How to cope with the emotional stress of a startup

Depression or stress among co-founders can kill a startup just as easily as poor market conditions or a bet on the wrong market.

Ben Parr
Ben Parr is co-founder of #DominateFund, an early-stage venture capital fund; a CNET commentator; and the former co-editor of Mashable.
Ben Parr
3 min read

Imagine experiencing the pain, sorrow, and misery of a breakup. Now imagine winning the lottery the next week. That's the kind of emotional roller coaster a new startup founder can expect.

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"The emotional ups and downs were the biggest surprise for me," a founder of a Y Combinator-funded startup says in one of Paul Graham's essays. (Graham is a co-founder of Y Combinator.) "One day, we'd think of ourselves as the next Google and dream of buying islands; the next, we'd be pondering how to let our loved ones know of our utter failure; and on and on."

Startups are hard and the vast majority of them fail; this isn't breaking news. What most people don't realize though is that depression or stress among co-founders can kill a startup just as easily as poor market conditions or a bet on the wrong market. It can even have tragic consequences in some cases.

"The loneliest -- and hardest -- stress comes from the quiet doubts," Massive Health founder Aza Raskin says. "Doubt about yourself personally, doubt about your product, doubt about a co-founder, doubt about your vision. You won't have anyone with whom you'll feel safe sharing those doubts."

Founders are so often busy shipping products and supporting their employees that they don't pay enough attention to their own emotional health. It affects concentration, motivation, and ultimately the company's health. Even worse, the unhappiness of a stressed founder will rub off on the rest of the team.

This is what started happening to me when I decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge. (We're launching later this year.) I wasn't prepared for the emotional roller coaster, even though I was even warned by experienced entrepreneurs about the toll it would have on my psyche.

I've never had to deal with so much uncertainty and doubt in my entire life. I quickly learned that having coping mechanisms for the emotional stress was paramount to both my mental health as well as the health of the company.

Everybody's coping mechanism is different -- some people find peace from meditation, while others relax in the company of friends. The important thing for founders to remember is to be cognizant of their emotional stress levels and to take time for themselves.

"Hire people as if you are hiring a family," Raskin suggests. "And find two other founders (with whom you don't compete) to form a doubt club. A place where you can openly talk about the downs as well as the ups. If you don't feel uncomfortable about the level of trust you put in them, you aren't being honest enough."

Failure is necessary to reach success -- this is the painful but most important lesson I've learned since I started a company. That's why this Steve Jobs quote -- from his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005 -- always hangs over my desk:

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."