For any entrepreneur who wants to get noticed, addressing mental health and well-being is essential. Here’s why and how.
By Jim James, Host of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur.
Paul Meyers is an entrepreneur and a pioneer in Asia, especially in Business-to-Business (B2B), Technology, and Media. Now, he’s leading the industry on entrepreneur mental well-being and health. In the new episode of The UnNoticed Entrepreneurs, he discussed why mental health is such an issue for founders.
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The Truth About Founding a Business
Paul is a multiple-time founder and has had a couple of exits, trainwrecks, and zombies. He’s been around the startup industry for about 20 years now. He’s also been a coach, mentor, venture capitalist, and investor.
During that time, he’s seen first-hand and anecdotally that being a founder is difficult. It’s not as glorious as it’s always painted to be. And, in fact, it's quite difficult and emotionally trying.
A lot of founders struggle with it because, first, the media portrays it as if they have to be successful — they have to be big. There’s Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and all the big names being successful. But they’re one in a hundred thousand or one in a million. For everybody else, it’s much harder.
Second, founders often work hard for several years, yet things are all uncertain, and all are changing. There are no real internal guideposts.
The third part is nobody talks about mental health because people believe it connotes weakness or failure if someone says they need help.
Normalising Conversations on Mental Health
Paul’s Singapore-based practice is called Asia Founder Coaching.
Based on his talks with founders in Asia, incoming enquiries he gets, and actual coaching numbers, 7 to 8 out of 10 founders are female. Additionally, about 15% of all startups have a one-woman founder, and 2 to 3% of venture money in 2022 went to female-founded companies globally.
The number of female founders he talks to is quite remarkable. Being in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, men still find it very difficult to talk about and recognise weaknesses. For women, it’s a little easier.
To start talking about such a topic, especially in Southeast Asia, is just about normalising the conversation — it’s okay to talk about it.
However, there are a lot of cultural reasons why people still don't talk about it. For example, “failure” is still not very well accepted in the region, including Singapore, despite Singapore’s great effort to make a great startup scene with lots of money and structural support.
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Normalising saying things like “Hey, I feel bad,” “This is scary,” or “I’m depressed” — normalising that process — is step one.
In Paul’s part, he has a monthly mastermind group called Founder Circle. It’s free, and he takes 10 to 12 founders to a closed-door gathering three hours a month on a Saturday, and they just talk about all those things, founder-to-founder. They open up and talk about what’s scary and difficult.
Sometimes there are tears, sometimes there are none, sometimes there’s laughter, but everybody comes away really charged and changed by doing it.
It’s already one step, and it’s something Paul does to help normalise it. Some of those people turn into clients. Some of those people don't turn into clients. But for him, simply making it okay to talk about these things shows that what he’s doing is all right.
A Male Trait
Many men find it hard to ask for help. It’s hard to say that they screwed up.
There’s a joke about how men don’t ask directions with maps — and it’s the same thing in business, especially if someone is giving them $10 or 50 million. They don’t want to show that they have a weakness necessarily because they have all these people relying on them. They have their teams, investors, partners, and, perhaps, a family.
This is a very male trait: They don’t want to show they’re weak. Rather, they want to show that they have it all together. Though it’s changing for some, it’s a traditional male behaviour, at least in the West.
How Stress Affects Entrepreneurs
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Stress manifests itself in a few ways. Based on the founders Paul has observed and spoken to and his own behaviour, founders become less understanding and less empathetic.
Leaders are worried about many valid concerns. Am I going to meet payroll next month? Am I going to hit my numbers? Are my investors going to pull out? Are they going to fire me? I have to fire my co-founder. I hate my co-founder.
There’s a lot of stress in thinking about all these kinds of things. Whatever their response is, they’re going to be stressed out. And it’s going to manifest itself. They become short-tempered with people. They don’t sleep, go to the gym, and sleep well. They drink more and do drugs. And this is only when they start to see it. Their behaviour starts to change, and it goes in that direction.
Though Paul’s not an expert in it, he doesn’t see that kind of response as much among women.
How Talking to Fellow Founders Help
The first thing that Paul recommends to people who are feeling stressed out is to talk to other founders. And this is especially true for first-time founders.
No matter what business school they attend, books they read, or stories they hear won’t prepare them for the shock of how difficult and stressful it can be.
The people who can help them the most may not be their partner at home, their parents, or their investor (though investors are now getting better at it) — it’s the people who have gone through it before.
These are the people who will know and hear them out. They will give a pat on the back and talk it through. Almost all founders who have been through it are happy to talk to first-time ones going through it because they know. They know trying to do something great and change the world is difficult. They will offer to hold their fellow founders’ hands and help them out.
This is the first step. And sometimes, it’s enough for founders to know that other people like them feel the same thing they’re feeling — that they’re not weird and alone.