How a congratulatory echo-chamber has Indian start-ups pining for self-care

#Axilor Ventures, #founders health, #Healing Space, #Health, #Kris Gopalakrishnan, #Lifestyle, #mental health, #mental health support, #Startup, #Startup culture, #suicide, #V G Siddhartha, #wellbeing

Imagine having to fire a co-founder who is your best friend, or a CTO leaving the company just before a crucial launch – uncertainty and lack of control over events can be sources of continual stress for the startup founder. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

Content warning, trigger warning: This article contains mention of suicide and distress.

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection” – Buddha

Most tech start-up founders, some of whom come from premier engineering colleges, have been toppers in their classes for years. They have hardly known failure. All through their academic lives, they have only received plaudits from teachers and peers. So, the stigma of start-up failure can be especially bruising for them.

Also, in a country like India, there is the additional stigma attached to mental health issues, though there are better support systems now at least in the big cities.

If you are a founder suffering from mental trauma, chances are that you are hesitating to seek professional help. This is especially true of founders who come from smaller towns, where they haven’t seen many take an appointment with a psychologist or a psychiatrist.

The scenario is beginning to change, albeit slowly in the corporate sector, especially after Café Coffee Day founder V.G. Siddhartha died by suicide. There are more voices out there supporting self-care, but not enough.

Fear of failure, financial crunch and disagreements with business partners are cited as the key reasons for stress accumulation. For a few other entrepreneurs, product pressures and inability to scale quickly can act as severe points of strain. Often, the entrepreneur wants to stop the misery by rolling the shutters down but the ecosystem pushes you on.

‘Kill it’ they say, when the truth is you are the one getting slayed.

The dagger of positivity

‘I’m feeling low. I should be shutting down this company. It has no future.’

Now, that may be the struggling entrepreneur’s line of thinking but the relentless optimism of the tech start-up machinery has the power to influence decisions. The cloak of positivity can give you an illusory vigour to continue with the company’s operations, even when it’s abundantly clear that the battle has been lost.

The flurry of motivational messages that the self-styled ‘positivists’ bombard you with on LinkedIn, Facebook and other social platforms tend to give the impression that success is a foot away. This forces the founder to put on a façade. Many of the tech founders believe he/she has to remain optimistic, inspirational and motivational at all times; put an act for his employees, customers and investors.

The social stigma of shutting down the start-up, prevents many entrepreneurs from taking that call. “Our society does not accept failures whereas many of the start-ups fail or fail to scale up,” says Kris Gopalakrishnan, chairman of Axilor Ventures.

“Working in a start-up is highly stressful because of the uncertainties involved and the factors that affect your business are often beyond your control. These are not caused by the investors, but by the very nature of a start-up,” says Gopalakrishnan. “You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right product.” There is an element of luck involved.

Congratulatory echo-chamber

Portraying an image of positivity is a burden to carry for most founders, creating cognitive dissonance between the projected image and reality.

Says investor Sanjay Anandaram, “The start-up ecosystem with its self-congratulatory approach, creates an echo-chamber effect. Everyone seems to be congratulating each other for milestones reached and accelerating growth hacking. No one is out there saying, ‘I need help’.”

This merry-go-round can have devastating effects in the long run, with founders clamming up and becoming increasingly afraid of speaking out. With almost all startups claiming to be the next rocketship, who would want to be the odd one out?

The self-congratulatory echo-chamber acts as a self-referencing mutual admiration ceremony. “The entrepreneur congratulates the team, customers and investors then congratulates the entrepreneur in turn. The media then portrays the entrepreneur as a hero. Everyone feels privileged and honoured,” says Anandaram.

But when the music stops, the reality is hard to face. While many founders put on an act of being in control, the stress levels brought about by the circumstances have the power to break them into two.

“Imagine a situation, when you have to fire your co-founder. He/she may be your best friend or you may have grown up together. But in the interest of the company, you may have to take that tough call,” says Anandaram. Or imagine a situation when you find your CTO leaving the company just before an important product launch. “You were banking on the CTO for this launch for months together, but he leaves to join a rival who offers him 3x compensation. What do you do?”

This is where the entrepreneur should learn to distinguish the company from oneself. Founders tend to superimpose their identity on to the company and see it as a single, unified entity. Their sense of self gets linked to the company and they forget that it’s good to have a sense of dichotomy, says Anandram. There’s probably no easier way to cloud your business judgment than not having that dichotomy.

The intense pressure and scrutiny force a few of them to withdraw into a shell, few others develop anger issues and some feel suicidal. In Silicon Valley, substance abuse is known to be rampant. Often, such tendencies go unnoticed or are ignored in India. The average Indian tech entrepreneur longs to have a circle of well-wishers, but finds that swimming with the sharks is the daily reality. They say it takes a village to raise a child and the same applies to start-ups too. But then, who can the founder trust?

Aparna Vishwanathan, founder of Zocio, a social intelligence platform, says it’s good to take a complete break when pressure builds to a crescendo. “There has to be a conscious effort to embrace what’s happening to you,” she says. When things become overwhelmingly difficult, people tend to get busy so that they don’t have to think about the problems. They should rather reflect on their issues and unclog their minds. Otherwise, it may lead to burnout or depression. “It’s good to have a confidante with whom you can discuss matters so that you are able to flush out insecurities,” she says.

So, is the situation different overseas? We are in for a surprise.

Singapore’s very own Kiasu

Singapore has an evolved tech start-up ecosystem that supports innovation and provides a platform to gain easy access to capital. Many of the start-ups around the world have moved to Singapore for the sheer ease of doing business.

