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How to manage your mental health as a solo founder

Nothing is harder when building a startup than keeping your head together when you’re completely on your own

If people ever asked what I’m good at (they don’t) I would be inclined to say things like I’m an OK writer, I’m quite good with people or I can roller skate.

It wouldn’t even cross my mind to mention one very important thing: I’m good at managing my mental health.

I was going to save this heavy-ish topic for a later date but, given that it’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and that there are so few articles on managing your mental health as a solo founder, there’s no time like the present.

It’s easy to spiral when you have nobody else to help

Managing your mental health is the hardest part about being a solo startup founder. Doing everything, making every decision and taking responsibility completely on your own is tough, and it’s really easy to spiral when things aren’t going right.

But I’ve been doing it for about a year now and I’ve stumbled upon loads of things that have transformed my mental health, which I want to share in the hope that other people might benefit.

Before I start dishing out advice, it’s important to distinguish between the “normal” bouts of depression and anxiety most people suffer at one time (especially solo founders) that you can manage yourself, and serious mental health conditions that need medical treatment. If you’re seriously worried about your mental health, it’s important to speak to a doctor. And don’t stop taking medication without medical supervision. My sister is a mental health nurse so I’m familiar with what happens when people don’t take their meds.

Sleep — if you can

I’m not going to tell you to eat right or get plenty of exercise because that’s either your lifestyle or it isn’t. If you’re someone whose worst nightmare is forcing yourself to go for a run every evening, putting the pressure of introducing something like that on yourself is a complete waste of energy.

But for most people, keeping a regular sleep pattern and getting the right amount of sleep isn’t too much of a lifestyle change and it makes a ton of difference to both your mood and productivity.

Me, knowing when it’s time for bed

I can honestly say sleeping enough is the number one factor in keeping my mental health in check.

I know what you’re thinking — that I’m clearly some early bird who loves sleeping and can’t wait to climb into bed every night, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m someone who is naturally VERY inclined to stay up late if I can. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, staying up late feels like getting free time. But it’s not free, it comes out of sleep and the cost is your mental health.

The only times I’ve ever cried over The Overtake have been when I haven’t had enough sleep

The only times I’ve ever cried over The Overtake have been when I haven’t had enough sleep. When you’re busy juggling different things, it’s easy to let that happen— a few back-to-back late nights and early starts are all it takes to throw things out of whack.

Sometimes you won’t sleep, of course. Sometimes you’ll lie awake for hours for no apparent reason. Often, if I know sleep isn’t coming, I find it easier to get up and do some work, which means writing the next day’s productivity off completely.

But it’s about doing your best and making sure your brain gets as much rest as possible so it can do its thing without falling apart.

Be kind to yourself…

… because start-up culture will not be. Start-up culture is a bullshit culture. It’s full of bullshitters who are always “talking to some investors” or “having meetings with a big company”.

Some of the bullshit is obvious but a lot of it isn’t. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that by now I should be at X stage or I should have raised funding or I should be profitable.

In my experience, there are two sets of “successful” start-ups — those that are genuinely successful and those whose founders are good at making them look successful.

It’s really easy to feel as though, if you’re not seeing crazy results, it’s a sign you’re wasting your time

This is a particular problem at startup events. One of the speakers is always a 24-year-old who just exited his first company, which sold for £40m. He’s probably supposed to be inspiring, but you can’t help feeling like a bit of a failure listening to his stories of huge success and massive investment rounds at his young age while you’re only just scraping by. Of course, what he doesn’t tell you is that by the time the company sold, he only owned 6% of it. You’re always only hearing the glossy side of the story.

To keep your mental health balanced, you have to have realistic expectations. There are so many books written by and about people who had very early success to the point where very early success has become a standard in itself. It’s really easy when you’re very ambitious for your growing company to feel as though, if you’re not seeing crazy results, it’s a sign you’re wasting your time.

Once, about four months into The Overtake, I bumped into someone who I’d consider a very successful founder. We were chatting, he asked how I was and, on the verge of tears, I admitted that I was having a horrible day thinking about how I wasn’t even close to taking a salary yet and I was worried the business wasn’t sustainable. He laughed and said he didn’t take a salary for the first two years of his now very successful company. It was like a weight was immediately lifted.

If you’ve got high standards for yourself (most of us do, that’s how we ended up here in the first place) it’s hard to cut yourself some slack but you absolutely have to if you want to survive without having a breakdown.

Meet other (good) solo founders

People with co-founders will never get it. Yes, they have their own problems — squabbles about the direction of the company, one person not pulling their weight, personality clashes. But they never know what it feels like to be truly alone, to have everything resting on your one pair of shoulders.

You need people who have got your back and know what you’re going through

Other solo founders, on the other hand, do. I joined an accelerator called Entrepreneurial Spark (now the Natwest Entrepreneur Accelerator) last year and, now that I’ve finished the programme, the biggest real tangible takeaway from it is the people I met.

When I suggest getting out there and meeting “good” solo founders, I don’t necessarily mean talented people or people who are good contacts, I mean kind, honest people. I have two friends, Krishna and Amanda, who are both fantastic entrepreneurs in their own right. We all live in different cities but we speak pretty much every day on WhatsApp. They both have completely different companies to mine but they have similar pressures and it helps enormously to know they get it.

Don’t talk about work if you don’t want to

When everything is stressful, in the snippets of life in between working, I find it best to attempt to empty your mind of everything that’s going on and try to enjoy being in the moment. To help you do that, you might need to explain to your friends and family that you don’t want to talk about work.

Hey Robyn, how’s the business going?

When I was stressed about money, mountains of work or something that had gone wrong, being asked “how’s the business going?” by well-meaning friends and family just brought back that horrible stomach knot that I was trying my hardest to ignore for a few hours. I think some of my family thought I was being overly dramatic when I said I didn’t want to talk about it, but downtime is precious and I didn’t want it ruined by the anxious thoughts I had the other 23 hours of the day.

Remember everything passes

I’ve had some pretty grim days. But a week later, things had always moved on or changed. The day I found out I was shortlisted for a Press Award, I’d been having an awful day. Every time, no matter how awful I felt or how business-ending things seemed, something changed and things got better.

Fuck the haters

Fuck the people who don’t get what you’re doing. This was a big thing for me to realise. I thought everyone would just be able to see the obvious need for The Overtake, and I’d never have to explain it. Even worse, I never thought I’d explain what we’re doing and someone’s face would be blank.

There’s always that guy who takes one look at what you’re doing and thinks it won’t work

At first, it meant something to me when people didn’t get it. I genuinely thought it made the company less significant. But if someone doesn’t see why your start-up should exist or understand what problem you’re trying to solve, they don’t have to. It doesn’t make what you do any less valuable because some rando doesn’t see the point.

Tfw someone tells you you’re doing your company wrong

And there’s always that guy who takes one look at what you’re doing and thinks you should pivot the company or that it can’t or won’t work.

Perhaps you might pivot. But you’ll do it because you’ve discovered that’s what’s best, not because some dude who knows fuck all about what you do advised you to. I spent way too much time in the early days listening to average guys who have never set foot in a newsroom, many of whom have never run their own business either. They were all wrong — the guys who said we should invest all our resources into leveraging Facebook, or focusing on video, or creating content only for students. I’m really glad that I didn’t act on any of that terrible advice but, each time, I wish I hadn’t questioned and doubted myself, and spent so long analysing what I already knew and worrying about whether what I was doing was the right thing.

The only person who is the expert in what you’re doing is you.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Every teeny tiny bit of support helps, so if you liked this, you know what to do to help others find it too.