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4 Lessons on Mental Wellness for Founders

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we hosted a conversation around the mental wellness challenges and solutions that founders specifically face.

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By
Christine Choi
Christine Choi
By M13 Team
Link copied.
June 6, 2024
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4 min

Being a founder is an incredibly stressful role, and at M13 we recognize the need to focus on mental wellness for all of our founders. “It is undeniably true that a healthier founder leads to a healthier company,” says Matt Hoffman, M13 Partner & Head of Talent. 

A key feature of M13 is that we are made up of former founders and operators who have been there before. “Investors should acknowledge and support the mental health challenges faced by founders,” says Matt. “As investors and board members, we need to own our part in creating stressful conditions for founders—and take responsibility for providing safe mechanisms to discuss and treat mental health issues."

Community is vital to mental wellness—which is why we held an event to connect our founders not only with our experts, but each other.

During mental wellness month, we hosted a conversation about mental wellness featuring Matt, Bonobos founder and venture investor Andy Dunn, Bouqs co-founder and M13 Partner John Tabis, and executive coach Golbie Kamarei. Here are some of the highlights.

1. Remember: You are not your company

“What do founders call their companies? Their baby,” Andy points out. “It serves companies well because we do everything to make it work. But the founder suffers.”

JT agrees: “The self-fulfilling prophecy of your belief can be your downfall: If something doesn’t work out, it’s all on you.” Belief in one’s unique capabilities can lead to severe personal repercussions when those expectations are not met. JT suggests that founders treat their role not as their identity, but as a job for which they were hired—which can provide a healthier perspective and reduce stress. 

Golbie’s clients regularly work to disentangle their identities from their work roles. One way they do this is by acknowledging the roles we each play at work and catching when we’re using language that equates one’s “beingness” with the role they play in an organizational system. 

For example, just adding the phrase “in my role” when describing a job can help create separation between the human and their job. Golbie highlights that we each play a collection of roles, and by disentangling ourselves from them, we can better manage stress.

“People conflate who they are with what they do, especially in this country, where we don’t have social safety nets.” says Golbie. “You are working for your healthcare, basic security, and livelihood, so we treat companies and our jobs like life and death.” Viewing life as a collection of roles rather than being wholly defined by one's work can help manage stress and maintain mental health.

2. Find the right language 

“You can’t address and harness and control that which we don’t discuss,” says Andy, who has written extensively about his mental health journey as a founder. He emphasizes the importance of accepting mental health diagnoses and using language that doesn't equate individuals with their conditions. 

"Use language that separates the person from the condition. Imagine if my doctor said, ‘You have cancer,’ and, ‘Oh also, you are cancer.’ Now notice and hear the difference between saying ‘Andy has bipolar disorder' and 'Andy is bipolar.'” 

JT has undergone his own journey of recognizing and accepting mental health challenges, which manifested as anger and frustration during times of stress, rather than what he viewed as a more “typical” feeling of sadness. He says, “I had no idea that mental health disorders could take such different forms until I spent time with a mental health expert and got the help I needed.” 

Clockwise: Andy, Golbie, Matt, and JT at our virtual Founder Forum in May

3. A culture of “high performance” can be a self-imposed trap

It’s common for high achievers to sacrifice their well-being for success—and startup culture can glorify the sacrifices founders make for their goals, normalizing suffering in pursuit of success. It’s no secret that this attitude can be a detriment to overall well-being.

“It’s quite common with founders I work with to not realize the trade-offs they’re making while in pursuit of a goal,” says Golbie. “High performers are used to working under duress. Making sacrifices and pushing through physical and mental boundaries is common.” 

What helps us be happy and well varies by person—and for founders, it can also vary by company stage. JT saw the impact of changing dynamics of leadership as the Bouqs team grew beyond his preferred leadership sweet spot of managing a small, collaborative team. “I was happy with 20 people and miserable with 110,” he says. “I ran into personal fears and imposter syndrome as the company got bigger.” Today, he highlights the need for self-awareness to understand where mental health challengers are coming from—and what help is needed to navigate transitions. 

