Thanks to the bravery and honesty of many in the startup community, as well as award-winning reporting from Inc.com and others, it's no longer a secret that starting a company can be incredibly bruising for your mental health. But we still generally think of these struggles as the exception.

They're not; they're the rule, insists nine-time entrepreneur Wil Schroter.

On Medium recently the founder of Startups.co and eight other businesses (three of them venture backed) argues that, while not every founder will face diagnosable mental health issues, the brutal truth is that pretty much every entrepreneur takes a mental beating from the process of getting a business off the ground. And the startup community does itself a disservice by not doing more to acknowledge that fact.

How much emotional capital do you have to burn?

Schroter uses a unique lens to examine the emotional burdens of founders -- emotional capital. Startups, he argues, universally burn through a ton of it, sometimes so much that it crashes the whole company.

"Imagine if we could put a numeric value on how much 'emotional capital' we have in the bank. The amount of stamina, the amount of positivity, the amount of physical wellness we have left. Startup Founders don't just run out of financial capital -- we run out of emotional capital," he cautions.

The rest of Schroter's post, which is well worth a read in full, is dedicated to laying out in detail the heavy emotional costs of starting up, including:

  • Loneliness: "You can't complain about the boss because you are the boss," he writes. It's also likely that your friends and loved ones won't truly get what you're going through.

  • Waiting: We think of startups as fast paced, Schroter notes, but most of the time all that frantic work is liberally seasoned with a whole lot of nerve-destroying waiting.

  • Financial insecurity: Nothing prepares founders for that inevitable moment when you're staring at a crashing bank balance and wondering "how many meals you can make out of a single box of pasta," warns Schroter.

  • Relationship stress: "There's never been a startup founder who's said 'Look I'm working 80 hours per week while burning through my kid's college fund and boy my marriage has never been better!'" insists Schroter (and plenty of other entrepreneurs).

Will these costs drain your soul down to zero? Will they tank your company? That varies on a case by case basis, of course, depending on how many resources you had at the get-go and how long it takes for your business to take off. But Schroter feels we still have a long way to go before we've adequately opened up about how steep the emotional cost of starting up often is.  

"We need to stop pretending that we're all superhuman machines that can build these companies from nothing without a massive toll along the way," he urges fellow founders. "We need to recognize, in the few and far between moments when you see someone succeed that it wasn't free. It wasn't easy. And whatever you think they may have risked in personal capital, they spent 10x more in emotional capital."

This level of honesty and empathy, he feels, is the only way founders can truly support each other and lessen to some degree the emotional burdens of starting up. Realistic expectations and more honest role models would mean many less painful personal crashes.

Do you agree?

Published on: Oct 4, 2017