For the Love of Founders

and their mental health

Josh Felser
Jan 22 · 4 min read

Before starting Freestyle Capital, I was a founder for over a decade across two companies: Spinner and Crackle. Despite two exciting exits, the most profound feelings that remain from my founder days are loneliness and stress. Yes I have positive memories too of accomplishment, camaraderie and validation, but the negative still overwhelms the joy of my journey. During my founder heyday, I didn’t know enough to seek help for my “work” anxiety, though I happened to be in couples therapy at the time. Unsurprisingly, my investors, back then, never once inquired about my mental state and certainly didn’t offer any resources I could tap. In fact if I’d shared my actual state of mind, I would probably have been fired or at the very least encouraged ostensibly to take time off. Those were the times.

Like so many others I just sucked it up, grinded away and punted, hoping for relief down the road. That strategy of denial and repression worked until it didn’t. My founder stress and burnout couldn’t be contained despite my best efforts. In fact, my mental unhealthiness impacted my physical health, by causing debilitating sleep apnea, as diagnosed by UCSF and missed by Stanford (but that is another post). I sold my 2nd company, Crackle, and vowed to leave the high anxiety of being a founder for the relatively easy life of venture, not that it’s actually easy. I was lucky to have exited Crackle before my situation worsened and ultimately found the relief I desperately needed to feel whole again.

We, at Freestyle, are all serial founders and have all experienced differing types of mental health issues in our careers. After all, founders are 4.5x more likely to experience depression than the population at large. Today Jenny, Dave and I work side-by-side our portfolio company founders as they battle many of the same internal obstacles and at times more profound challenges to staying sane and focused. We always strive to make founders feel connected and seen in ways that we never ourselves experienced as founders. No matter how much we care and do, or how intensely we coach, Jenny, Dave and I know that we are not mental health professionals. Over the years we have been searching for proven professional solutions to guide our own mental health journeys and those in even greater need, our founders.

It’s encouraging that our industry is now talking more than ever about mental health which does help reduce the stigma but as you can see from this Twitter poll, stigma is just one of the reasons why founders aren’t seeking assistance and it’s not even the most common.

And like many others, I too have sought to raise awareness on Twitter and Medium (https://medium.com/@joshmedia/therapy-is-for-libtards-68d29134dde1). Most of these posts on mental health help to make a difference and propel us in the right direction, but it’s not enough to just talk about the problem. We in venture are in a powerful position to actually provide solutions and leadership to help founders get the help they deserve. It’s time we started treating mental health like physical health and remove all the friction standing in the way of quality, timely treatment.

We at Freestyle believe it is our duty.

Freestyle is launching a heartfelt initiative that we hope will break down the barriers to better mental health for all in our industry. We will be focusing our initial efforts on our portfolio founders and we hope to inspire others by example. We applaud our colleagues who are already making concerted efforts to improve the lives of their founders. Our mental health program will evolve over time as we and our founders learn which solutions are most effective given the unique demands of being a founder. We will curate the solutions in our program, by carefully considering efficacy and efficiency. We are thrilled today to announce our first two solutions:

Meru Health: A three month digital program for treating depression, anxiety and burnout that leverages remote therapists/psychiatrists, CBT, meditation and biofeedback. Meru has published groundbreaking peer-reviewed clinical results that reveal 5X greater success vs. therapy alone or SSRIs. We are lucky to count Meru as a Freestyle portfolio company.

Hoffman Institute: A one week intensive on-site program, leveraging therapy, meditation, experiential exercises and peer-to-peer community, designed to break the most formative negative patterns from our childhood. Jenny, Dave and I are all fortunate to be Hoffman graduates and had transformative experiences.

Freestyle will make Meru and Hoffman 100% free for all our founders. Both services are time-efficient and have high success rates. With the selection of these first two products in our mental health lineup, we elected to focus on catalysts to jumpstart change, but look for sleep improvement, meditation and other more prophylactic solutions curated by us in the months ahead, all free to our founders.

There is no getting away from the stress and pressure of running a startup, but there are finally proven tools and services that address the challenges of being a founder, with many more to come. We hope our initiative not only helps Freestyle founders but encourages other VCs and companies to take tangible steps to provide their portfolio founders and employees with the help they need and deserve. Mental health should be a right not a privilege. It’s time. Let’s make it happen.

Josh Felser

Written by

Seed investor/serial entrepreneur. Co-founded: Freestyle (Early stage VC), Spinner (sold to AOL), Grouper/Crackle (sold to Sony)

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