Stress - the dilemma of start up founders

February 11, 2022
Stress and work

Amongst the many stressful jobs, being a startup founder is certainly on the list. Even if they’re not facing problems of life and death as may be the case for a heart surgeon, a fireman or a soldier, a startup founder lives a life that is undoubtedly high in stress. Let’s see why that is.

Firstly, not all stress is bad and building a startup is one of the best examples of “good stress”, at least during the process of ‘starting’ this adventure when the enthusiasm of “changing the world” (what most startups hope to do) produces butterflies in the stomach (it’s the same when we are falling in love). The brain is on fire, infused with adrenaline and dopamine together with other stress hormones and neurotransmitters- a cocktail that makes you ‘feel good’ and overcomes the anxiety inherent to any beginning. During this time, although the stress is high it is stimulating and pleasant, and the ‘recovery mode’ when the body slows down is (still) working well.

It’s no secret that a startup journey is a marathon rather than a sprint, with the risk of being kicked out of the game at any time, no matter how well trained we are for the race. Let’s see what a startup founder’s stress is made of:

1/ Uncertainty

One of the biggest fears of human beings is uncertainty, not knowing what’s going to happen next and having no control over it (the fear of death has a lot to do with fearing uncertainty). This is why, back in the early days of our existence, humans invented myths, deities and religions to believe in and receive some answers to uncertainty/existential fear. Overall, human minds prefer order to chaos.

Compared to other businesses and jobs, there is much more ‘uncertainty’ and ‘chaos’ in a startup. Even if a surgeon or fireman will always deal with the stress of ‘unknown’, most of the time they are operating with very clear rules and instructions. Even if they must adapt when needed, their “work protocol” is quite straightforward. Of course, there are basic rules to follow in the startup world too, but they look more like a “freestyle” operating mode than a “protocol”, not because there is a lack of discipline or rigour, but simply because there are too many variables in the equation.

So, uncertainty on a daily basis is one of the main sources of stress for an entrepreneur. And in the long run, this can be costly for their brain and well-being.

2/ Multitasking

Every founder of a startup (and their early employees) experience “multitasking” in the early days of the startup’s existence. Although it is gratifying and stimulating to quickly learn so many new things, if the startup stays (too) ‘lean’ for too long, this multitasking becomes challenging, and can become a drawback. Switching to a very different task every 2 minutes, no matter how small and easy they are, demands a lot of attention and energy from the brain, especially when it’s done repeatedly, over and over again. Ultimately,  it will affect energy, focus and performance. A vicious circle is forming: being tired and less efficient will lead to more work accumulating, which might eat your nights and weekends as you try to catch up and maintain the frenetic startup rhythm.

3/ Time

When we speak about ‘life’ and ‘death’, time/timing is also crucial in a startup journey. Being in a rush all the time, the pressure of needing to be ‘fast’ and ‘survive’ until the next fundraising, it all means a lot of pressure and having the feeling that you’re running out of time, no matter what. Not to mention that time for yourself and your family and friends is often at the bottom of the list of founder’s priorities.

4/ Emotions

With the ‘uncertainty’ aspect, there are not many jobs where work is so ‘emotional’ as it is for a startup founder. Dealing with good and bad news several times in a day, firing a good (but toxic) employee, dealing with clients, investors, or with family and/or relationship problems, all these can create a carousel of emotions that can become a source of stress that is not easy to handle in the long run.

The list goes on, but even with just these 4 aspects we can already see why the risk of burnout and exhaustion is particularly high in startup founders.

This brings us to the dilemma: since there is no such a thing as a startup without a considerable amount of stress, what is the acceptable and non-dangerous amount of stress for a startup founder? Resilience and how we cope with stress differ from person to person and depend on personality, life experience, environment and habits. However, for a startup founder who generally has a strong personality and a brave character, stress can be hidden and then strike out of the blue at some point. Knowing and preventing this breaking point is not only a necessity for your own health - your startup’s destiny depends on it. When we are chronically stressed, we make bad decisions or at least less good ones than if we were in a ‘healthy stress’ mode (eustress).

Without there being a magic recipe, here are a few things that can help:

  • to minimise uncertainty and eventually relativise a potential ‘danger’ that might stress you out, try to apply ‘problem solving’ strategies (i.e. “if this scary thing will happen, can I do something about it”, if yes, what would it be, if no, what will happen, etc. etc. If you do this exercise often enough, you will reinforce your confidence and your humility, reminding yourself that we are just humans, we cannot control or predict everything. 

  • identify the main sources of stress that affect you the most: is it time/money, people, the fear of the unknown? Once you are aware of these, you’ll try to understand your behaviour patterns better, whether alone or asking for some external help.

  • time management: although as a founder it is difficult not to be ‘in a rush’ pretty much all the time, firstly, it is important to slow down from time to time. This is not lost time; on the contrary, you will gain in creativity and productivity. Whether you use the Pomodoro technique or whatever else works for you, take regular breaks in the day and keep your weekends as lean as you can in terms of workload (ideally none, but the reality is that most startup founders also work during the weekends).

  • keep an eye on your emotional wellbeing: besides work, try to do pleasant things for yourself every day, like reading, music, laughing, going for a walk or a sport session, seeing friends, etc. It may sound like common sense, but many founders will tell you that a day can easily go by without doing any of these.

  • stay away from substances of abuse/addictive behaviour and/or toxic relationships: your brain is getting used to so much adrenaline (the ‘speed’ state) and dopamine (the ‘reward’) that after a while it can ask for more and more, and from other sources than the job itself. Be aware of this pattern, enjoy having fun, but stay vigilant regarding excess and the risk for addictive behaviours.

  • check your stress biology: you wouldn’t take any crucial decision for your startup without ‘metrics’, so do the same with your stress and well-being to have the appropriate support; you might not ‘feel’ the bad stress for a while and it’s better to know where you stand to avoid getting too close to a burnout state.

  • ask for help: it could be a close friend, but if the things get nasty (persistent symptoms of depression, insomnia, anxiety, etc.), don’t hesitate to ask for help from a  professional.
To read more:

1. Nir Eyal: Indistractable, 2019

2. Ben Horowitz: The hard things about hard things


4. Stanislas Lot: Burnout, the untold story about being a startup founder

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6. Startup stress is real. Know when to say 'I've done enough'

7. The startup grind: why starting a business is stressful and can even be depressing