Insightful takes on scaling your business

We need to unmask the inner turmoil of founders — so here’s my story

We need to know when to throw in the towel.

Carl Martin
Story by
Carl Martin

Culture and Learning Manager, Forward PartnersCarl is a brand and culture consultant, L&D facilitator, and in-house coach at an early stage venture firm, and cares deeply about bringing greater humanity into company building. Carl is a brand and culture consultant, L&D facilitator, and in-house coach at an early stage venture firm, and cares deeply about bringing greater humanity into company building.

carlmartin

I am very firmly of the school of thought that entrepreneurship is a privilege. In 99% of instances, it means you’ve been dealt a decent set of cards in life. However, that privilege does come at a cost. The mental and emotional toll of building something of your own design is significant.

A study led by Michael Freeman of the University of California in 2015 found compelling evidence outlining the underlying relationship between entrepreneurship and many of the cognitive and behavioral differences associated with mental health conditions.

The research found that founders, compared to others, are:

  • 2x more likely to suffer from depression

  • 6x more likely to suffer from ADHD

  • 3x more likely to suffer from substance abuse

  • 10x more likely to suffer from bi-polar disorder

  • 2x more likely to have psychiatric hospitalization

  • 2x more likely to have suicidal thoughts

We’re riding the early crest of the wave of the normalization of mental health conversations, in particular in startups, but the real experience of founders continues to be relatively unexplored. I’m hoping to help peel back the curtain a little — in the context of my own experience that I’m now ready to talk about.


In April 2018, after almost two years of trying, I made the decision to shut down my company – Ping. On a practical front, my seed round fundraising had as good as failed, and at the same time I was being threatened with legal action by WeWork over a trademark dispute.

But beneath the stresses and practicalities of finding a way forward for my company, there lay a deep-seated set of personal battles — that I’m not even sure I fully knew or understood. And if we can’t even make sense of what’s going on, how can we expect anyone else to?

It’s almost never just one thing. It’s the interlinking web of thoughts, feelings and emotions that make anyone’s mind a complex one — but it’s the expectations and demands of a team, investors, peers, and close ones that make it uniquely challenging for founders. And without the proper help and support to unpack that mind, it can lead to incredibly dark and dire situations.

On April 12th 2018, I decided to film a video diary with the ambition of reflecting on where we were at as a company and with a view to identifying a way forward. What actually happened – was me reaching my rock bottom. As the reality of my situation hit me, I became acutely aware of my mind, body, and emotions, and everything just caved in.

I began to unpack the personal battles I was facing — even the ones I’d never had a conscious thought of before — and I managed to capture it all on video. This video isn’t just an intimate and deeply personal look into my mind at a time in my life — this video is the essence of how every single founder on the planet feels almost every single day. It is just how complex it can all feel.

And after over 18 months of taking the personal time needed to heal, I’ve decided to share this video. It’s taken me awhile to get to this point — considering it’s immensely personal nature. You can see I look tired, overweight, and ill. You can see the psoriasis forming on my forearms — that was induced by the stress of it all. At this point I’m not just physically wrecked, but I’m mentally and emotionally bankrupt.

For those of you who can’t or don’t want to watch the video (I don’t blame you — it’s 10 minutes of me crying and wiping my nose on my arm), below is a transcript of sorts — which unpacks the thoughts and feelings that surfaced.

I feel pathetic and ashamed.

“I feel pathetic for complaining about being tired. This is without question the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life — and I think that says a lot about how comfortable my life has been.”

I feel angry and hopeless.

“I’m mad at myself that I can’t dig deeper at the moment.”

I feel confused.

“It’s been 18 months of the most wild self belief and I still belief deeply in the importance of what I’m building and how much I want this thing to exist in the world. But I’m at a point where I just struggle to see a way forward.”

I feel mentally and physically exhausted.

“As fundraising grinds to a halt it’s given me a lot of space to think — and I’ve started thinking about everything I’ve been giving up and sacrificing. So far there has been a lot around my health — my body, my mind.”

I feel scared.

“I see this next step as a major sacrifice around friends and family, and I’m so scared to take it.”

I feel uncertain.

“Since day one I’ve always questioned my motivations for why I’m building this thing. I’ve always had that little thing in the back of mind questioning who I am really doing this for — what am I trying to prove and to who. Just for the past few weeks I feel like I am doing it for anyone but myself now.”

I feel unhappy.

“I feel like I’m trying to optimize my life for some sort of fame and recognition, and not for happiness — because I am not happy. I’m really not.”

I feel judged and worried.

“I’m unsure as to whether I am being hard nosed about moving forward because I actually want to, or whether I’m scared how I will be perceived if I give in. And trying to work that out is proving incredibly difficult.”

I feel lost.

“All I can think about is is this pushing me further away from not only my own family but also the opportunity to create a family. All I want in the world is to be a dad — and hell I’m not even close to meeting someone and I don’t think this path is conducive to pursuing that.”

I feel confused and ashamed.

“I feel like I am shaming myself into continuing. That’s how it feels right now. There is a difference between believing something should exist and then also believing you’re the person to make it happen. The conflict is I do believe I’m the man to make it happen.”

I feel broken and empty.

“At the same time, I can’t keep doing this to myself. It’s been 18 long long months.”

I feel uncertain and overwhelmed.

“I realize I am at an inflection point. Either I will dust myself off, drag myself out of this rut and move on — or this is the end. I really don’t know what will happen or what I even want.”

Why on earth am I sharing this?

Seems like a good question to ask. There are a lot of reasons really:

  • I’d like to trigger a more thoughtful conversation around supporting founders mental health. As more and more people pursue entrepreneurship, we’re going to need to think about infrastructure and support that can scale to meet the needs and demands of an entrepreneurial generation.
  • I believe, without question, more VCs need to take greater responsibility for evolving high growth culture to show more humanity. I don’t believe this is just about throwing a few quid behind some coaching or therapy for founders. This is about dismantling the prioritization of growth at all costs ahead of the wellbeing of the people tasked with producing those results. It’s got to stop.
  • Sharing this is supporting my own personal catharsis and process. Many of you will know I’m an incredibly open book. I’ve held onto this deep down for a long time, and letting it go is giving me an immense amount of relief.

But the most important reason of all, is my desire to help just one founder find the bravery to throw in the towel. When you have the expectations and weight of investors, friends, family, a team and an industry on your shoulders, it can be incredibly hard to do what’s truly right for you. When so much of you is broken, as was with me, there should be no other response but to call it a day.

I often wonder if I had more support around me — like a co-founder, and a coach, and a therapist — would I have simply found a way forward? Maybe. I don’t believe every founder needs to throw in the towel. In fact most who do are on the cusp of greatness.

But out there is at least one founder who just needs to stop. A founder who has fought for so long, and sacrificed so much, that they deeply fear whats on the other side of shutting down. If you’re reading, I promise you will be ok.

For me, I’m at peace with everything that happened and now acknowledge and celebrate my experience as a founder as one of the most pertinent lessons I’ve been taught in my 30+ years on this planet – and it’s set me on a path of the most phenomenal growth and self discovery I feel grateful to be on.

And most importantly, I take it upon myself personally to ensure any founder I work with as a coach in the future to be adequately prepared and supported to ride through their own storms — where tears are expected, but an early ending isn’t.


I have a responsibility to direct anyone who may be facing a more intense personal battle towards the following resources:

  • In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123.

  • In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

  • Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.


This article was originally published on Carl Martin’s blog.

Published March 4, 2020 — 15:10 UTC