There are few universal truths in startup life. One of the most fundamental is that happier people are more productive. As founders, we think that means our employees. And yet, the deeper truth is that startup happiness starts at the top.

Five startup founders walked into a bar and, like that famous scene in the movie Jaws, our conversation dissolved quickly into us showing off our proverbial scars. A competition broke out for who could tell the most gory tale of woe. We went on trading story after story for hours on end.

As founders, it is easy to brag about our crazy hours and sleepless nights. And yet, these stories serve to support the enduring mythos that startup success is predicated on founder self-sacrifice. The harder we work and more we give up, the more successful our venture will be.

This is a dangerous myth.

What radically differentiates entrepreneurs from the mainstream population is not our work ethic -- it is our high rates of mental health disorders. According to a UC Berkeley study, entrepreneurs suffer from significantly elevated rates of depression, ADHD and anxiety. In the case of depression specifically, founders suffer at three times that of the general population.

When we combine these mental health statistics with the extremely high mortality rate of startups, widely reported as over 90%, it is a recipe for disaster.

I faced this particular maelstrom head on after the closing of my second startup. Getting off the floor felt too hard most days. Breathing took concerted effort. My depression lasted three years, preventing me from focusing fully on my next venture.

Time for a Reframe

We need to reframe the concept that founder self-sacrifice is table-stakes for success and recognize the simple truth that founder happiness is far more likely to produce a successful venture. Why?

Culture Starts at the Top

A startup may have the most progressive HR policies in place to recruit top talent. And yet, if employees see the founders killing themselves with overwork, then that becomes the de facto policy. Overwork will burn out employees usually before it burns out founders. If you have a high turnover rate, this may be already at work.

All Work and No Play Makes Jill a Dull Founder

A happy founder is a productive founder. It also means a likely nicer, more personable founder. Employees are more likely to take progressive HR seriously - and partake in the benefit - if they see the founders walking the walk. It also leads to enhanced team trust.

Happiness = Profitability

The relationship between profitability and employee satisfaction is not correlated, it is causal. Let's pause for a second and take that in. The happier employees are, the more financially sound the overall organization is likely to be. David Maister, a former Harvard professor, discovered this connection and wrote about it extensively in his book Practice What You Preach. Unlike the flim-flam evidence behind most business platitudes, Maister dedicated an entire chapter to the complex math behind this relationship. If so inclined, he welcomes us to challenge his conclusion, providing the math in a dedicated chapter.

Buckle up, buttercup. It's an intense read.

As we strive to manifest a successful startup, we must take into consideration our own happiness. It's not a nice to have. It is a must have. The less we care for ourselves, the more likely we are to lose top talent, erode team trust and suffer burn out or even mental and/or physical illness. And if those reasons aren't compelling enough, our sad ventures are more likely to be unprofitable. So let's stop and collectively tell a better story -- one where founder happiness is considered table-stakes for a successful venture.

About the Author

E. Kelly Fitzsimmons is a well-known entrepreneur who has founded, led and sold several technology startups. Recently, she co-founded Custom Reality Services, a virtual reality production company whose first project, Across the Line, premiered at the New Frontier program of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. She is also the co-founder of the Hypervoice Consortium, which researches the future of voice communications. Previously, she was the co- founder and CEO of HarQen. Prior to launching HarQen, she founded Sun Tzu Security (1996), an information security firm, which merged with Neohapsis (2003), where she led the combined company as CEO through 2006. Cisco acquired Neohapsis to enhance its information security offerings in 2014. In 2011, the Angel Capital Association awarded her the Silvertip PwC Entrepreneurship Award. In 2013, Speech Technology magazine honored her with the Luminary Award. She is a regular contributor to Information Week and Inc. magazine. Recently, several of her Inc. articles were published in an anthology Been There, Run That. She serves on the board of the Executive Women's Forum, the largest member organization serving female executives in the Information Security, Risk Management and Privacy industries. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Rochester and holds a master's degree from Harvard University.

Published on: Jul 12, 2017
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