How to Grow Your Start-Up without Burning Out
Growth can be a curse in disguise as a Founder, and the business you once had a passion for can leave you feeling depleted, and wondering whether it was all worth it?
Was the growth worth your mental and physical health? Was it worth losing friendships and relationships? – In my eyes, nothing should come at the sacrifice of your sanity or your health; those are priceless factors that can have a lasting impact on your quality of life.
Compared to the general population, Founders are twice as likely to suffer from serious mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. While it seems like the life of a Founder can be an exciting one fuelled with purpose, it also appears to come at a severe cost.
I remember having a very vivid conversation with an entrepreneur and Founder who said to me, “everyone has to be careful with their business because they never know how big the monster can get. And when you build a monster, you have to keep feeding it.”
The facts in the cold light of day paint an ugly picture.
Founders and CEOs are traditionally the one’s spearheading the vision of the company, seeking investment, at the helm of hiring and firing, and ultimately responsible for profits and people. There is a lot of pressure on one person’s shoulders. So are we really surprised that in growing cases, it’s all too much?
As a profile, Founders tend to be incredibly resilient and thrive in challenging environments, but there is a limit to how much any person can take on, and eventually, it can reach the point where they not only put themselves at risk but also their own business.
Do We Have an Unhealthy Obsession with Growth?
It seems you can’t start a business without there being pressure to grow it.
Admittedly, most Founders I work with envisage building a business empire that they can sell so they can retire at 35 and live on a beach; they want to know the exit strategy.
Very few Founders just want to build a business they can continue enjoying.
But I often wonder if our obsession with growth is merely golden handcuffs.
Getting to the point of exit can come at the risk of your health. And that’s if you even make it there in the first place.
For some reason, we have created the belief that you can only be successful if you have a large company, turn over huge profits, and are scaling globally. There’s a lot of boxes to tick, a lot of goals to reach, and a lot of people to please.
Whatever happened to just building a sustainable business, that does everyone some good?
This level of business success is too often seen as mediocre, and unimaginative – despite the fact our planet, and our economy needs more sustainability and less scalability.
What we see now more than ever, is that a company’s existence is no longer to serve a purpose, but to be the mechanism to make one person incredibly rich. It really lacks integrity and above all, has built a business environment where Founders are judged more on their growth plans, than their real impact.
I’m not saying all growth is bad. But I do believe more Founders and CEOs really need to question ‘why’ growth is so important to them?
Is it to please shareholders and investors?
Is it to please their own ego?
Is it because they believe that’s the only way to have ‘success’?
Not enough Founders look first at what they want to achieve and why.
There is no ‘bad’ why, and I will never judge a person’s purpose for their business. But these questions can help make you realise that actually, you can have a profitable and purpose-driven business without needing growth.
“After rapid growth of the business in a short period of time, I was always staying ‘switched-on’. Even on weekends, evenings, and during vacations.
As with many other small businesses, attempting to wear all the hats caused me to reach burnout. Offloading tasks helped me recover from burnout. By expanding my team I was able to free up my time (and enjoy it more!). Realising I could not wear all the hats in my business helped me reduce my stress and has helped us grow without the worry of becoming encumbered or at risk of future burnout.”
Wearing Burnout Like a Badge of Honour
Vulnerability doesn’t come naturally to us in the context of leadership. The outdated, “keep calm and carry on” motto has meant many of us present a leadership style that is cold, uncompassionate and often disconnected.
Rather than being human, our outdated teachings on leadership mean we’re inhumane. Both to our team and to ourselves. We show little compassion to our team, and even less to ourselves as we continue to believe in disconnecting our personal feelings from our professional representation.
Founders often believe that if they show vulnerability, they may lose their credibility.
Instead, Founders can wear stress like a badge of honour. It represents just how busy and important they are!
I’ve had Founders proudly tell me that they’ve not been able to go away on holiday for three years, or that they now sleep in their office because there’s just “so much to do”.
The danger here isn’t just to themselves, but to those in their team.
Stress becomes the default emotion for everyone. And if you’re not showing any signs of stress, then surely you’re just not working hard enough, or as committed? This is the rhetoric we keep buying into. Especially in start-up culture.
We need to stop wearing ‘busyness’ and ‘stress’ as a sign of our importance, and instead see it for the danger sign that it is. You’re heading towards burnout.
“My burnout was caused by adrenaline fatigue. One day, my body just said “Enough”, and, for the first time, I knew I had pushed it too far. It started with a bad back and ended up in complete exhaustion. I felt emotionally overwhelmed, not like me at all.
I just felt lost; my sleeping pattern was off, and I felt completely unbalanced and overwhelmed all the time.
I was having nightmares which affected my sleep, and I just over-thought every little thing to the point that it really started to take a toll on my overall mood and productivity.”
Is Founder Burnout Inevitable?
Perhaps you haven’t reached the point of burnout just yet. Maybe you’re a fresh-faced start-up Founder wondering if this is your future?
Founder burnout is not inevitable. In fact, you could quite easily become part of the lower set of statistics, but it takes mindful action and self-awareness.
As a Founder, you may already be experiencing elements of stress, overwhelm or exhaustion, and it’s recognising this that is essential in ensuring it doesn’t start to slip you down the dark slope to complete burnout.
“Because I put so much of myself into my brand, in the beginning of 2020 I suffered from burnout. It was a real cocktail of feelings; exhaustion, severe anxiety, self-loathing.