But when it comes to start-up pressure, the environment is familiar. Says Singapore based founder and investor Prantik Mazumdar, “There are massive competitive pressures in Singapore. The desire to exceed professional and social expectations, in addition to mental health challenges brought in by the pandemic, has led to workforce fatigue setting in.”

According to a study among the world’s 15 most fatigued countries, Singapore topped the list outgunning even China and Japan. Singaporeans are also known to be highly sleep deprived, with one of the highest daily usages of the internet (7 hours plus).

There is a term here in Singapore called Kiasu (pronounced kee-ah-sue) which means fear of failure. It is intended to enable hard work, but there is a flip side to it. Kiasu can sometimes make you work so very hard that it is detrimental. It’s edgy, competitive behaviour.

Kiasu is a Hokkien (Chinese dialect) word that comes from ‘kia’, which means afraid, and ‘su’, which means to lose. This roughly translates to fear of losing out and in the modern context is similar to the fear of missing out (FOMO).

Being a small country, Singapore has limited resources. It appears that the whole world lands in Singapore to compete. So, survival instincts kick in strongly and the fear of failing is top of mind. It’s pretty much a national character in Singapore.

Young entrepreneurs feel this in great measure. The struggle to outdo each other is real. In Singapore’s case, some of the founders are in an older age bracket. They face greater pressures, as they have mortgages to pay, have college going children and have less time to succeed. There are critics, including some politicians in Singapore, who believe that kiasu prepares you for short-term gains and not long-term wins.

“Singapore is a small country which values human capital. It’s the most precious natural resource. Taking care of people makes economic sense,” says Mazumdar. Hence, support groups are getting formed to address mental health issues.

For instance, Entrepreneur Organisation (EO) has split into 5-member focus groups that help founders to diffuse the pressure. Mantor is a Singapore-based start-up that caters to the mental health needs of men exclusively, as they are perceived as reticent.

“When I was running the digital marketing firm Happy Marketer here in Singapore, one of the co-founders wanted to move on. It just made our journey so much more difficult. He had equity in the company and when a co-founder wants to exit, then it has financial consequences apart from workload challenges,” Mazumdar says. “Then there was a time – it happens in almost every start-up – when we had a cash crunch and since we didn’t want to delay paying our employees, we as founders didn’t pay ourselves for a few months.”

Running a start-up isn’t easy, anywhere in the world, and the reason to start one can’t be your friend running one. “Almost everyone has a business idea. But the journey from powerpoint to profit is a long one,” says Mazumdar, who has invested in Singapore-based start-ups like Ocktolife and WhyQ.

Silicon Valley – Selfcare is the new dating

It doesn’t matter where your start-up is, being a founder is always a lonely journey. You may be in Silicon Valley running a successful start-up, but there is no denying the mental stress and agony, notwithstanding the support of a mature financial ecosystem. A study conducted last year by the National Institute of Mental Health, US, revealed that 72 per cent of entrepreneurs are directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues.

Even in the Bay Area, talking about mental health is an evolving process and the pandemic-induced work from home phase has given rise to a whole new set of challenges. With a section of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, more employers are asking employees to come back into the office.

One-third of the respondents, who were part of a recent McKinsey survey in the US, have said that returning to work has had a negative impact on their mental health. Almost half of those who have not yet returned to office anticipate a negative mental health impact. The McKinsey survey says fewer than one tenth of the employees described their workplace as free of stigma on mental or substance-use disorders.

Millions of US workers have quit their jobs since April 2021. As a result, many of the US firms are rolling out measures that can arrest this high level of attrition — ‘wellness leaves’ for instance.  These may be used to improve relationships at home, introduce a new lifestyle change, to exercise or for any other reason that makes the employee feel healthy. But it remains to be seen how many employees will eventually use them, especially in the Bay Area, where hustling is the new religion.

In Silicon Valley, where coders believe they are artists orchestrating a symphony, intelligence and creativity are gold dust. Pulling off all-nighters to code is pretty much nirvana. The same drive and intensity can also throw someone off-balance temperamentally. It’s a fine line that exists between a hustling, creative genius and an erratic, mentally broken individual.

Says Anand Chandrasekaran, a leading Silicon Valley based angel investor and product executive, “Being a founder has always been always a lonely journey. The impact on their well-being when things aren’t going well is known. However, it can be equally, if not more, stressful when things are going well, given the expectations all around. One of the major accelerators of founder stress and pressure recently has been Covid-related uncertainty.”

Chandrasekaran, former director at Facebook and chief product officer at Snapdeal, feels while failure still carries some stigma in India, it’s a significantly improved situation now.  Being an entrepreneur is aspirational and the quality of founders starting business today is the best leading indicator of future success in the Indian ecosystem, says Chandrasekaran who is an investor in digital wellness platforms like MindHouse, Breathe Well Being and MedCords in India.

“Personally, I think family, self-care, being passionate about things outside of work and finding meaning in social causes are some ways to stay centred. I’ve also been a huge advocate of founders solving problems through self-care and building windmills rather than bunkers when they go through the inevitable periods of strife,” says Chandrasekaran.

Having a self-care routine helps to activate the body’s relaxation response by lowering cortisol and adrenaline, thus reducing stress. It does not mean one’s being selfish but just being mindful of one’s own needs.

This is the second article in a three-part series on mental health and the Indian tech start-up ecosystem. Also read Has the Indian startup ecosystem become a cauldron of mental health woes? – the first article in the series.

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