Is Your Startup Killing It (Or Killing You)?

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)?

I Thought He Came To Say Goodbye

”Ok Fred,” Rob said. “Are you trying to kill me?”

”What do you mean?” I said. “Are you playing the ‘old’ card again?”

Rob was my storeman, he was 60 years old but as strong as most 20 years old youngsters I knew. He went through a lot that bloke, just declared bankrupt, divorce dispute, and most recently health issues.

Well, to be fair, it’s not like he was taking care of his health, not with a bottle of wine every night! Sometimes I wondered how he managed to drive to the office every morning. Although it kind of explained those weird mornings where he seemed to come super early. He must have stayed the night!

Anyway, Rob was a good storeman. He was the only one who volunteered to do extra work when things went a bit quiet. He fixed the water pipe, washed the truck, and even offered to pull the weeds. He was such a humble old man.

“Fred, did you remember to order the white rags?”, I could hear Rob yelling from the warehouse.

”I did order them ..” I said, not too sure of myself.

”Well, where are they?”

”They’re not there?”

”No boss, they’re not.”

”Whatss .. ok I’ll call them now.”

Due to my million things to do I too forgot to do things. But fret not, my supplier was not far, and they were very efficient. The fact that I bought a lot from them probably contributed a little to the excellent service.

Anyhow, the white rags arrived in the afternoon (I told you they were fast). Rob looked rather excited for some reason. These rags must have grown on him. The destiny of a rags worker, sooner or later they would fall in love with those bulky rags.

The month went quickly and suddenly Christmas was just around the corner. It started to feel a lot like Christmas – it was just like the song. We had this tradition in the office to drink the day before Christmas. It wasn’t for us to get drunk or anything, or so we thought. Rob really got into it though, he bought a carton of beers for us to enjoy. Christmas present, he said. They were all for us, he said. He drank most of them, as expected.

***

”Fred, guess who got a new job?” Rob smiled at me in the morning.

”Who?” I asked.

”Me!” he replied.

And that’s how Rob broke the news of his resignation. He could not take the physical demand of the job anymore. He was getting older, and having health issues did not help either. Rob decided to get an easier job minding a hardware store near his place.

My wife and I went to visit him a few times at his new job. He looked good albeit rather bored. Well, at least he didn’t have to unload a truckload of rags there.

Rob returned the favour and came over a few times to my office. He didn’t get any younger though, and his liver problem got worse. I told him many times to stop drinking but you cannot teach an old dog a new trick.

He disappeared after a few months. His mobile was disconnected. We tried checking in at his workplace but to no avail. He vanished, God knows where.

***

”Ahh, there he is,” Rob suddenly appeared on the window.

”Whoa, look who’s here,” I said.

”Long time no see, boss,” he said to me.

”Yes, it’s been a while. How have you been?”

”Not very good, Fred.”

“What happened?”

”My liver stopped functioning, well almost,” Rob said slowly. “Doctor gave me a few months.”

”No … “ I couldn’t believe what I heard.

”It’s true,” Rob said. “I should’ve stopped .. drinking.”

”This is not happening.”

”It is, Fred.”

“Rob, what are you doing here?”

”What do you mean? I wanted to see you.”

”Yeah, I figured that out,” I said. “But why are you really here?”

”Fred, boss, I just wanted to see you.”

”I believe you, Rob,” I said. “Come, sit and I’ll make you some tea.”

We had a good long chat about work, life, family, and everything else. Rob said he missed working in the warehouse. He missed his babies, he said, referring to the bundles of rags he used to carry around.

That night I went to bed thinking I should’ve said something to Rob. Something along the line of ‘goodbye’. I didn’t because I was worried that it would offend him.

***

There was no news from Rob for the next few months. I was back to the usual hectic days at work, getting some daily physical workout in the warehouse. It was getting hot too with summer fast approaching.

”Hi, is this Fredy?” a lady called my mobile.

”Yes, it is,” I said.

”Oh .. this is Gillian, my husband Rob used to work for you.”

”Ahh yes, how is Rob doing?”

”Fred,” Gillian said slowly.

”Oh .. no .. don’t say it,” I said to her.

”He passed away, Fred,” she said. “He wanted me to tell you something.”

