Do You Have Founder’s Disease?

June 21, 2013

3:00 pm

“You want to make it as easy as possible for people to give you the best possible support,” says Matt Wallaert, a behavioral scientist at Bing.

That’s advice that few people would disagree with, particularly startup founders. Yet, according to Wallaert, a great many entrepreneurs do exactly the opposite.

Their problem is what he calls founder’s disease: not talking about your startup’s problems to other people. Not only is this emotionally draining, he says, but it’s bad for business. After all, if everything’s “going well,” no one will think to connect you to their journalist friend or investor buddy, or offer advice. In the worst cases, founder’s disease can lead to depression or suicide.

Wallaert, a serial entrepreneur and cofounder of GetRaised.com, has shown symptoms himself – despite his background in psychology. He sees it among actors and artists, too, who are always “on the cusp of making it.” It’s hard and disempowering for anyone to admit they’re struggling.

Below, we learned more about this entrepreneurial illness and how to treat it.

Tech Cocktail: Why is founder’s disease bad for business?

Matt WallaertMatt Wallaert: Other people can help you, but they can only help you with the problems they know about. I sit on 20 startups’ advisory boards, and I tell them all the same thing: “You have to be the squeaky wheel; you have to be the person who says, ‘Here’s the things I need, here’s the things that aren’t going well, here are the struggles that I’m facing.’ You can’t make me dig for it.”

It’s profoundly funny to me that people do this, because it’s the exact opposite of the rest of [startup advice]. Every startup person will tell you, “Hey, relationships are key, you gotta get out there, you gotta be networking, blah, blah, blah,” because that’s where opportunities come across. Opportunities are about getting out there and meeting people. So if that’s true – if you believe that other people can create opportunities for you – then you have to be willing to accept and admit and acknowledge that being honest about what you need is an important part of that. What is the possible benefit of networking and relationship building if part of that isn’t saying what you need and what’s not going well?

Tech Cocktail: Why is it bad emotionally?

Wallaert: There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that suppressing problems and not talking about them is bad for people. It can come out in a variety of ways. Some people make their way into substance abuse or other ways of escaping or expressing their problems. It can turn into anxiety, it can turn into depression, it can turn into anger. If you’re worried about things, those emotions are going to come out one way or another. And you can let them come out in a healthy way, like talking to a friend, or you can let them come out in an unhealthy way, like self-injury.

A lot of modern therapy – cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, the modern way that most therapy that isn’t talk therapy is produced – is therapy that’s about teaching you behaviors that help you deal with your emotions. It’s not so much about the source of your emotions these days; it’s more about – given that you have these feelings, what are you going to do about it? I think that’s really the key here for startup people, who often are very practical and logical. The question is: given that you are worried – you can’t make yourself not worried; you can’t make yourself not face the things that you face – what are you going to do about it?

This is straight Psych 101. People rely on people for happiness; we need the support of other people. People who are isolated, who don’t have people to talk to about their problems, we see consistent negative mental health impacts for that. You have to be able to talk to other people who can then give you constructive feedback and be helpful and be supportive, even if it’s just “Hey man, I totally feel you, that sucks.”

Tech Cocktail: Why are entrepreneurs prone to this? 

Wallaert: I think everybody does it. I think this is something you have to actively resist the temptation to do. I think, left to our own devices, all of us will have a tendency to hide – particularly the kinds of people that go into startups that are independent, that don’t want to be a burden to other people. I think that those are exactly the kind of people that have a natural tendency to do this. So this is really about resisting your natural tendency – catching yourself doing it.

Tech Cocktail: What’s the treatment for founder’s disease? 

Wallaert: I encourage people to do perspective taking. . . . Turn it around. If a friend came to you, wouldn’t you want them to be honest with you? Wouldn’t you want them to tell you if they were having a problem? And if it’s true that you would want your friend to tell you, then it is by definition true that your friends probably want you to tell them.

You can help the people who are around you self-monitor. If you have another person in your startup that you’re close with, you can say, “Hey, I noticed myself doing this; nudge me in a meeting if you see this happening.”

Tech Cocktail: What’s the right way to talk about your problems?

Wallaert: You want to be accepting of what the other person can offer you in response. Part of talking healthily about your emotions is not expecting that the other person is going to have the magical perfect thing to say. Be willing to let people support you in the way that they can.

Because entrepreneurship is something that not everybody knows about. So if you’re saying, “Hey, I’m really worried about investment,” you have to understand that the other person might not even understand what kind of investment you’re talking about or what that means. But you have to be willing to let them support you emotionally, to accept the things that people can give you.

Tech Cocktail: But isn’t it bad to rehash problems with your friends? 

Wallaert: Certainly, rumination is a problem. It’s one of the reasons arguably that there are greater rates of depression among women than among men; women tend to ruminate more than men do, and we have a lot of evidence that that’s not really all that great. So what you don’t want to do is sit around and have a weekly whinge-fest where you’re just bitching.

I think that’s very different from someone honestly inquiring how you’re doing – who doesn’t already know – and you talking to them about it. And that may be one key differentiator: the people that know vs. the people that don’t. If someone already knows, it can be healthy to have a short discussion with them about it if there’s something new. But if they already know and have given you the advice and support that they can, there might not be a lot more to revisit. But if people don’t know, that’s more of an issue.

To put it a different way, you don’t want to get into what we called in college “misery poker.” I went to Swarthmore, which is an incredibly difficult academic school. People would sometimes sit around and play what we called misery poker, which was someone being like, “Well, I have to write a 10-page paper by Sunday night and prep for a talk on Monday” and someone else being like, “Ah, that’s nothing. I have a 20-page paper and this and that.” Everybody’s raising each other levels of misery. You don’t want to get in a place where you’re doing that.

Tech Cocktail: How can friends and family help? 

Wallaert: I think you can press a little harder. If you say, “What’s up?” and they say, “Everything’s great, man, the company’s going awesome” – if you have a close relationship with them – you can say, “Really, is everything really going really awesome?”

You also can lead by example. If you talk about something small that’s bothering you, it opens up the road for them. “Hey, what are you worried about? What’s on your mind?” Especially if you’re another entrepreneur. You can say, “Hey, I’m worried about investment right now, man, what are you out there seeing? Sounds like things are going well for you. Are you also worried?”

Tech Cocktail: Do you have anything else to add? 

Wallaert: Entrepreneurs are a fascinating group of people who could really use all our support. I think that it’s a very, very psychologically tough and demanding job, and I think that it’s important for people to stay balanced and talk to other people and be communicative about what’s going on with them.

Keep a strong support network. This is an industry that just talks endlessly about networking, but they don’t talk about networks of support. They talk about networks of opportunity, and I think that both are very important.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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