In recent years, the UK tech startup scene has become supercharged. Talks of unicorns and glamorised founders’ success stories have sugarcoated the industry. The spirit of entrepreneurship is ablaze with hyperbole around who has raised the most money, hired the best talent and worked the longest hours. Accelerator programmes, 24-hour hackathons and pitch competitions hint at hero-like success for founders, a chance to be marked in the history books alongside the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel.
But behind the eclectic office furniture and smell of freshly ground coffee, the veneer is starting to crack. Startup culture, which is so often heralded as aspirational, has turned into a fertile breeding ground for a variety of mental health issues. To talk about these issues though is a closely guarded taboo.
“Everyone’s trying to appear confident, successful, always busy, ever hustling and the reality of what they’re feeling is anxious, tired and a huge responsibility for the money that’s been invested in them,” explains Louise Chunn, founder of welldoing.org. During her time at Campus London she noticed how founders were performing a circus act, that left little room to show anything other than that they were “killing it”.
In a hypercompetitive market, the relentless schedule of pitching and raising money does of course require founders to conform to a certain stereotype. But in a bid to convince everyone, from friends and family to investors and fellow techies, the gap between this rhetoric and how founders are really feeling, is becoming increasingly pronounced.
“Starting your own business can be a very challenging time, particularly in the technology sector where change is constant and fast moving,” says psychotherapist Nikki Kemp. “Founders can easily lose touch with their true authentic self. Their whole identity can become tied up in one goal and other parts of their lives begin to suffer.”
James Routlege knows this only too well. Drawn by the bright lights of the startup world he decided to drop out of university and founded Matchchat, a social platform for sports fans. Despite his initial success, he struggled to retain his identity. “I was still a sponge and I hadn’t worked out who I was. I modeled myself on everything that I thought I should be. I turned myself into a rock star CEO type. Alpha male. Unemotional. Hustler. Grind.” This ‘Mr Invincible’ persona made it hard for him to come clean about how he was truly feeling. “Over the three years, I never talked about how actually things were going. I never said: ‘I’m 23 I’ve just raised a million dollars and I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing’.” When James eventually decided to liquidate Matchchat, his mental health quickly unraveled too. “I was brought to my knees. I was living a lie for three years – it sounds dramatic, but it’s true and I think there are lots of people who are doing the same.”
Indeed David Brudö, founder of the personal development app Remente, thinks these problems are far reaching in the industry. “I’d say most of the founders I know are struggling with this one way or another. I recently met four founder friends who are all successful entrepreneurs and we concluded that four out of five, have been struggling with mental health conditions.”
This ratio is high, even when compared to the national average. One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem every year and suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 35. Add into the mix a concoction of uncertain pay, long hours, acute fear of failure and imposter syndrome and the term ‘startup culture’ becomes synonymous with a pressure cooker that is chewing up and spitting out its founders.
However, as when all things come to a crescendo, change is starting to happen. “There’s this authenticity movement which is starting to emerge,” said James. “People are starting to drop the front. A lot of people see how powerful that can be. Blog posts that are being honest and authentic get huge traction.” James’ new venture is very much a part of this authenticity movement. Sanctus hosts events and coaching sessions that allow people to drop the mask and talk openly about how things are really going.
Other initiatives are surfacing as well. Ignite, a UK-based accelerator, now includes in its programme an away weekend, where founders are encouraged to open up and talk about their mental health, as well as learn tools that will help them cope with the demands of startup life. “We realise as an accelerator we do put people under a lot of pressure,” says Tristan Watson, Ignite’s CEO. “It’s three months of the most intense work anyone would have done in their life. They are surrounded by other companies all pushing and striving. As an investor we have a duty of care for the companies that we are working with.”
Ironically, tech startups are also providing some brilliant solutions to combat mental health problems. Mindwave has developed a virtual reality experience to help people who suffer from OCD. BGB Labs is using games to tackle mental health in young people. Its new game Champions of the Shengha has just been given the clinical seal of approval. While Plexus is a wellbeing app that integrates AI with a messaging platform and is specifically designed to improve mental wellbeing in the workplace.
All these factors are helping put mental health on par with how people view and maintain their physical health. But in order for any of these solutions to work, founders need to be honest with how they are really coping. Once startup rhetoric stops being so binary, this new more authentic conversation can come to the foreground.
If you think you are struggling with a mental health issue you can contact a counsellor on the National Counselling Society Accredited Register – counselling gives a safe and confidential space to talk about how you are feeling.