“Survivor bias is real. We often only tell the success stories of founders who have defied the odds,” says Matt. Obscuring common struggles and failures can exacerbate our own high—and unhelpful—expectations. Andy additionally notes, “We should not lionize entrepreneurs as much as we do.” 

4. Build a portfolio of mental health support

“The founder experience is extremely stressful and unique,” says Golbie. “Some founders have found the experience traumatizing. If you’re struggling with aspects of your role, you’re not alone.” 

Goldbie encourages building a portfolio of support which may include coaching, therapy, or both. She differentiates between coaching and therapy: Coaching is often more future-oriented and goal-focused, while therapy is often more past-oriented and focused on deep, foundational healing related to core beliefs, habitual patterns, and trauma.

“Invest in your self-awareness and self-management, and seek professional help early, ideally before a crisis occurs,” she adds. “It may be hard to know if coaching or therapy is right for you. Both coaches and therapists offer complimentary consultation sessions. Meet with several to see if any individual’s offerings and style meets your needs. Trust your intuition."

Listening and talking with other founders willing to speak candidly about their mental health journeys can also be a good start to building strong support systems. Andy notes the importance of real listening and empathy: “Listening makes a world of difference for someone to unburden themselves. Don’t shift the spotlight. They may be making a small bid that took an ocean of pain to bring this to your attention—so don’t make it about you.” 

JT’s advice? "Give yourself some distance from day-to-day stresses and prioritize self-compassion. Recognize that maintaining your mental and physical health is crucial for long-term success.”

"As investors, we at M13 acknowledge the mental health challenges founders face and seek to support their well-being,” says Matt. “We need investors to encourage founders to seek professional support when they need it."

Recommended reading

Want to hear more from our experts? Learn more at the links below. 

Watch

Read

M13 connects our founders with career coaches. If you’d like to get in touch with Matt about coaching offerings at M13, please email him at matt@m13.co

Being a founder is an incredibly stressful role, and at M13 we recognize the need to focus on mental wellness for all of our founders. “It is undeniably true that a healthier founder leads to a healthier company,” says Matt Hoffman, M13 Partner & Head of Talent. 

A key feature of M13 is that we are made up of former founders and operators who have been there before. “Investors should acknowledge and support the mental health challenges faced by founders,” says Matt. “As investors and board members, we need to own our part in creating stressful conditions for founders—and take responsibility for providing safe mechanisms to discuss and treat mental health issues."

Community is vital to mental wellness—which is why we held an event to connect our founders not only with our experts, but each other.

During mental wellness month, we hosted a conversation about mental wellness featuring Matt, Bonobos founder and venture investor Andy Dunn, Bouqs co-founder and M13 Partner John Tabis, and executive coach Golbie Kamarei. Here are some of the highlights.

1. Remember: You are not your company

“What do founders call their companies? Their baby,” Andy points out. “It serves companies well because we do everything to make it work. But the founder suffers.”

JT agrees: “The self-fulfilling prophecy of your belief can be your downfall: If something doesn’t work out, it’s all on you.” Belief in one’s unique capabilities can lead to severe personal repercussions when those expectations are not met. JT suggests that founders treat their role not as their identity, but as a job for which they were hired—which can provide a healthier perspective and reduce stress. 

Golbie’s clients regularly work to disentangle their identities from their work roles. One way they do this is by acknowledging the roles we each play at work and catching when we’re using language that equates one’s “beingness” with the role they play in an organizational system. 

For example, just adding the phrase “in my role” when describing a job can help create separation between the human and their job. Golbie highlights that we each play a collection of roles, and by disentangling ourselves from them, we can better manage stress.

“People conflate who they are with what they do, especially in this country, where we don’t have social safety nets.” says Golbie. “You are working for your healthcare, basic security, and livelihood, so we treat companies and our jobs like life and death.” Viewing life as a collection of roles rather than being wholly defined by one's work can help manage stress and maintain mental health.

2. Find the right language 

“You can’t address and harness and control that which we don’t discuss,” says Andy, who has written extensively about his mental health journey as a founder. He emphasizes the importance of accepting mental health diagnoses and using language that doesn't equate individuals with their conditions. 

"Use language that separates the person from the condition. Imagine if my doctor said, ‘You have cancer,’ and, ‘Oh also, you are cancer.’ Now notice and hear the difference between saying ‘Andy has bipolar disorder' and 'Andy is bipolar.'” 

