Every founder I know gets impostor syndrome. Every single one. It’s pretty much inevitable.
When you’re building something from scratch that hasn’t been done before — at some point you’re going to be scared the world will realise you have no idea what you’re doing.
And when you mix imposter syndrome with the insane pressure of running a startup, you can wind up with a pretty toxic cocktail for your mental wellbeing. Its no wonder the stats are so frightening — almost half of founders will struggle with mental health issues at some point.
Whenever I’ve talked about these sorts of issues before, a few founders always reach out for advice on what to do when the days are dark. I always wish I had a good answer, but it feels like I never do. I’m definitely no expert, and everyone responds differently when they’re struggling.
But there are some preventative measures that can at least help you prepare for when things get bad. One technique I’ve seen work is to build your own ‘personal board’.
Founders always spend a tonne of time thinking about their company’s board of directors — trying to get the right size and mix of personalities and skill sets to support the company. But what if you applied the same thinking to your own support network?
Why not surround yourself with a group of people who are equally dedicated to supporting your own personal development and mental wellbeing? Then who would you have on your personal board?
Everyone’s different, but I’d have a think about finding people who can fill the following roles:
The Professional Mentor
Most founders will already have a close professional mentor, and if you don’t — get one. Look for someone who has built a business in your space before, or at least someone who has experienced the pains of growing a company of a similar size. But most importantly, find someone who really gives a shit. You don’t need a cheerleader — but you do need someone who will support you during setbacks, and who’s not afraid to ask you the uncomfortable questions that you may otherwise try to ignore.
The Mental Health Coach
It’s important to have someone that you can have an open and judgement-free conversation with about your mental wellbeing. This might be a clinical psychologist, a life coach, a counsellor, or could just be a close friend. Ideally this will be someone who knows a bit about mental health already and can help you with coping strategies. We’ve got a whole panel of people that we’ve worked with in the past and recommend to our portfolio — so if you’re ever in need of some names just ping me.
The Bigger Picture Person
When you’re going through a rough patch, having someone that can give you a broader perspective is important. This is where it helps to have someone from outside the startup bubble. Find someone who has completely different interests to you who can give you an outsider’s perspective. This could be a partner, a spouse or an old school friend.
The Pressure Release Valve
Sometimes you just need to vent at someone who really understands what you’re going through. Other founders are great for this — they get it. A lot of CEOs I know will have a regular catch ups with a peer support network of other CEOs that they can rant to over a coffee or glass of wine. Get one of these.
Often more than one of these roles will be played by the same person or vice versa. Ideally there’ll also be some overlap between your personal board and your company board. But it doesn’t really matter.
What’s important is that you make time to speak to these people on a regular basis.
You probably won’t want a formal ‘board meeting’ with them all at once (or maybe you will?), but you should get into the habit of speaking to them frequently.
James Cameron is a partner at Airtree Ventures.
If you’re reading this and are looking for someone to speak to — about whatever it is you might be going through — please always feel free to shoot him a line at james at airtree dot vc.
Featured Image | City of Melbourne/ That Startup Show / Photographer Wren Steiner
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