself. Perhaps you have seen someone else going through it. What you might not expect is the following. Founder depression can happen regardless of whether the startup is a success or not. According to research, entrepreneurs are 30% more likely to experience depression than their nonentrepreneurial counterparts.

Starting a business is stressful. It is the constant networking, cash flow pressure, lack of sleep, customer problem, product failure, staff issues, long hours and so on. Interestingly, despite the enormous stress a founder is under, none of them seems to talk about it much. Ask any founder about his or her business. I bet you; the answer will be along the line of: “I am killing it”.

It seems like there is a stigma attached to founder depression. No founder wants to look ‘weak’. And often they are willing to sacrifice their sanity for that. It is almost like a badge of honour, to be under enormous stress.

The Spiral

A startup is essentially a combination of people and process, driven by its founder. While it seems like the founder has the ultimate control of the startup, it is not always the case in reality. There is a web of responsibility and accountability among founders, investors, staffs, and customers. This intricately interconnected web often puts the founder in a difficult position.

Should the founder allocate resources for the wellbeing of the staffs? Should they pursue new product development? Should they start to penetrate the market now?

And so the initial drive leads to stress, which if not managed, then turns into depression.

“Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either.” — Aaron Swartz, Reddit co-founder (Aaron tragically committed suicide in 2013)

But the stigma attached to founder depression often prevents founders from opening up and getting help. The inability to get help will lead to further depression, and the downward spiral continues.

Breaking down depression starts by breaking down the stigma.

Breaking down the stigma starts from within. It is the mastery of self that allows us to look weak and vulnerable without feeling insignificant.

The Safe Place

It requires enormous strength to open up about our weakness. We don’t just approach a stranger and start sharing our deepest fear. We need a safe place. We need a place to be us, to be humans that hurt and bleed like mere mortals. Only then we can crawl our way up. Slowly recovering and rebuilding our strength.

The safe place is difficult to find. Yet without it, founders are often reluctant to open up. Before they let their guard down, they need to be sure they won’t be taken advantage of. Opening up requires deep trust and in the world of dog-eat-dog where do you find trust?

The safe place is difficult to find indeed.

The good news is, the safe place does exist. The safe place can be a family member, a close friend, or even a mentor or coach. The bad news is, you need to look for it. The safe place is not hiding, but it is not actively looking for you either.

Once you find it, keep it, and care for it, for it is a rare find.

It is a place where you find the strength to be vulnerable and the inner peace for reflection and recharge.

The Courage

There is a limit to the founder’s ability to withstand constant stress and depression. He or she might have found a safe place to refuel. But still, once the limit breaks, a massive depression will set its foot in the founder’s heart.

It is a moment of courage. It is the time for a tough decision. Founders need to choose one of two things, keep going or admit defeat. Both require a tremendous amount of courage. It takes courage to keep going knowing your sanity is on the line. And it also takes a lot of courage to admit failure and defeat.

There is no right or wrong answer here. Only the founder knows the answer, for only he or she knows the sacrifice that comes with it. The founder has no choice but to endure the agony that comes with either of them.

Whatever it is, a choice must be made. And it is only within the founder’s heart that the ultimate choice can be truly decided.

Only you, the founder, knows if the startup is killing it, or killing you. The real question is, what are you going to do about it?


“Running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends.” Elon Musk


As published in The Startup: Is Your Startup Killing It (Or Killing You)?

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