“Ok, I’m listening,” I said, trying to calm myself down.

“He said thank you for listening to him when he came last time,” Gillian whispered. “Thank you for not bringing up anything about him dying.”

”He also said that the last conversation gave him the peace he needed to accept his fate.” Gillian continued. “He said he felt his heart was light and he was ready.”

”Fred, Rob passed away the day after he met you.” Gillian finally said.

***

I will always remember that. That phone call. That moment.

I thought he came to say goodbye .. and I was right, but I’m glad I didn’t say anything.

Because I realised now.

He came to see me.

 

“Sometimes the best present you can give someone is to be present.”

I just want to lie down…

Forget five-star travel and the hotel life; when it comes to holidays as a soloist, Fredy Namdin prefers the simple things in life.

 

Back in the days of my corporate years, me and a colleague of mine often talked about holidays. These discussions spanned from possible holiday dates and destinations, to all the different food and drink we would enjoy during the trip.

We strategised about the best possible ways to capitalise on these holidays.Should we take it before Christmas? After New Year? Or maybe mid-year?

We took into account costs, the best weather, airlines, any special events, and so much more. It was almost an obsession for us.

I started a company more than ten years ago. Well, we acquired it but in my defence the company was in a very risky position, one bad move and there would be nothing left. We did quite a turnaround to make it into a strong and healthy business. And boy it took time to do that. I never knew acquiring a business could take so much work.

As with other businesses, things were never smooth nor stable for long. We experienced highs and lows, joy, heart break, excitement, and many other indescribable feelings.

“I just want to lie down on the sofa, relaxing, with a cup of coffee in my hand, and the most delicious Scotch Finger biscuit by my side.”

We worked so hard for the business (especially in the first few years). I remember those nights when the kids would sleep in the car because we had big orders to fulfil the following day. The worst was when the phone rang in the afternoon with an urgent request, and we knew we had no choice but to abide, because it was one of our major customers – another all nighter coming through. Who said owning a business means answering to no one? We quickly figured out that we were answering to more than 500 people (read: bosses). And these ‘bosses’ could be more demanding than our corporate bosses (not always).

Nevertheless we were happy. Things turned around and we made good money. We started to improve (increase) our spending. A new car, a new house, even a new coffee machine. Life was great.

“Hi Fred.” Eddie said to me. ”How have you been?”

“Hi Eddie, what a surprise. Well, I am doing good, man,” I said.

Eddie is a friend from my previous life. He is the one I discussed holidays with back in my corporate days.

“Where are you working now,” Eddie asked.

“I run my own company.” I replied to him. “We distribute industrial products.”

“Wow, I remember back in BankEast you always wanted to have your own business,” Eddie said.

“Yeah, it’s a dream come true.” I said, trying to remember what I really said to him back then.

“Congratulations man.”

“Thanks, what about you?”

“I work in South Bank Institute now.”

“Sounds like a good place.”

“Yes it is, and guess what, we are going to Bali again this year.”

“Again?”

“Yup, the third time this year.”

‘Third time?”

This guy is so lucky, I thought to myself. I haven’t got the time to do all these holidays this year.

“Ok Fred, I need to rush,” Eddie said. “It’s great bumping into you.”

Despite our best effort we could only take holidays during Christmas and New Year. That would be around 10 days per year. We compensate this by making it in such a way that we only work short hours during the year. Practically we structured the business around our kids. We want to spend time with them so we work short hours but somehow we end up with only 10 days break per year.

In all honesty, I never thought about it before meeting Eddie.

It’s not like we need multiple holidays anyway. Ten days break is long enough – or so I thought.

But I just couldn’t let it go. Eddie gets to take multiple trips to Bali and I am just stuck here in the warehouse? What a crappy lifestyle I have now. Surely there must be something I could do to make my life a bit better?

As I drove home I was reminiscing about the time when I too was able to take multiple trips per year. What a great life it was. I remembered the cubicle where I sat. Eddie was sitting just across my desk (hence we talked a lot to each other). The best part was in the morning when I would use the company’s coffee machine to make my delicious morning coffee. Lunch was not too bad as sometimes we had to rush things, especially when there was a big tender due.