I couldn’t even open my laptop to try and do some work, I’d just stare at it and hope that something in me would change to make me normal again. I felt helpless and just wanted to carry on as I did before but my body would not let me.
Being able to delegate and manage my workload has not only helped me to recover from the burnout, it’s helped me to love my job again. Ive tripled my team in the last year. I am delegating better than ever and I have found my sense of why I love working for myself.”
The Signs of Burnout
If you’re concerned about your current health and mental state, then these are the signs to look out for when it comes to identifying burnout.
Burnout in general is a sense that you’re feeling depleted, and that you mentally no longer have the capacity to deal with even the smallest stressor. You may even be having moments of tearfulness, or extreme fatigue.
Physical signs of burnout may include;
- Feeling tired all the time
- Getting ill more often
- Headaches or migraines
- Muscle pains or tension in areas of your body
- Change in sleeping and eating patterns
- No motivation to get work done / increase procrastination
Emotional signs of burnout may include;
- A sense of failure
- Imposter syndrome or increased self-doubt
- Feeling lonely or isolated from others
- Feeling helpless or trapped
- Decreased sense of satisfaction in anything
Behavioural signs of burnout may include;
- Neglecting responsibilities
- Withdrawing from socialising
- Increased alcohol consumption
- Drug abuse
- Short temper
- Missing work or arriving late regularly
“In March 2020, our live events business crashed overnight — we went from $2.8 million in expected revenue to zero. We needed to shift our entire operations to a new model, and worked relentlessly to do so. For weeks, I was up every night until at least 5 AM, and then would wake up two or three hours later to start again. I wasn’t eating much, definitely wasn’t exercising, and had at least 20 hours of screen time every day.
I remember my back aching, my hands seizing up, and having bloodshot eyes that developed an involuntary twitch — it was bad. I used a framework called Five Day Plans to help recover. Basically you target a wide range of habits. For example, diet, exercise, sleep and screen time.”
How Burnout Can Creep Up on You
Like the snowball effect, burnout can gently creep up on you.
You can go from feeling stressed, to hyper stressed to burnout within a matter of weeks.
The triggers for this roller coaster are different for all Founders. For some, it may be a conflict with a co-founder that is causing stress and unrest in your work. For some, it may be extra pressure and workload from new investors. For others, it may be an external influence that has not been properly dealt with.
Talk to any Founder, and they will each have a story for what their trigger was and how it impacted their outlook on life as an entrepreneur.
The key thing to take away is that you are not alone. And because you suffer from burnout, does not mean that you are unsuccessful. The stakes are high as a Founder, and as the data has shown us, it continues to be an area that doesn’t get spoken about enough.
The Potential Solutions to Beat Burnout
While there’s no quick fix to ensuring that you’re not completely burnout proof, there are systems you can put in place to protect yourself, decrease the risk of burnout, and ensure that you are not creating a company culture where stress is the acceptable default.
First and foremost, as a Founder, you have to set yourself some boundaries.
Yes, I know the excuses you will give me. You’re too busy, you just don’t have enough time, people need you etc etc. I’ve heard them all.
The truth is, if you don’t set yourself boundaries you will let stress take over your entire life. It will bleed into your relationships, your health, and your productivity.
When I say set boundaries, I mean ensuring that you have allocated time in your day and your week where you can get away from work. That may mean always going for a walk at lunchtime without your phone. Or only taking meetings and calls in the afternoons so that you can spend time on focussed work in the morning.
As you begin to become more conscious of your time, become aware of anything that may trigger a sense of frustration or overwhelm. For example, I have one client who refuses to take any meetings without it being pre-set at least a few days ahead. Last-minute meeting requests are not allocated, and meetings are kept to an absolute maximum of 60 minutes.
Find the boundaries that feel good to you. Become the guardian of your time, otherwise, your business will begin to rule your life and rule your mind; and not in a good way!
Adopt a Shorter Work-Week
As a start-up Founder, it can be too easy to slip into the old business blueprint of the hours you ‘should’ work. But the 9-5 has had its day, and now is the time to embrace working differently, or forever become another business that does the same thing over and over again.
I understand that you’re a fast-paced business, but that doesn’t mean you have to work every hour under the sun.
Research has shown that working a shorter workweek improves the mental health of Founders, as they report spending more time with friends and family, and exercising more regularly.
The sooner you embed a shorter workweek or a form of flexible working, the better off both you and your team will be from the triggers of burnout.
Build Autonomous Teams
As a Founder or CEO, you may have the tendency to save everyone from every mistake or bad situation that happens in your business. I’ve discussed this previously in another post, ‘How to Avoid Nannying Your Team.’
But ultimately, as a leader, you can easily fall into the trap of trying to be everyone’s hero. Saving people both from business mistakes and their own.
However, as great as this may make you feel in the early days and massage your ego, eventually, this can drain your energy and your time. Plus it does nothing to support the growth of your business if that is what you really want.
The ideal is to build autonomous teams who don’t need to rely on you for every answer. Instead, they have their roles and responsibilities to carry out, and there is mutual respect and trust that this can happen.
As a passionate Founder, you may want to still have some control over how things get done. But this tendency will not support you in avoiding burnout, and it will not nurture your team in their development.
It’s hard to let go. But through co-creation together with your team, you should be able to build a culture and systems that make the business work without you needing to micro-manage.
Founder burnout is a very real crisis that our modern world of business creates, but with the right people and processes in place, and the self-awareness to be mindful of your time and health, it can be avoided. Burnout doesn’t need to be a badge of honour, health is the new wealth.