Managing your mental health while running a startup

This is the shape of the letter e .xcerpt from From Zero to IPO: Over $1 Trillion in Practical Advice from the World’s Most Successful Entrepreneurs by Frederic Kerst, pp. 164-171 (McGraw-Hill, April 2022). Kerrest co-founded Okta – a corporate identity management company – in 2009 and is currently the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.


I’ve heard a lot of people talk about work-life balance, and I think the sentiment is well-meaning, but it’s ignoring a major opportunity. Managing a company is very difficult. Even in the good times, it can be tough. It’s definitely necessary to make personal time, but you should also think of ways to bring more of your life into your work. I like to think of it as a work-life integration.

Let me give you an example. I love ice hockey and I play late evenings every Tuesday and early mornings most Sundays as part of the Bay Area League. It’s something I’ve been doing the whole time I’ve been building the Okta. Getting on the ice is my way to clear my mind and blow off steam. For a few hours, I leave my stress and responsibilities behind.

But I also try to incorporate hockey into my work day where it makes sense. For example, when I travel for sales meetings, I invite potential clients and potential investors to play a game with me regularly. I’ve gone so far as to plan trips around the NHL calendar. She has a lot to gain. I can spend time with clients in a fun way. It sets the Okta apart from the competition. It often leads to more business.

I also keep my family time carefully. I’m home to dinner with my wife and kids every night (unless I’m out of town). I put my phone on the foyer table when I get home, and it stays there until the kids are asleep. I don’t take business calls on weekends unless it’s an absolute emergency. And I attend every parent-teacher conference (even if I have to do it over the phone when I’m in another city).

It’s easy to take family for granted and allow yourself to get caught up in never ending job demands. Shifting gears requires discipline and focus on your partner and children. But the demands of the business will never stop. And your family’s time is precious and fleeting. My kids will never go back to the ages they are now. I love spending time with them, and I want to be involved in helping them grow. So I invest time in the preliminary work – hiring really great people, setting clear goals, and giving the team the autonomy to execute as they see fit. That way, when I get home, I don’t have to worry that the company will fall apart if I’m away for a few hours.

People in business and technology talk endlessly about fundraising, product-to-market fit, design thinking, the latest technology, management techniques, consumer trends—everything but the need to stay fit. This is madness. Building and running a startup is stressful. All founders need to devise strategies to stay fit – mentally, emotionally and physically. You don’t want your company to fall apart simply because you didn’t make time to exercise or sleep.

Sure, the rigors of startup life can be tough at first. Unfortunately, it’s also tough in the middle, and even after you’ve become public. My company generates over $1 billion in revenue a year, and yet I still wake up in the middle of the night obsessed with work. In this chapter, I share tips on how to take care of yourself. The most important thing is simply to realize that you need to. Here are some practices that have worked for me:

  • Find founding peers who are at the same stage as you, or slightly advanced. Develop relationships with other entrepreneurs who will understand what you’re going through and the issues you need help with. Your friends and family can provide general moral support, but none of them will really get what a fellow founder does.
  • Follow the “oxygen mask” rule. You know the old aviation safety guidelines: “Put your mask over your mouth and nose before helping others.” You cannot help your company if you are not able to perform at your best. Establish a routine to keep you physically, emotionally and mentally fit.
  • Take vacations. You will feel like you can’t. But [just like you might need to pause in order to upgrade a system or process]sometimes you’ll need to upgrade yourself, even if it means stepping away from the company (which won’t slow you down because you’ve built a well-oiled machine that works well without you, right?) so you can recharge your batteries and energize the next station.

Don’t keep up with the neighbors: every business is different.

In the early days of Okta, [co-founder] would you like to [McKinnon] And I kept a spreadsheet where we could track the performance of other startups. The paper included: the year it started, the money raised, the number of employees, the revenue, and the forecast for the next year. At lunches with friends or industrial gatherings, people often mention other company numbers for various of these variables. As soon as I get back to the office, I will dump the new information on our page. We wanted to evaluate Okta’s performance in comparison to other companies.