Big tender, what a nightmare.

I must have made more than 1000 spreadsheets over the course of my career as an analyst. Oh yeah, and those headaches, splitting headaches. I was consuming pain killers like candy. I had a box or two on my desk and took two tablets per day. If I kept going the way I was maybe I could purchase them at wholesale price based on the volume I went through.

And my boss, OMG, she was the most discriminating, intimidating, back-stabbing $%&6%^.

You know what, maybe I don’t need those holidays.

Life is good as it is now.

We are happy, our business is growing, the wife is happy (very important), and I have my own coffee machine at home (also very important).

You know what, I have a great life.

It’s simple, not glamorous, albeit it’s the best for me.

I just want to lie down on the sofa, relaxing, with a cup of coffee in my hand, and the most delicious Scotch Finger biscuit by my side.

That’s all I need.

I just want to lie down.

By

— as originally appeared on Quora and FlyingSolo

A Night To Remember

It was 2am, and our newborn daughter decided to wake her parents up. My reflex told me to elbow my lovely wife. Fortunately (or unfortunately) she was asleep, and my conscience said it was a big no. Do not disturb a mother in a deep sleep, or else.

What should I do? Maybe I could try to calm her down. I remember my wife always did this whispering thingy. I might try that. What if it doesn’t work?

Arrghh…the struggle is real.

In the meantime, the little baby got impatient and cranked up her cry. I swear I heard the neighbour’s dog got up and started barking.

“Shuuussshhhh….” I whispered to her. I held her tight and rocked her gently.

It seemed to work.

Half an hour was all I needed. My little girl was fast asleep then. Yes, success, well-done daddy.

“Hunny, was she crying?” my wife suddenly woke up.
“Umm yes, but she’s asleep now, all good,” I said.
“Ok, thank you for that.”
“Go back to sleep, everything is under control.”

It was February 2008 and we only just acquired a business. Coming from the corporate background, we had no idea how to run a small business. The only thing we knew was a job description and how to fake sick leave. We learnt quickly that these two didn’t seem to exist in small business.

Our first child was born just before we acquired the business. It was what we like to call: “Miracles Do Happen, Twice”.

It was a dream.

We were starting a family and somehow came across a great business. It felt good, so we bought it. It was like one of those Nike commercials. We would .. just do it.

We were unstoppable.

Our lack of experience in small business did not deter us from jumping into this new journey of self-employment. We realised later on that the very reason it did not, was because we had no idea what we got ourselves into. We got into business blind-folded.

And guess what, we got into parenthood blind-folded too.

The first time I realised this was when I dragged the cot from the office to the back room, with my daughter in it, crying. The reason, was only because I couldn’t talk on the phone.

And also because it finally got to me. The stress, lack of sleep, burnout, and a million other things we never thought possible.

There were times when we would stay back in the warehouse until dinner, had dinner, and went back to work. The little girl would sleep in the cot like a small angel. This was the time when living in the warehouse seemed like a good idea. I am glad we never did.

We tried to learn fast about everything business. The worst was never-ending-day-to-day administrative duties. Who knew something that seemed so simple and mundane like this could give us a headache? Never underestimate the requirement for small business regarding data entry, filing, stock taking, tracking order, monthly report, and so on, and so on.

Did we bite off more then we could chew?

***

“Hi Fred, I need ten boxes of milk, five tins of coffees, and ten packs of sugar,” my customer put an order.
“Yes, no problem at all,” I said.
“When can we get them?”
“Tomorrow,” I replied.

Another late night I thought to myself.

“O no, I forgot to prepare the bags for bread factory,” I just remembered. There were twenty bags to prepare. I needed few hours to do that.

“Are we ready to go?” my wife asked.
“No, we are not,” I said. “We have to go and get the supplies, and I need to prepare bags for the bread factory.”
“But that will take few hours at least.”
“Yes, I know,” I replied. “Look, why don’t we get the supplies, go home, and then I could come back to the warehouse to finish the twenty bags.”
“But you would be working until morning.”
“We have no choice, I don’t want her to sleep in the warehouse again, she is already on antibiotics.”

Our little angel was not feeling well that night. The doctor prescribed her with mild antibiotics, but she still needed a good rest.

