Why founders need to share how they’re feeling
A strong startup community relies on deep connections and support. Therefore, it’s crucial that we look out for one another and share what’s really going on. If we do, we’ll all feel a whole lot better and be more capable of taking on the challenges of tomorrow. UTS Faculty of Social Science alumni and UTS Startups co-founder of Clipboard, Sam Clarke, talks to us about the importance of R U OK? Day.
Today was an ordinary day in my life as a startup founder. I woke up, went to the gym, got to the office, and jumped into a washing machine for ten hours.
Today’s washing machine load included items such as: a large potential customer cancelling a meeting tomorrow in another state (time to can the flights), restructuring our pricing model because we got feedback that our product is too expensive, a top venture capital firm turning us down, and a great call with an international school in Zimbabwe (if you’re interested in being our Head of Southern African Strategy, drop me a line!). Now, as I resist my exhaustion, I’m sitting here writing to you.
My co-founder Ed Colyer and I started Clipboard two and a half years ago when I was 19 and still at uni. Since then, we’ve grown from a project worked on at the library between assignments to a company with eight employees that just went through Telstra's startup accelerator, muru-D and counts some of Australia’s largest schools as customers. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve built so far, I’m excited, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
At the same time, I think it’s important to acknowledge the chinks in this founder’s armour. The demands heaped on by our growth have often left me feeling completely overwhelmed and burnt out, drowning beneath the weight of a seemingly never-ending task list and a perceived obligation to please everybody; I’ve also had to face the odd situation of managing people older than myself without having any prior management experience; and, on a personal note, I’ve felt real loneliness as a result of breaking up with my longtime girlfriend, moving out of home, and focussing predominantly on the startup.
On a recent trip to San Francisco with the muru-D cohort, all of the founders participated in a communication workshop run by two Stanford professors. After a few preliminary activities, we broke into groups of six and were asked to go around the circle and share an item of personal vulnerability with one another; we were instructed to start with the line “If you really knew me, you would know...”. What followed was a cocktail of honesty, catharsis, and tears. One middle-aged man (big guy, ex-navy) broke down in tears, his head slung low in his arms, as he revealed just how petrified he was - scared that he’d ruined his relationship with his wife and kids by not being around and that it might all be for nothing if the business failed; a widely respected woman revealed her deep sense of imposter syndrome; to my surprise, another founder who I’d been sharing a room with at our hostel told the group that he suffered from depression.
This experience reinforced something I know but often forget: we all go through shit. I’ve observed that founders often think they need to operate like a machine and not show any vulnerability lest investors, customers, and staff will question your capacity to lead. The net result of this is that feelings like stress and anxiety, amplified by the pressures of running a startup, are bottled up and not dealt with. As I experienced in the example above or through countless conversations with mates or family after a tough day, simply sharing what’s going on in my head with another person can be incredibly helpful. It allows me to observe thoughts and feelings for what they are, benefit from support, and not have to slug it out alone.
This year’s R U OK? Day campaign is about ‘trusting the signs’ to identify when someone is struggling and starting up a meaningful conversation. When you notice someone has changed their behaviour and might be doing it tough (whether it be a colleague, fellow tenant in your co-working space, or a friend), trust your gut and ask if they’re okay. Then, provide them with the gift of simply listening to what they have to say.
That simple act could be exactly what that person needs to feel OK, and that could make all the difference.
If you or a loved one need immediate support, Lifeline is available 24/7 on 13 11 14 and other services and tools can be found at www.ruok.org.au/findhelp