It was silly to do.

Startup founders tend to be competitive. Of course they want to know how they stack up. But there is no single roadmap to success. Every company is different. Consumer companies are different from corporations. Startups that sell to small businesses will grow differently than those that sell in the Fortune 100. There’s no point in compiling the information we’ve been tracking. This may give you the illusion that you are amassing some kind of useful insight. But you don’t. It’s a waste of time – time that you shouldn’t waste.

In competitive motorsports, they teach drivers to “focus on the road, not the wall.” Look at the wall and you’ll crash. To win, you have to keep an eye where you want the car to go. I share the same principle with the new founders: Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing or how they’re doing. Just focus on your own path, your own race.

Founder Depression: It’s More Common Than You Think.

Founders have been shown to have higher rates of depression than the average person. This does not mean that the founder will definitely get depressed. But when that happens, the founder should know it’s not unusual. According to a study conducted by the University of California, Dr. Michael Freeman of San Francisco, nearly a third of entrepreneurs reported experiencing depression, twice the rate of the comparison group in the study. Other studies have also looked at this question. Their findings differ on whether entrepreneurs have more depression than the general population — but, says Dr. Freeman, none have found that they have less.

There is no single cause for this phenomenon, says Dr. Freeman. While many people, regardless of their profession, may have a genetic predisposition to depression, it never becomes a problem because they never find themselves in the kinds of situations that might alter depression. It’s similar to how some people have a genetic predisposition towards diabetes, but as long as they eat well and maintain a healthy weight, diabetes may never show up. So if you put someone with a prior vulnerability to depression into the stress pot that is the life of a startup, they may turn on. “A lot of people get tired too much,” says Dr. Freeman. They don’t get enough sleep. They eat junk food. They become socially isolated because they spend too much time working. They may have conflicts with their founders. They may get slapped with a lawsuit or get fired by their board. At one point, you cross over The turning point “.

Part of this is simply the predictable outcome of the unique blows you experience in your entrepreneurial life. When you’re trying to disrupt the status quo, there are a lot of forces you don’t want to be disrupted. “So you face opposition, and the frustrations involved can be frustrating. There is also constant rejection, especially in the beginning,” Dr. Freeman explains. “Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of believing that their identity and value as a person is the same as the success of their business,” he adds.

When they promote to venture capitalists and get rejected over and over again, it’s devastating. “If you don’t see investors reject the concept or technology, and you customize it, it can lead to frustration, low self-esteem, and eventually depression.”

I’m not talking about this to alert you. exactly the contrary. This may never affect you, except perhaps in separate seizures in response to certain strikes. If so, you will likely recover without lasting effects. But if this sounds like you, know that you are not alone. Take a look at the successful founders you see at conferences, on television, or in magazine profiles. You can bet that a large portion of them deal with mental health challenges. It’s still not widely discussed in the industry, unfortunately, but it’s par for the course. As such, it is not a hindrance. Just something to manage.

Missing a deadline now and then: A case of (sometimes) letting things slide.

You will always feel like you need to run out of everything. You’ll set deadlines and milestones that you’ll convince yourself to stick to. Because your money has a fuse on it. . . Because nothing happens until someone sells something. . . Because you have to keep the main thing as the main thing, and the main thing is to grow this business – quickly.

But sometimes, it’s okay to slow down. Let’s say the release is due out tomorrow. But it can’t be done without everyone working crazy hours (after weeks of working really crazy hours). Would it really matter if I put it off until next week? If that means you (and your team) get a little break, and can take your head (and body) out of the game for a while to recharge somewhere else, why not? If the release date is arbitrary, and it wouldn’t make much difference to change it, go ahead and push it back.

Building a startup is really a marathon. The trade-off now in favor of everyone’s physical and mental health will pay off in the future. Don’t do this on the big things: the numbers you have to hit for the year, the money you have to raise in the next round, the international office you have to open in three months. But the smaller things? Every now and then, give yourself permission to let things slide.

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