JT has undergone his own journey of recognizing and accepting mental health challenges, which manifested as anger and frustration during times of stress, rather than what he viewed as a more “typical” feeling of sadness. He says, “I had no idea that mental health disorders could take such different forms until I spent time with a mental health expert and got the help I needed.” 

Clockwise: Andy, Golbie, Matt, and JT at our virtual Founder Forum in May

3. A culture of “high performance” can be a self-imposed trap

It’s common for high achievers to sacrifice their well-being for success—and startup culture can glorify the sacrifices founders make for their goals, normalizing suffering in pursuit of success. It’s no secret that this attitude can be a detriment to overall well-being.

“It’s quite common with founders I work with to not realize the trade-offs they’re making while in pursuit of a goal,” says Golbie. “High performers are used to working under duress. Making sacrifices and pushing through physical and mental boundaries is common.” 

What helps us be happy and well varies by person—and for founders, it can also vary by company stage. JT saw the impact of changing dynamics of leadership as the Bouqs team grew beyond his preferred leadership sweet spot of managing a small, collaborative team. “I was happy with 20 people and miserable with 110,” he says. “I ran into personal fears and imposter syndrome as the company got bigger.” Today, he highlights the need for self-awareness to understand where mental health challengers are coming from—and what help is needed to navigate transitions. 

“Survivor bias is real. We often only tell the success stories of founders who have defied the odds,” says Matt. Obscuring common struggles and failures can exacerbate our own high—and unhelpful—expectations. Andy additionally notes, “We should not lionize entrepreneurs as much as we do.” 

4. Build a portfolio of mental health support

“The founder experience is extremely stressful and unique,” says Golbie. “Some founders have found the experience traumatizing. If you’re struggling with aspects of your role, you’re not alone.” 

Goldbie encourages building a portfolio of support which may include coaching, therapy, or both. She differentiates between coaching and therapy: Coaching is often more future-oriented and goal-focused, while therapy is often more past-oriented and focused on deep, foundational healing related to core beliefs, habitual patterns, and trauma.

“Invest in your self-awareness and self-management, and seek professional help early, ideally before a crisis occurs,” she adds. “It may be hard to know if coaching or therapy is right for you. Both coaches and therapists offer complimentary consultation sessions. Meet with several to see if any individual’s offerings and style meets your needs. Trust your intuition."

Listening and talking with other founders willing to speak candidly about their mental health journeys can also be a good start to building strong support systems. Andy notes the importance of real listening and empathy: “Listening makes a world of difference for someone to unburden themselves. Don’t shift the spotlight. They may be making a small bid that took an ocean of pain to bring this to your attention—so don’t make it about you.” 

JT’s advice? "Give yourself some distance from day-to-day stresses and prioritize self-compassion. Recognize that maintaining your mental and physical health is crucial for long-term success.”

"As investors, we at M13 acknowledge the mental health challenges founders face and seek to support their well-being,” says Matt. “We need investors to encourage founders to seek professional support when they need it."

Recommended reading

Want to hear more from our experts? Learn more at the links below. 

Watch

Read

M13 connects our founders with career coaches. If you’d like to get in touch with Matt about coaching offerings at M13, please email him at matt@m13.co

The views expressed here are those of the individual M13 personnel quoted and are not the views of M13 Holdings Company, LLC (“M13”) or its affiliates. This content is for general informational purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal, business, investment, tax or other advice. You should consult your own advisers as to those matters and should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. This content is not directed to any investors or potential investors, is not an offer or solicitation and may not be used or relied upon in connection with any offer or solicitation with respect to any current or future M13 investment partnership. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Unless otherwise noted, this content is intended to be current only as of the date indicated. Any projections, estimates, forecasts, targets, prospects, and/or opinions expressed in these materials are subject to change without notice and may differ or be contrary to opinions expressed by others. Any investments or portfolio companies mentioned, referred to, or described are not representative of all investments in funds managed by M13, and there can be no assurance that the investments will be profitable or that other investments made in the future will have similar characteristics or results. A list of investments made by funds managed by M13 is available at m13.co/portfolio.