We went home, had light dinner, and off I went back to the warehouse. It was 9pm then. I knew I would not get home until around 2am. O well, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. Back in university days, we used to stay up until 4am and was fine for the 8am lecture. This was nothing.

But I guess knowing our child was sick put a little bit of pressure as well. I wanted to be home with her. Gosh, parenthood was stretching me thin. Things worked differently when we had a little baby at home.

It was dark when I got there. I looked around to make sure the street was safe before opening the gate.

It felt weird working alone at night. Sometimes I heard voices from behind the shelves. It must be all of those scary movies coming back to haunt me.

Well, the first few bags didn’t take long to finish. I felt my muscles tensing up a little bit, and suddenly my lower back screamed in agony. I must have pulled a muscle there.

I decided to rest for few minutes and turn off the machine. And somehow that voice came back from behind the shelves.

“Ok, mental note, do not watch scary movies anymore,” I was talking to myself.

I went back to work. My lower back was hurting but nothing I couldn’t handle. It was probably just the old disc-injury playing up. I only had to persevere, and it would be over soon.

The rest of the bags took a lot slower than I hoped for. The back pain worsen. I couldn’t stand straight this time. At least it was almost done now. Just two more bags to go. It was 1.30am. Suddenly, my phone rang (from behind the shelves).

“Hunny, are you still there?” my wife asked.
“Yup, only two more bags to go,” I said. “What’s up?”
“She’s burning up.”
“How bad is it?”
“Very, I think I need to go to the hospital.”
“What, are you sure?”
“Yes.”
“Can you wait for me? I just need to finish the last two.”
“No, I need to go now.”
“Ok, I am so sorry hunny.”
“It’s alright. It’s what we do.”

I couldn’t believe it. Could it be any worse? Excruciating back pain, working alone at night, and now my wife had to drive to the hospital alone.

I continued on to finish the last two bags. My mind was filled with all sort of scenarios. What if something happens? What if the doctor says? What ifs… The worst thing was, of course, there was nothing I could do except to keep working to get it done. And I finally finished all of the bags. It was one very long night.

I closed the gate and rushed to the hospital.

My wife was waiting in the hospital room. She smiled and gave me a hug.

“It’s ok, she’s fine,” she whispered.

***

Time went on, our little girl recovered from her illness, and we were back at work as usual. While still suffering from lack of sleep we were getting better at managing it.

But that night, that was a night to remember.

***

“No one looks back on their life and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep.”

My Wife Knows Everything, and So Do I

“So how much does a bundle weigh?”, Peter asked.
“20kg,” I replied.
“That is too heavy!”, he said.
“Well, your boss said the maximum weight is 25kg, so we are still under.”

Peter was a driver for a courier company that we contracted to deliver all of our products around the city. He was pretty healthy for his age, around 60 at that time. Nevertheless, he did throw a complaint or two about the weight of our parcels.

Our warehouse staff was rather young, in his 20s, so he did most of the heavy lifting. He never complained though. We were lucky to have such a compliant worker. Although sometimes I caught him checking his Facebook account at work. He did put in the hard yard, so I turned a blind eye.

In the meantime, my wife couldn’t stop complaining.

She always found something, somewhere, to criticise on. Who cared if the floor was not swept yet? Or if the rubbish bins were not emptied? We were busy making money. We did not have time for all of those little things.

We had everything under control between me and our warehouse guy, Tom. So the last thing we needed was a headache from a clean-freak wife. Don’t get me wrong. I loved her deeply. But regarding my business, there were just three people: me, myself, and I. There was no one else. I did it all.

Business was picking up. Our customers couldn’t get enough of our products. Everything was flying off the door. The warehouse was as busy as Tokyo central train station. I was contemplating whether to get new staff or not.

Well, until such time when Tom rang at 8am that morning.

“Hi Fred, I am sorry, but I need to leave by 11am today,” Tom said.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“It’s a little bit awkward to explain,” he replied.
“Alright, that’s fine,” I said. “I am coming shortly anyway.”

I had butterflies in my stomach. Something was not right.

The following day Tom came to work. He worked hard as usual. Peter, the courier driver, threw some complaints again about the weight of the parcels.

