When I first began in this role six months ago, I spent most of my time asking founders about their lives, businesses, struggles, and everything in between. The goal was to figure out where they most needed help and match it with where we could most add value as a venture firm. I wrote about my findings and the beginnings of my game plan in my last post, but I’d like to dive deeper into one particularly crucial area: Founder Wellness and Development.
In every conversation that I had with founders, there was one very obvious pattern: they sacrifice themselves for the future of the company they are building, and for the team they are building it with. Unfortunately, this often causes their personal health and sanity to fall to the bottom of the priorities list. Founders I met with were dealing with high levels of stress from every angle – investors, customers, employees, families, and from within. They were understandably exhausted after getting only two hours of sleep, and felt alone at the top in their toughest decision-making times.
Up against unrealistic expectations set by investors and the broader tech community, founders don’t have many alternatives to putting themselves last. They also never complain about the burdens they bear, cognizant of the stigma of showing any signs of weakness, physical or mental. There is a blurry line for all high-achievers that never gets discussed but almost always gets crossed: the line between giving it one’s all and going beyond the realm of what is physically possible or sustainable. Boundaries to protect a founder’s health and sanity never get created, and it sets up a dangerous cycle that usually ends in burnout.
The workaholism culture is rampant in the startup world just like in many other industries and the effects, physical and financial, are staggering. Concentrating on just the sleep component, “a third of U.S. workers get less than 6 hours of sleep each night, and sleep deprivation costs U.S. businesses more than $63 billion annually in lost productivity,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Backing out to the larger effects of poor health practices, “a 2009 study by Dr. Ronald Loeppke and colleagues of absenteeism and presenteeism among 50,000 workers at 10 employers showed that lost productivity costs are 2.3 times higher than medical and pharmacy costs.”
This epidemic is not unique to founders, and I have personally traveled through the burnout cycle more times than I care to count. For years, I pushed myself beyond what I was physically capable of and every time it ended badly. The consequences were significant and predictable: I was too physically incapacitated to fulfill my responsibilities and I let down people that were counting on me. At each breaking point, I promised myself I wouldn’t let it happen again but inevitably I broke that promise.
In all of this, I told myself to push through while hoping that someday my workload would lighten, I was angry at myself for not being physically stronger, and I assumed that I was the only person on the planet that couldn’t manage it all. No one wants to feel like they don’t have their shit together, or even worse, appear that they don’t. This is a topic most of us wrestle with but few of us truly figure out: it’s okay to be honest with ourselves and others that each of us is a work-in-progress. By acknowledging this truth, we take the first step to living healthier, more sustainable lives because self-care and self-development begin with self-acceptance. This was finally the turning point for my health and my success when I prioritized myself and set some simple boundaries such as being vigilant about my sleep hygiene and saying “no” unless it was a sincere priority.
Everything I’ve learned about self-care and success is too important not to share. This disconnect is a real problem that seems to go unacknowledged by most, and my team and I can do something to change that: I am making Founder Wellness and Development a focal point of our platform. The goals are:
- To make it clear that we encourage, and even expect, founders to take self-care seriously,
- To ensure that every founder knows the tools, resources, and support at their disposal to embrace wellness and development, and
- To work with founders to implement realistic hacks that have outsized returns in wellbeing and productivity.
Based on survey results from the founders we have invested in, I’m currently building offerings that focus on wellness areas such as: stress, sleep, energy, exercise, and mental health. Development areas that we will also tackle include: self-acceptance, communication skills for leaders, prioritization and goal-setting, growing and managing a team, and more. For us, these offerings are natural extensions of the ethos and behavior inherent in each of the Corigin Ventures team members. We invest in and sincerely care about founders as whole people, and I constantly see my teammates going above and beyond to be supportive to founders as friends. We also know that Seed stage is the formative period within a company’s life cycle and it’s critical to set smart habits early on that become part of the operational foundation and culture as a company scales.
The bonus of this self-care perspective is that we believe it leads to better culture, better leadership, and better companies. Founders that prioritize their health and self-development will be at the top of their game for creative thinking, prioritizing and executing on what really matters, and effectively leading their teams. They will have fewer missed deadlines and better lines of communication with their employees. They will also be setting strong, sustainable examples for the rest of their companies and the larger tech industry.
In the tech world, there will always be another feature to build, more time to be spent, a new problem to solve. It’s up to each of us to acknowledge our personal points of diminishing returns and step away to recharge when necessary. We show up as our best selves and accomplish significantly more when we are mentally, physically, and emotionally nourished. It’s time to change the conversation around unsustainable work habits and startup culture to get to a place of true wellness and success. This may possibly be the most important thing I do in this role.
 “Sleep Deprivation Is Killing You and Your Career – Forbes.” 1 Dec. 2014, https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/12/01/skipping-sleep-is-career-suicide/2. Accessed 21 Nov. 2017.
“What’s the Hard Return on Employee Wellness Programs?.” https://hbr.org/2010/12/whats-the-hard-return-on-employee-wellness-programs. Accessed 21 Nov. 2017.