Startup Founders: Do You Have a Mental Burnout?

Photo by ahmad gunnaivi on Unsplash

Getting a mental burnout as a startup founder is probably one of the worst things that could happen to you. You are the head of your company and you need to be in good shape to lead your team.

So, what should you do when you face a mental burnout?

I’ll try to give some advice and share my own experience with you. Also, I’ll show some techniques that helped me get over it.

The 3 Stages of Mental Burnout as a Startup Founder

You can identify three stages in which the mental burnout might occur: before, during and after an important event (e.g., launch of your product). Let’s look at each one of them separately.

Stage 1: Before an Important Event: The Anxiety Stage (when you start doubting yourself)

The first stage is usually the most critical. It starts with a few doubts in your head about whether you can really pull it off, whether your decisions were right or wrong, and whether you are capable of making the necessary changes to achieve your goals.

You start doubting yourself, which leads to anxiety. You’re not sure how everything will turn out, and you might be afraid that you will fail.

You might be thinking: “Am I making the right decision? Is this even possible? Is there something I missed? What if this doesn’t work out?” These thoughts are overwhelming at first — but they will pass once you get through them.

What to do:

During this stage, it’s important to understand that these thoughts won’t last forever and they need to be taken as a sign that things are not going well at the moment.

You might feel like you have failed in some way or that there is something wrong with you personally.

But there is no need for self-doubt — simply acknowledge the fact that these feelings exist and try to let go of them as fast as possible.

Take short breaks when needed, or call a friend who can help you clear your mind and offer some advice on how to keep going.

If someone else is having doubts at this point, then it could become contagious for the rest of the team too, so make sure to manage them accordingly.

It might also be helpful if someone from outside of your team gives you some feedback on what could be done better (for example, by asking for advice from an experienced mentor).

Just make sure that their input is constructive and doesn’t make things worse (which could happen if they say something like “we all know that startups are stupid ideas anyway!”).

That won’t help! Instead, ask them how they would do things differently or what they would do instead of what you are currently doing (if possible).

Stage 2: The Self-Doubting Stage (when all kinds of negative thoughts take over)

During an important event (e.g., launch of your product), it can often happen that doubts about your decisions arise again — this time much stronger than before, because we find ourselves in a situation where we have less time and fewer resources than usual. This creates more stress and makes us think even more negatively.

As a consequence, we find ourselves in a self-doubting state with all kinds of negative thoughts racing through our minds: “I’m not good enough”, “I can’t do this”, “Everyone is gonna hate what I have built”, and so on.

What to do:

During this stage it can become worse if you are not aware of the situation you are in.

So ask yourself: What is the reason for your negativity? Is there something happening which you weren’t expecting? Is there a problem that is dragging on for too long? Or are there some tasks that don’t go as smoothly as you expected? If yes, then try to make a list of everything that might cause these feelings and try to solve them one by one.

For example, maybe you have been working on something and it just doesn’t feel right at the moment — don’t be afraid to change it! Nothing is set in stone — all features and products can be changed or removed depending on how they perform against your goals. And if you haven’t achieved your goals yet, then it might be time to change them!

Make sure to re-evaluate your goals regularly (e.g., every quarter) and make sure they match with what you have learned since then. I also find that talking about these issues with someone else is helpful — just like before, make sure that their input is constructive rather than negative!

Don’t talk about why things aren’t going well (because it will always end up making things worse) — instead ask them what they would do in this situation if they were in your shoes (if possible).

This will give you an outside perspective on the problem without putting yourself down even more!

Stage 3: The Depression Stage (when things become too quiet)

After an important event (e.g., launch of your product), we often experience depression because there isn’t much going on anymore and we feel like we are losing momentum and falling behind our competitors who are constantly moving forward at a rapid pace.

This makes us feel worthless and unmotivated because we don’t know what to do next or where to go from here — which leads us into becoming depressed.

What to do: During this stage ask yourself whether there was anything after that important event. Did you plan ahead? Did you have some kind of follow-up action in mind? If not, then now is the time to do it.

In case you didn’t plan anything, then make sure that there is something coming up which will bring some fresh energy and motivation into your team (e.g., a new feature, a new sales campaign, or a new release). And if you did plan something, but it turns out differently than expected — don’t be afraid to change your plans. They don’t have to be set in stone — use them as guidelines and adapt them to the real needs of your company.

If something doesn’t work out the way you expected it, then don’t hesitate to try something else instead or change things that are not working out anymore (e.g., because they are not aligned with your goals).

So, what can you learn from this?

As a startup founder, you are the head of your team and you need to be in good shape to lead them. You are the one who sets the tone in your company and if things are going wrong in your head, then it could spread to other people too.

But it’s not only about your mental health — it’s also about the health of your whole team! You don’t want them to feel down because of something that is happening with you, right? As a startup founder, you are responsible for that! So make sure to take care of yourself as well as your team members.

How did I manage my mental burnout?

I got through my mental burnout by taking some time off and removing myself from all projects that were in motion at the time (e.g., product development).

I spent some time with friends and family, which made me feel better after a few days already. It really helped me get over my mental burnout. And now I am more careful with how I deal with stress: I don’t take on more projects than I can handle, so that I won’t get overwhelmed again. And if something is overwhelming me or stressing me out too much, then I take a break until things become less chaotic (e.g., by taking half a day off per week).

What did I learn from my experience?

First of all, I learned that you have to take care of yourself and your mental health. If something is stressing you out too much, it could lead to a burnout! So make sure to find a healthy balance between work and personal life!

Secondly, I learned that it is super important to have a team around you who can help you with stress management.

I hope this story gave you some new insights on how startup founders deal with stress and burnouts. And I hope that it will help other startup founders who might be struggling with stress too.

It’s definitely not easy to handle all the stress without getting overwhelmed — but if we manage our stress properly, then we can do great things together!

About the Author

I am the Founder of Cudy Technologies (www.cudy.co), a full-stack EdTech startup helping teachers and students teach and learn better. I am also a mentor and angel investor in other Startups of my other interests (Proptech, Fintech, HRtech, Ride-hailing, C2C marketplaces and SaaS). You can also find me on Cudy for early-stage Startup Founder mentorship and advice.

You can connect with me on Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexanderlhk) and let me know that you are a reader of my Medium posts in your invitation message.

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Alexander Lim

Alexander Lim

Founder of Cudy Technologies (www.cudy.co), a full-stack EdTech startup helping teachers and students teach and learn better. I am also a mentor and investor.