Founders and stress: How therapy kept a YC founder sane through 100x growth

Anand Kulkarni is CEO of crowdsourced software development startup Crowdbotics. He was previously the co-founder of sales technology company LeadGenius.

Anand understands the pressures of working in the high-pressure, high-performance tech space and how the type of therapy Kip offers can help founders function at the top of their game. We interviewed him to learn how therapy helps him address challenges as a startup founder and also gave him the tools to run his company better.

When did you decide to go to therapy?

One of the most common experiences founders have is experiencing high amounts of work and growth-related stress. At my last company we grew rapidly from a startup that consisted of me and two friends to a company that employed 750 people. When you morph overnight from a small company into a big one, the transformation can place massive stress on a founder as you become responsible for many other people besides yourself and start encountering all kinds of new and unexpected challenges in managing people.

I went through an experience that was pretty common: I was thinking about my startup’s problems all the time, day and night, and having difficulty sleeping as well as I used to. I couldn’t figure out how to deal with all of the issues that were coming up. I was working day and night to try and solve them. A number of people told me separately that,

“You should talk to a therapist about this.”

I’m not the kind of person who would ever have imagined myself going to therapy. I thought therapy was for people who were severely depressed or had mental health issues. I learned quickly that wasn’t true.

How did your friends broach the subject and why did that make a difference?

Two people separately told me that I should consider therapy. One was a business advisor for the company. He told me, “Hey, you’re going through some growing pains as a company. You look really stressed right now. A leader should try to get some outside perspectives.”

The second person was a friend who had been going to therapy for some time. He was one of the best adjusted people I knew, so I was surprised to find out that he was seeing a therapist! Part of the reason he was so well-adjusted was that he’d being doing therapy for a long time and had learned a set of really useful techniques. I told him about the problems that I was experiencing and he suggested that therapy could help me.

How did therapy feel? What was the experience like?

My therapist was really great. He explained from the beginning that we were going to construct this experience together and track what happened. We talked through whatever was on my mind — usually things that had happened during the week and challenges I was trying to solve at work — and he would teach me techniques for dealing with these problems.

“It was a lot easier and more straightforward than I thought.”

Do you remember any of his techniques?

Sure, I’ll give you a classic one. A really common issue that founders have to deal with is that we’re continuously worrying about an upcoming business challenge, and we can’t seem to let go of it in our minds. It could be “I have this critical conversation coming up” or “There’s this important investor meeting” or “I’m going to miss my targets for the month.”

My therapist explained that these unknown fears are something that our brain tries to work on and solve subconsciously. Our brain keeps telling us that we need to figure out a solution, but most of the time it’s not helpful to worry and there’s no benefit to continuing to think about it because it’s outside our control. Once we realize that’s the source of the obsessive thinking, we can teach our minds to let go of the problem.

When did you start seeing results?

Almost immediately. There were two big outcomes.

“First, every time I went to therapy it was a massive unburdening for me.”

The kind of problems you face when you’re running a business aren’t always things you can productively unburden on your co-founders when they may be having the exact same problems. Your employees are looking to you as a leader to solve their problems, so you don’t always want to share the company’s problems with them. At some point, your friends and significant others get tired to listening to the same problems over and over again and they’re not necessarily equipped to help. So, one of the effects that I felt right away was being unburdened by just having someone to tell the things that were concerning me.

Second, my mood improved. My girlfriend at the time would tell me,

“You must have been to therapy today because you seem really happy!”

I was not expecting that as an outcome. Overall, because of therapy, I was more equipped to deal with stress and manage unexpected situations.

In the sessions, we’d also do some things that were really tactical. I would talk about a situation that was coming up. We would role-play it out and then after, I would just go do it. It was so much easier to execute once I understood why I was worried about it or what kind of problems to expect.

Can you give an example of a tactic you learned in therapy?

Let’s say you have to give feedback to someone who’s responded negatively to feedback in the past, or let’s say there’s a blow-up at work where folks are yelling at each other and you have to discuss the situation with your team. Those are tense, emotionally charged situations, and most founders don’t have management training to deal with them well. Therapy can help you understand what causes these difficult situations, teaches you why people get tense or explode, and how to prevent these situations from arising in the first place. So, if you do therapy and then have to tackle the problem, you’re coming from a place of experience where you’ve done it once before. It’s much easier.

Did therapy give you other tools?

A situation that often comes up in workplaces that I find very unhealthy as a CEO is when employees lose their temper with each other. I don’t mean ordinary disagreement (which is a routine and productive part of business), but actually raising their voices to shout at each other. That’s rarely constructive or professional. Even if it works in the short term to force a particular course of action, it leaves people with sour feelings that impact’s the team’s relationships downstream.

“In a business setting, when something comes up and someone responds in an emotional way, you can choose to respond in a de-escalating way.”

In therapy I learned that when you’re working in a small group and one person is escalating things, any anger or emotion generated can bounce back and forth rapidly and amplify out of control as two people get increasingly worked up about what the other person is saying. If you’re participating in a situation like that, it’s important to recognize the phenomenon and react to it appropriately: stepping back, modulating your own response, and deescalating the situation. That was one tool that was extremely effective and came in handy again and again at work.

How did you track progress during therapy?

One of the things that was missing from the therapy experience (and it was a shame it wasn’t available at the time) was something like Kip to track the progress that I was making.

“I felt that I was making a lot of progress but I wish there had been a system like Kip to identify the issues I was facing and how those issues changed over time.”

Also, I think it would have helped my therapist. He took notes on paper each week but because he didn’t have access to my daily experiences the way that Kip allows, he only got partial information on what I was doing and how I was feeling. From a strategic perspective, we would probably both have had a better experience over the long term if we’d both been able to keep a record over time of what we were discussing.

Why use a therapist rather than a coach?

Therapists and coaches are good for different things. Coaches will give you business advice. Therapists will help you deal with issues in a psychologically sound way. For me, I chose therapy as a good and effective first step because therapy involves licensing and has a firm basis in cognitive behavioral health, and that’s extremely useful for people who are in start up organizations. Also, coaches aren’t quite as cost-effective as therapy since you can’t reimburse them to insurance, only to the business itself.

How soon should a founder seek help?

Actually, I think a lot of founders wait far too long. Most startups place an extreme amount of pressure on exceptional founders to perform and deliver.

“And as soon they begin to experience stress they can’t let go of, that’s where therapy becomes important.”

People will report things like sleeping less, weight loss, thinking obsessively about their business, drinking too much, or experiencing feelings of being overwhelmed. These are indicators that it’s time to start doing regular work with a therapist. Too many founders wait for a “crisis” before they start the process of therapy and I think that’s the wrong approach. It’s like waiting for a heart attack before you check your blood pressure. It’s much healthier to get into the habit of talking to someone early on to avoid a crisis later.

Anand is just one startup founder who has used therapy as a tool to become a stronger leader. This interview is part of a series with founders and business leaders who have used Kip and therapy to think and work better.