"I think there are very few people in the world built to survive the anxiety that goes along with starting a company,” says Rich Aberman, co-founder of WePay, a payment service startup in Palo Alto, Calif.
Aberman’s words are haunting following the November suicide of 22-year-old Ilya Zhitomirskiy, co-founder of Facebook competitor Diaspora. And while reasons for Zhitomirskiy’s death are unknown, the tragedy sheds light on the extreme stress in which most startup founders operate. (For a first-person account of an entrepreneur who escaped suicide, read Cheezburger Network founder Ben Huh’s thoughtful post.)
Aberman knows this stress. While he says he’s “relatively emotionally stable,” the mental rollercoaster of starting a company has tested his strength.
“Normally people will have emotional ups and downs over their lifetime, but what happens in a startup is that the pendulum of emotions is compressed and you end up feeling those highs and lows on a daily basis,” he says.
To an outsider, life at a startup may seem exciting with new products being introduced and fun press coverage being celebrated. But, as Aberman explains, it’s a different world on the inside of the company.
“Inside, you feel like no matter what you do you will not move the needle; days can feel incredibly long and it gets really hard to appreciate the bigger picture,” he notes.
Aberman’s survival skill: establishing a clear separation between work time and personal time. For example: Although he regularly works 14 to 16 hours per day, he is happy to come home to a nice dinner or watch a mindless television show with his girlfriend.
“I wouldn’t say that I have a traditional work/life balance, but I do have a distinct personal life and that has really helped me; I make sure to have lightweight, casual experiences like going to drinks with friends on a Friday night,” says Aberman.
His ability to separate both worlds was only achieved with practice. Two years ago, Aberman struggled with a lack of separation and remembers feeling “more melancholy” and “paralyzed with work.”
For startup founders who identify with that level of stress, Aberman says it’s important to take weekends off. And while he has to work harder during the week to achieve weekend time off, he says it is worth it.
He also says meditation can help curb burnout. “I will have a conversation with myself about why I feel a certain way and then I will let that feeling pass,” he says.
A clinical perspective
Another reason for burnout: isolation.
“Entrepreneurs tend to be more isolated than those persons working in a traditional office—that feeling of isolation can be really difficult to handle, especially if your personal finances are hinging on the success of your venture,” says Deanna Cole, Psy.D., MBA and licensed psychologist in Patuxent River, Md.
Cole offers a few pieces of advice.
1. Set process goals. An outcome goal is a yes or no situation, Cole says. Instead of focusing on the outcome, trying zeroing in on the process and not judging yourself too harshly.
2. Monitor your inner dialogue. “Think about what messages you are sending to yourself; negative self-talk can hinder success and bog you down with worry. Focus on messages that will make you more confident,” she says.
3. Reach out. Everyone needs community support. Cole recommends reaching out to veteran entrepreneurs who can give advice and commiserate on challenges.
She says, “Building a community can have a positive impact on your relationships outside of the professional realm, too. If you are leaning on someone else, you won’t bring work burdens into your home.”
How do you avoid burnout?