The Quiet Price of Entrepreneurship


Read a selection of articles in most business publications and you will, undoubtedly, find more than a handful that explicitly or implicitly refer to entrepreneurs as stalwart heroes in some form or fashion. While there may be some level of “courage” (comfort with risk, ability to thrive in nebulous situations, ability to envision a future state that others can not, etc.) the overwhelming amount of content of this nature continues to reinforce a myth about entrepreneurs as mighty warriors who don’t blink in the face of danger. Adding further to this cycle, especially here in America, is our national culture of showcasing success and of loving a good underdog story.

Unfortunately, showcasing successful underdog entrepreneurs who have “made it” doesn’t really tell the full story. For every success there are multiple examples of failure- each one leaving indelible scars on those involved. For some, these failures may serve as the inspiration to try and try again while, for others, it may result in wounds that become insurmountable. Furthermore, even the entrepreneurs who do make it, in most cases, do so at the expense of many things in their lives, each adding stresses to them as individuals that are difficult to measure.

Jim Jacobs, President of Focus Insite, has felt the pressures of growing a business. In an effort to grow his business, Jim found himself maxing out his personal credit card just to make payroll. He gained 35 pounds and drank constantly due to the stresses of having to provide personally guarantees in order to stay afloat. “Growing a business needs constant predictable cash flow,” Jacobs says.

But what is the true cost to the entrepreneur?

The answer to this question will vary from person to person based on a variety of external factors such as financial stress, extremely irregular work schedules, difficulty with relationships as well as internal factors such as personal resilience and the emotional toll that entrepreneurship can take.

Simon Slade describes other potential costs that entrepreneurs must pay in his article for CNNB where he discusses factors like the need to sacrifice security, the required investment of a massive amount of headspace, and the potential loss of control as they follow their visions. And what about stresses that are induced by completely external means such as changes in the macro economy that are well beyond an individual’s control?

An added aspect of stress in these situations includes those entrepreneurs who attempt to start up a business while simultaneously holding down a full time job- the infamous side hustle. Kevin Namaky, CEO of Gurulocity, started his business later in life while working a day job to keep up with financial commitments. “In reality, most entrepreneurs are small business owners riding a roller coaster [they] just wish would stop. They’re older people, often your neighbors. They’re parents or even grandparents. They not just twenty-somethings living it up in the city. They’re not only software developers trying to get VC finding, strike it rich and sell out the same day,” Namaky explains.

Mental illness and entrepreneurship: Detriment or the “secret sauce”?

A study conducted by researchers at the University of California and Stanford, found that 72% of entrepreneurs in the sample self-reported mental health concerns- significantly higher than the comparison group (demographically matched non-entrepreneurs). Furthermore, a full 49% of the entrepreneurs sampled reported having one or more lifetime mental health conditions.

The startup life is known to be all consuming. It seems that this dedication to the success of a venture can have significant negative effects on people as well. Theo Tsaousides, Ph.D. writes about this in his article in Psychology Today where he suggests that the ideas of many entrepreneurs actually begin to define their identities. As a result, failures can have tremendous and long-lasting repercussions on entrepreneurs.

James Berkeley, Managing Director of Ellice Consulting Ltd, suggests that many casual observers assume that these challenges only occur during the startup phase of a business but that, in reality, they occur irrespective of growth stage.

Conditions such as anxiety and depression, self-worth issues and even addiction are all present in the entrepreneur community. Unfortunately, the cultural stigma that exists with regard to mental health issues prevents many from seeking the help they need.

While there are examples of efforts to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues in our society (veterans’ mental health being just one example). However, it seems that our own behaviors in terms of perpetuating the entrepreneur (or veteran) as hero myth may be preventing these efforts from picking up the steam they need.

Seda Goff, Director of Bunker Labs DC at Capitol Post, is not only an entrepreneur herself but through her work with Bunker Labs, she and her colleagues help to support the startup experience for military veterans who are interested in entrepreneurship. Seda shared a deeply personal story with me about a colleague and mentor who committed suicide last year. “The process was taking a toll on him. He took a few hiatuses to gather himself along the way. At the time of his death, he had had very successful exits from his businesses and was coaching and mentoring other startups. I can only surmise that his demons finally got to him,” Goff explains.

But what if mental illness amongst the entrepreneur community, although a challenge for many to navigate, may also prove to be a key reason for their success in the first place- as suggested in this article in the Washington Post?

Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.

If this article resonates with you in any way as an entrepreneur, I implore you to seek out help.  Here are some action steps entrepreneurs take to develop a solid support system:

  • Depend on a solid group of friends and family who can support you through the tough times. Although talking to them incessantly about your business woes can really wear on them as well, having close friends and family to count on can help you get through the really rough patches.
  • Find a mentor that you can count on. The great thing I’ve found about entrepreneurs is that most are completely willing to mentor others as they navigate their journeys. Finding the right person or people who can lend an ear and who can support with advice, when needed, can be invaluable.
  • Develop a solid network of other folks who are going through the same thing. You are not alone. Finding a group of other people who are going through the same challenges as you can really help counter the loneliness factor than many entrepreneurs face.
  • Create a cadence of self-wellness from the start. As busy as you may be, creating a habit of setting aside time and space for you to center yourself can be invaluable. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Think of your wellness as the energy bar to keep you going over the long-term.
  • Secure opportunities for financial support. Waiting until you’re in a financial pinch to secure funding is not going to do you or your business any favors. Take the time to find support mechanisms who will be able to provide funding when you need it.

You’re not alone and there are a variety of support mechanisms available to you. The first place to go, in my opinion, is to seek the help of a professional. Partnering with someone with specific expertise in helping people cope with these hardships is a logical step toward your own health.

If you’re not quite ready for that, or if you are already working with a profession, Dr. Joey Collins, a clinical psychologist and professor at Seattle Pacific University suggests several other resources that you may find supportive in the areas of coaching applications, managing stress and guided meditation.

Although the myths about entrepreneurs are alive and well, it is high time that we acknowledge the dark side of entrepreneurship and we do what we can to help provide the right kinds of support to these people so that they don’t end up paying too high a personal price chasing their dreams.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.