How can investors help founders develop healthy mental wellbeing?

We’ve all heard the stories of what it takes to be a founder and the levels of sacrifice required to grow a company from idea to seed, to Series A and beyond. So much is expected of today’s founders. They have to find a way to make a maximum impact with limited resources in a short space of time. Finding product market fit, nailing the execution of their go to market strategy, and scaling the team are just a handful of thoughts constantly running through founders’ minds.

How do they cope as the pressures mount? And how can we as their investors help them in tangible and meaningful ways? We’ve been asking ourselves this question at Connect for quite some time and we’ve spent the last ten months designing our founder network to incorporate mental well being resources into it. We wanted to share with you what we’ve come up with.

Why we care?

We care because founders often put their mental well-being last and only think about prioritising this aspect of their lives when they are fast-approaching (or have reached) burnout. We decided that offering founders a variety of ways to think about how they can best protect their mental wellbeing would be the best and right thing to do as their investors. Here are some of the steps we’ve been taking to help founders address these issues:

Executive Coaching:

The first step we took was to find the right people to guide the founders through these challenging topics. Professional athletes don’t go from amateur to pro without the guidance of a coach and the same can be said for founders. We’re acutely aware of the benefits of working with executive coaches and so we set out to build a highly-curated, network of them. We found experts who had spent hours coaching founders and leadership teams at some of the most successful companies on the planet — Google, Facebook, Slack, and Apple to name a few. We shared our thoughts with them about how much we champion coaching and wanted to encourage our founders to invest in coaching and to treat it as a resource.

We now actively connect our founders — the sceptics and the curious — with these coaches as part of our Founder Network on boarding process. We match founders to the coach we think they would best fit with and encourage them to use the first session to gauge the chemistry fit and to explore how they can get the most value from coaching. We advise the founders to come to this first session prepared to discuss the one (or two) things which are keeping them up at night. It could be things at work or things in their personal life — whatever might be causing them anxiety or stress. What often happens is that even if a founder decides that coaching is not quite for them — which is rarely the case — nevertheless, they report that they found the session useful. Those who have decided to invest in themselves in this way have been reaping the benefits ever since and the feedback has been great.

Founders’ Retreat:

Stage two was a little more ambitious. We hosted our first Founders’ Retreat in May this year. Unlike typical industry retreats which focus on the networking side of things, we decided to focus ours on leadership development and founder mental wellbeing. We took 18 founders away to Javea, Spain for three days with the aim of creating a space where they could ‘disconnect to reconnect’. We designed the retreat to be half executive coach led content and half mental wellbeing, led by the wonderful Sanctus coaches. The response was overwhelmingly positive and gave us another sign that we were on the right track. The founders expressed how much value they got from the open and candid discussions over the course of the three days. They loved the fact that we designed the retreat in such a way as to encourage and allow for authentic interactions, honest conversations and the fact that there was no talk of ‘crushing it’ and all egos were left at the door.

Founders’ Summit:

Given that we limited the numbers on the retreat (by design), the next step for us was to figure out how to share more of this thinking with more founders in our portfolio. With our Founders’ Summit in mind, we decided to try something a bit different. Firstly, we switched up the theme and decided to focus on ‘Founder Fuck-ups & Fix-ups’ as we’ve long suspected that founders would find it more valuable to hear real-life stories of the failures their peers were encountering in real-time. What we learned on the retreat was that knowing that others are fucking up helps founders feel less alone and helps them to learn to see failure for what it is — feedback, a way of learning and above all, something normal. We used the summit to discuss their failures and the positive learning experiences born out of mistakes the founders had made in their respective company building journeys.

We also incorporated some mindfulness into the day and rounded off the summit with a breathwork session. This session was led by Richie Bostock of Xhale Breathwork who explained the science behind breath technique, provided key takeaways and led the founders through a series of breathing flows to help strip away any mind clutter and distraction they were holding on to. If you’ve never heard of breathwork, keep an eye on our portfolio company Fiit, as they’ll be adding Richie to their trainer roster soon.

Standout 2.0 & Happiness Advantage:

We now also give all our founders a copy Marcus Buckingham’s Standout 2.0 and Shawn Anchor’s Happiness Advantage. The books are two sides of the same ‘positive psychology’ coin. The Standout 2.0 book is pretty straight forward — complete a short assessment and the results will give the reader a strong sense of where they’re at their best. The reason we encourage our founders to take the test and read the book is because leaders of companies drive the performance of the company. By playing to their strengths, founders can focus on the tasks that give them the most energy and they can ensure they’re hiring individuals with skills that complement their weaknesses.

The Happiness Advantage explores the correlation between happiness and performance and addresses the question of whether happiness can really make a difference to the quality of our work. It challenges what we’ve traditionally been led to believe is the correct formula: work hard, then you’ll be successful and when you’re successful, you’ll be happy. Anchor makes a convincing case in favour of flipping this formula on its head. His theory is that when individuals become happier, their productivity increases by up to 30%, and they find their work more enjoyable and rewarding.

Final thoughts

We introduced the above offerings with the objective of raising our founders’ awareness of the measures they can take and the tools and resources available to them in order to help protect their mental wellbeing. We want them to know that we don’t expect them to be super human. We know and expect that they will experience failures and set backs, things will get tough and at times they might feel like they’re at their breaking point but ultimately, we’re there to support them as they navigate the rollercoaster that is building a high-growth startup.