Karan Singh remembers the lack of sleep, losing touch with family and friends, and knocking his health down the list of personal priorities as he hustled in the early 2010s to launch his mental health startup. The old adage of misery loves company is no truer than in the entrepreneurial startup culture, where company founders live, eat, and breath their ideas, often to the detriment of their physical and mental health.
A 2015 study found that 49% of entrepreneurs surveyed had one or more lifetime mental health conditions, about one-third of which was depression.
“What it came down to was I struggled to balance,” said Singh, MBA ’11, co-founder and developer of Ginger, an on-demand mental health company that provides virtual support to its clients’ employees 24/7, 365 days a year. Services include behavioral health coaching, therapy, psychiatry, and self-guided clinical assessments.
“I think that speaks to some entrepreneurs may have underlying mental health issues,” he said. “And even if they don't, they're in this pressure cooker, they're in this incredibly intense environment and sustained period of stress, which can lead to burnout and can lead to periods of ineffectiveness.”
Singh understands that pressure cooker environment. As a startup founder, he embraced the all-encompassing attention and work-to-the-bone effort that’s been a sort of badge of honor in the collective experience of entrepreneurship.
Here are a few techniques for entrepreneurs that Singh learned from finding his balance while he launched a company:
Find an objective third party
It’s important to have someone who you can share your thoughts and concerns with, Singh said, because being an entrepreneur is often difficult and lonely.
A 2015 study found that 49% of entrepreneurs surveyed had one or more lifetime mental health conditions.
“So much of it is managing your psyche and your mindset, because even when things look great from the outside, on the inside — if that entrepreneur were to be real — I’m sure they’d say there’s a massive fire or there are lots of fires,” he said. Having someone you can talk to that will listen is very powerful, he said. For him, that ear was a group of founders who still meet every month.
Appreciate the smaller milestones
Most startups are not overnight sensations, and it’s not just about the final exit or next round of fundraising.
“It's about really enjoying these conversations and the opportunities you have and being much more honest and real with yourself and with the people around you,” Singh said.
And understand that your venture and your identity are two different things — your company doesn’t define who you are.
“You can still build an incredibly successful company, but it doesn’t have to be your epithet, how you introduce yourself, how you represent yourself,” Singh said.
Understand that you’re going to fail at something and that it will be hard to accept.
“This is such a foundational piece of entrepreneurship,” Singh said. “When you're struggling and have stress or anxiety or depression, you're less likely to be able to [bounce back] and you're more likely to stay in a less effective state,” he said.
Whether knowing it’s time to throw in the towel or choosing to pull the company up to another level, it’s about being present during the most important moments of your startup or entrepreneurial career. And approach any bounce backs with a growth mindset.
Ego is another challenging part of an entrepreneur’s mindset, Singh said. There are leadership changes and team changes, and those can take their toll on an entrepreneur.
“Ultimately for me it was an understanding that to really do this right and build the scale of the company we wanted, we needed to be able to have incredible talent around the table, that meant I needed to be able to learn a whole lot of new skills,” he said.
Approach mental health management as a work in progress
Even the most protective armor can be worn down against the entrepreneurial grind. Remember that these skills are learned and they must be maintained and adapted.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If the mental health startup boom is any indication, it’s that investors are taking the mental health industry more seriously. Having the tools to sustain your mental health — such as checking your ego and having someone to talk to — allows you to see more clearly, Singh said. You’ll make better decisions, you can prioritize the right things, and see a few steps ahead rather than just in the moment.
“You can start to be much more proactive than reactive,” Singh said. “All we know is what comes through [our mind]. If this filter isn't clear, isn't sound, I can't trust everything else that comes out of that.”