My Other Co-Founder is my Therapist

Although the title might sound a little tongue-in-cheek, this is actually a really serious post. Not too long ago, I was at a Techstars event where David Cohen (making a point about something completely different) asked who had been in therapy. "Raise your hands. It's ok. I have," he said. I think a lot of the room (myself included) felt some hesitation. This isn't something we admit, nor something we talk about. In the weeks since, I've been thinking about how tremendously stupid that is.

I had high blood pressure. I saw my doctor about it, and now I take medicine (and make lifestyle choices) that result in normal blood pressure. It's not a weakness; it's a result of many factors, some of which are controllable (exercise, diet), and some of which are not (genetics). If we are feeling anxiety, stress, or depression, why don't we look at it the same way? Why isn't an anomaly in our limbic system the same as an anomaly in our cardiovascular system?

I spend a huge amount of my time with first-time entrepreneurs. They are my very favorite type of development client, and my time mentoring students in the CU New Venture Challenge are always the very best hours of my week. I love entrepreneurship and have enjoyed each of the six startups in which I've been a founder. But being a founder (and especially a CEO or solo founder) comes at a cost about which we don't have nearly enough conversations. It virtually guarantees stress, anxiety, and for many (if not all) of us, depression. In many ways, I think it's inevitable, although perhaps I'm in a minority here. It's hard to know when the very subject is virtually taboo.

Think about this: From the very moment you found a startup, you begin disappointing people. First, you'll disappoint your friends and family, because the huge demands will take time away from them. You'll disappoint your cofounders, because things will go wrong, and many of them will be your responsibility. Some fraction of your customers will always be disappointed. If you make it as far as investors, you're almost certain to disappoint them - there aren't enough billion dollar exits for everyone. When things get tough (and they always do!) you'll disappoint employees who were depending on you, too. In many of these cases, the disappointment that others are feeling is probably pretty mild, but for a founder, internally, it will be amplified exponentially. Knowing that this disappointment and failure is always lurking around the corner, founders live with constant stress. Although a little stress can be a great motivator, continuous stress is toxic.

Unlike many problems that startup founders face, this one is incredibly easy to manage. (Notice I didn't say "solve.") Just like you need good legal advice, mentoring, and financial planning. Make sure that each founder has an emotional support plan. There are probably many ways to do this: a trusted friend, a mentor (if they have nothing at stake in your company), or a founder from another startup. But also consider seeing a therapist. They have no stake in your startup's success or failure, they don't have to be careful of your friendship, and they aren't going to commiserate about running a startup. What they will do is provide a safe environment to discuss the disappointment, fear, and anxiety that every founder feels. They might even help you save your own life, because unmanaged depression can be fatal, and that's simply too high a price to pay.

I love running my startup. I worry constantly about who I'm disappointing. Stress is an integral part of my daily life. But I'm also doing things about it. One of those things is seeing a therapist. Next time, I'll raise my hand right away. I hope you will, too.