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Founder Burnout and How to Avoid It.

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Courtesy of Brad Feld’s blog, we found a terrific set of posts today on the topic of burnout, an affliction that nearly all startup founders experience at some point in their careers. While it appeals to our entrepreneurial romanticism to “burn the candle at both ends,” burnout from working too hard can be far more destructive, personally and professionally, than all that excessive working was worth in the first place. (Just ask Om.)

Writes Feld:

Burning out is a chronic problem with entrepreneurs. In the early 1990’s – for a year before and after I sold my first company – I went through a tough period where I got very depressed. I held it together and got through it, but the memory of how I felt is never far away. I was completely burned out. I’ll be forever grateful to Amy and my business partner Dave for putting up with me during this time period since they were the ones that had to deal with the brunt of my depression.

Sound familiar? Are you suffering from burnout yet? Here’s a great post that outlines The Four Stages of Burnout. They are…

1. Physical, Mental and Emotional Exhaustion
2. Shame and Doubt
3. Cynicism and Callousness
4. Failure, Helplessness and Crisis.

Founder Andrew Hyde, the creator of Startup Weekend, succumbed to burnout and wound up having to take a month-long hiatus to recover. It took “a full month to be able to really recover, complete tasks, find neglected projects and really get excited about the project again,” he writes his recent post about what the experience taught him. Four whole weeks without working!

Hyde adds:

I am still trying to figure out why this is really important. Today I looked back at the pages of notes and figure out lessons and trends I would have forgotten about.

Lesson: Burnout = Distraction = Lost Opportunities

Burnout can also create unnecessary conflict: business conflicts due to lost opportunities; as well as personal/personnel conflicts, because it always affects those around you when you’re suffering from it.

So do what Andrew Hyde didn’t do: listen the people who caution you to slow down. This means your friends, your parents, or the parents of your friends (it might not be your investors!).

And, as Feld suggests, sleep more. Scientific studies prove more sleep makes your brain function better. Feld recently started to feel anxious again, he writes, but this time he spent 14 hours in bed. The next day, “whatever vestiges of my cold, fatigue, or anxiety were completely gone.” And so we close with Feld’s parting counsel …


I have simple advice for all entrepreneurs – listen to your body. Remember the quote from Dune “Fear is the mindkiller” and remember that most fears and anxiety are born of fatigue…Don’t worry about “pacing yourself” – that’s probably not possible – but when you see signs of burn out, take it easy for a little while.

5 Responses to “Founder Burnout and How to Avoid It.”

  1. Among the many things I read about starting up a business I found 2 things that are absolutely true. First, entrepreneurship is incredibly exciting and motivating but also lonely and depressing at the same time. The second thing – still to be verified in my case – is that later on you’ll miss the feelings you had during the early days… that mix of excitement, fear, doubt and instability will come later to your mind like “oh, do you remember of those incredible days?”.
    Last, I heard an interview to Jason Calacanis a few months ago where he said that failure is an option. Being Italian and based in London you rarely think that this is an acceptable point of view, particularly in Italy since until a few years ago being a failed entrepreneur was a penal conviction and generally speaking in Europe where young risk-takers are rarely rewarded for their “courage”…
    One last point about sleeping and not overdoing yourself. I found a good balance in sleeping 6 hours ish per night and if I sleep more I feel even more tired. It happens to sleep less (lot less) and you feel alright for few days, then your body tells you unequivocally that you need rest and if you don’t your performances deteriorate exponentially (that’s why I don’t trust bankers and the sort of McKinsey guys bullying to work 20 hours a day constantly). About sleeping and doing things that are not related to your job I found this thing – not necessarily right but true in my case… if you don’t put enough hours in your start up, if you don’t do all the things you think you should do… then you feel guilty. And that’s why people burned out. I’m definitely under stress at the moment, hopefully not yet burned out… but it’s probably difficult to admit it or even to realize that that’s the actual situation.

  2. Many senior executives reach the top of the corporate ladder and find that it was against the wrong wall! After slaving for years to get to the top, many of them find a cruel irony: They don’t like it there. At first, the job may be rewarding, but then it doesn’t bring them the emotional and psychological rewards they seek, and they begin to burn out from the stress. The executive gets to the top and there’s a letdown. It’s a feeling of ‘Is that all there is?’”

    Steven Berglas, an executive coach and management consultant, who was on the faculty of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry for 25 years before he moved to UCLA. has labeled this phenomena as ‘supernova burnout’, a syndrome that affects people who achieve phenomenal success. Berglas cites the case of Michael Jordan, who quit basketball at the peak of his career in the fall of 1993. While conventional wisdom held that Jordan retired because he was faced with suspension due to gambling problems, Berglas maintains that Jordan “still loved the game of basketball but quit professional basketball because he was suffering from ‘supernova burnout.

    In fact I recommend holistic solutions for both avoiding this trap in the first place and extricating yourself from it if you’ve already become mired therein.

  3. After reading this I am still not sure if I am suffering from “burnout” and even if I did I do not have the choice to take a month off because my whole project will go bankrupt and I would probably have to file for bankruptcy.

    My new project will go online in one month and i think I am on the verge of mental collapse (so yes, i have “burnout”), i would not tell anyone this, I am typing it here because no one will ever know it was me.
    I have invested all my lifes savings and a lot of my families savings too, good lord!!!