When Etsy paid $1.6 billion to buy Depop in 2021, it represented more than just a big payday for the London-based fashion app’s founder, Simon Beckerman.
It also marked the culmination of a decade of stress, sleep deprivation and, at times, physical pain, he recalled. As the nine-month sales process reached its conclusion, “I experienced a week where, randomly throughout the day, every two hours, I would start crying,” Beckerman says.
“I think it was a relief: we got through that black hole and came out the other side.”
This “black hole” led him to step away from the company for a year in 2015, after intensifying stomach pains became too distressing for him to work.
“It was so painful that one day I woke up and said, ‘If I go to the office one more day, I’m going to die,'” Beckerman adds. He was later diagnosed with chronic gastritis which he attributed to the stress of running a business. to start up.
Most successful tech entrepreneurs recognize the long hours spent away from their families. Some might brag about how little sleep they got during difficult times. Few would speak as candidly as Beckerman about work-related tensions, even if the global startup funding crisis has increased their stress levels.
But in recent years, some have begun to speak openly about their situation. Mental Health. Former Monzo chief Tom Blomfield admitted to stress, anxiety and lack of sleep when he left the neobank in 2021, tackling the “myth of the founding superhero”.
Some tech investors are now realizing that putting too much pressure on entrepreneurs can be bad for business, as well as for the founders themselves. Many leaders admit that sleeping poorly and eating poorly, as well as neglecting exercise, can lead to poor decision-making.
Balderton, the London-based venture capital firm and one of Depop’s early backers, is about to try a more interventionist approach. It is one of the first venture capital firms in the world to launch a wellness program for the founders in which it has invested.
“If you don’t take into account the fact that you’re burning the candle more intensely than you should and never do anything to recover, at some point you’re walking back from the edge,” says Suranga Chandratillake, a partner at the firm.
The current technological slowdown has only amplified the need for such a system. “There is no doubt that people are under additional pressure at the moment,” he adds.
Chandratillake admits that the company hopes that looking after the well-being of its founders will help it win more deals and improve its portfolio’s chances of success.
“We’re pretty selfish in the long run,” he says. “We think it’s in their interest, but it’s also in our interest: it’s how we make money.”
Balderton’s program aims to treat founders like top athletes. The company is working with WellFounded, which originally developed its program with tech investor Mosaic Ventures, to provide CEOs with personalized six-month courses covering nutrition, fitness, sleep and mental health. Balderton has also hired an executive coach and organizes events to encourage CEOs to share their experiences. Most of it is funded by Balderton, although founders are encouraged to contribute to the WellFounded program.
“Founders, like elite athletes, are expected to handle stress and anxiety under pressure. . . while mitigating the risk of burnout, exhaustion and failure,” says Simon Marshall, a former professor of performance psychology and resilience at the University of California, San Diego who advised Balderton on the program. “Professional athletes achieve this by training their brains. . . to manage stress more effectively. . . and prioritize self-care.”
Chandratillake, who joined Balderton in 2014 after a “grueling” decade running Blinkx, a Cambridge-based video search engine, admits that some pressure and pain is inevitable for founders.
“Venture-funded businesses are about inhumane, crazy acceleration over a short period of time that allows you to grow at scale,” he says. “It will never be easy, it will never be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. But it’s about lasting 10 or 20 years, without burning out in five.”
Beckerman admits that in the end, he was well rewarded for his “terrible” time at Depop. But his experience of founder burnout is at odds with the macho caricature of a tech entrepreneur, exemplified by figures such as Elon Musk, who brags about sleeping on Tesla factory floors as he juggles his functions in several multi-billion dollar companies.
Musk’s often erratic behavior is a “good indicator of how stress affects you: it impairs your decision-making,” says Ute Stephan, professor of entrepreneurship at King’s Business School at King’s College London. “There is plenty of evidence that you can become a better entrepreneur – be more productive, more creative, and ultimately your business will perform better – if you look after your well-being. »
Stephan’s research suggests that although it is difficult for entrepreneurs to avoid stress, it does not have to lead to health problems or affect their performance. Sleeping more than seven hours and having a balanced diet are essential. The hardest part is identifying when you start to burn out.
“The uniqueness of entrepreneurship is that there are individuals who are success-oriented and have no boundaries,” says Stephan.
Less pride in accomplishments, a feeling of doing nothing or lacking energy are early signs of burnout, she warns. “Once you realize you are exploiting yourself, you can do something about it. . . Taking care of yourself has no cost to the business, it strengthens the business and makes it more successful.
But the biases surrounding mental health discussions persist, especially in the tech sector. Janos Barberis and Annabelle Cameron are trying to change that with their company, FoundersTaboowhich organizes events and online courses focused on the well-being of technology entrepreneurs.
Barberis, who has worked at startups, cites two problems: a “don’t fix what works” mentality during the decade-long tech bull market, which ended last year, and, more broadly , the “start-up routine”. psychology that made burnout a “badge of honor” among founders.
The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and the broader retreat from tech funding over the past 12 months was a “shock to the system,” Barberis believes. “All those founders who are no longer able to raise easy funds are starting to realize the importance of thinking clearly, which is impossible if mental health is not good,” he says.
Cameron, whose background is in psychology, admits that academic research on entrepreneurial well-being and its link to productivity and performance is lacking – a factor that has made it more difficult to try to convince many tech investors to reinvest their fresh in the sanity of their founders. . “On a human and personal level it makes sense,” Cameron says, “but if we want to make it happen on a larger scale, we need hard data to back it up.”
FoundersTaboo is working with Stephan at King’s to gather more data on causation.
Barberis puts it in terms that start-ups would understand. “I don’t think we’re at the tipping point yet,” he says of founders recognizing the need to invest in their own mental health. “We only have early adopters.”
Beckerman has already launched his next startup, Delli — an online marketplace for independent food producers: a sort of Etsy for food, full of artisanal pickles and chutneys, hot pepper sauces, and vegan nduja pizza toppings . But this time, he’s taking a different approach.
At Depop, “I never went to the gym and drank a lot of wine” after work with co-workers, he admits. “That was my therapy: a glass of wine in the evening.”
With Delli, he brought on a co-founder he worked with at Depop, Marie Petrovicka, to alleviate the loneliness he felt as a sole founder. He reduced his wine consumption and, at the suggestion of returning investor Balderton, hired a personal trainer, a performance coach and a health coach.
He says he still sometimes suffers from anxiety that makes his stomach crack. But thanks to his coaching and fitness programs, he is handling the situation better. “I pedal (on an exercise bike) really fast every morning to let go,” he says, “and sometimes I even cry when I do.”