“Hah, weak little old man,” I thought to myself. “I could lift those parcels easily.”

***

My coffee was too hot that morning. I was just holding my cup in the warehouse, waiting for Tom to arrive. He was unusually late that day.

“Tom, you are finally here,” I said to him as he came through the door.
“Ah, yes, I am here,” he seemed somewhat flustered.
“Ready for work?” I asked.
“Umm, before that.”
“Yes?”
“I have something for you,” Tom handed me an envelope. “This is my resignation letter.”

And that’s how I finally knew where Tom went a few weeks ago when he had to leave at 11am. He went to an interview at another company.

***

I didn’t have the time to get a new staff straight away. So for the following few weeks, I worked extra hours in the warehouse. It was like an exercise anyway, I said to myself, trying to justify it.

Peter still said the same thing about our parcels, that they were too heavy. Of course, I didn’t pay any attention to it. If he couldn’t lift them, I would do it for him. And so I did, loading all the parcels from our trolley to his truck.

My body started to feel the pain from lifting all of those heavy parcels. In particular my back. I guess I wasn’t as strong as I wanted to be. There were times when my back froze in the morning. It stiffened up like a block of ice.

“Maybe Peter is right about the way we handle these parcels,” I thought to myself.

We did interview few people to replace Tom, but we didn’t feel right about any of them. It was not an easy job, what Tom was doing. I wanted to make sure we got the right person.

In the meantime, I kept plodding along.

The back pain got worse. It was a regular thing to get a stiff back in the morning. I couldn’t care less though, we had work to do.

“Hi Peter,” I said.
“Fred, you are here again,” Peter said.
“Yeah, we haven’t found a new warehouse guy.”
“O well, at least you’re still young.”
“Well, not really, but I can lift these up for you.”

And as soon as I picked up the last parcel, I felt a knife jabbed in my back.

I felt on my knees. I could still feel the knife. The sharp pain shot deeper into my middle back. By then I felt my back almost collapsed. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak.

Peter closed his truck door not realising what happened. He drove away, leaving me on the warehouse floor.

I waited for a few minutes before trying to stand up. I felt a sharp pain every time I tried to move. I finally pulled myself up. I walked towards my office holding on to everything I could find.

“Hunny, I think I hurt my back,” I called my wife.
“What do you mean you hurt your back?” my wife replied.
“I was lifting this parcel, and I felt severe pain in my back.”
“What? Are you ok?” she started to panic.
“Not really, I could hardly walk.”
“Ok, don’t move, I’m coming now.”

***

My wife took me to a Physiotherapy.

It was a disc-injury.

The gel in-between my spinal bones was pressed so hard that it was swollen and hurting the nerves around it.

The Physiotherapist said it would take at least a few weeks before I could start working again. And he specifically told me not to do any heavy-lifting. He said if it happened again the damage could be permanent.

I couldn’t believe it. I lost a good employee. Then I lost my back. I lost everything.

“I could help in the warehouse,” my wife suddenly said.
“You?”, I said in disbelief.
“Yeah, I can lift those parcels too.”
“They are too heavy.”
“I’ll figure out a way.”

My wife ended up helping around in the warehouse for the next few weeks. I was recovering slowly while she worked hard. And she did figure out a better way to lift the parcels. She used the forklift. I never knew why we did not think of it before. I felt stupid trying to handle all those parcels by hand.

A forklift, of course!

So basically, she packed the goods and then put them on a pallet. Sometimes she used two pallets when the day was busy. She would then used a forklift to raise the pallets so Peter could just push them onto his truck easily. What a great idea! I have to say, she was a better warehouse worker than the previous guy.

You know what, all her complaints about floor and bins. It meant nothing now. She was the one that held me up when I needed help the most. She was the one that came to the rescue when there was no one else. And she was the one that put up with me and my massive ego.

I never knew how weak I was. I never knew how much I needed someone to support me when I got myself in trouble.

I thought I could do it all.

I couldn’t.

I realised that in this business journey of mine, I don’t have to go it alone. In fact, I cannot go it alone.

I need support.

I needed it then, and I still do now.

***

“While good support is essential, during difficult times, it is non-negotiable.”