Justin Kan: How therapy helped me level up and become a better founder

Credit: Carl Carell

Justin Kan is the founder and CEO of Atrium, a startup that’s revolutionizing the legal industry, and also the founder of a new startup accelerator Zero-F. Justin has a long list of successes in Silicon Valley, as the founder of Twitch, Justin.tv, Exec, SocialCam, Kiko, Whale 🐳 , and a Y Combinator Partner. It’s easy to think of founders like Justin as overnight successes–but even great founders need to grow to be better leaders and manage new situations that come up.

Justin started opening up about having gone to therapy because he knows how much it helped him and how important it is to fight stigma so that people get help when they need it.

When did you decide to go to therapy?

Well, my mom was actually a big proponent of therapy because she had become a family and marriage therapist. Before that, she was a computer scientist and mortgage broker. She became a therapist fifteen years ago and has been recommending therapy to me and my brothers ever since! I never made time to go until two years ago, when I was working on a company called Exec.

At the time, I felt depressed about where the company was going and didn’t feel like I was delivering on the vision I had promised my investors. I didn’t really know what to do or how to fix my feeling that things weren’t going to plan. I realized that I needed help to understand what the problem was so I went to therapy for the company’s sake and so that I would be able to execute the best that I could. I knew that I didn’t feel very good about the business and wondered whether there was something that I could do to feel better about what was going on.

How did therapy help you?

Therapy helped me a lot. It helped me not only in understanding my strengths and weaknesses but also to understand why I felt the ways that I did. Therapy didn’t change my emotions but it taught me how to be more self-aware. Through self-awareness, I learned how I could optimize my life to be happier and more effective.

What were some specific ways that therapy helped you?

I remember feeling guilty about a lot of things at work. I have a really strong work ethic. I always felt like I should be working. If I wasn’t working, then I felt guilty about not working. There were so many things that I “should” have been doing at the time: managing the engineers, designing the product, raising money. I tried to do everything and take care of every part of the business and it burnt me out.

I remember my therapist telling me that the next time I felt guilty, it was okay. She told me to recognize that I was feeling guilty and think about why I was feeling that way, not to suppress the feeling–just understand it. I learned that it was okay to feel guilty–it was just a feeling. I also didn’t have to let my feelings affect my actions. I had a framework that gave me context into what was going on and helped me move forward with whatever I was doing.

How did this self-awareness translate to your work?

Therapy taught me how to design a system that made me a more effective and happier leader. A big part of that was learning how to delegate. Delegation is an incredibly important skill for founders. Before going to therapy, my instinct was to do everything myself. When I run my businesses today, I make sure to partner with people who are better than me at all of the things that I don’t like doing. It turns out that the things I really like doing are sales, recruiting, and fundraising. I don’t enjoy working on product in the same way. That’s ok! I always thought that I should be good at product but I realized that wasn’t necessary. Being able to talk to someone helped me figure out these preferences and make better decisions in how I spent my time each day.

How else can therapy benefit a founder or company?

Actually, I think it’s probably a good perk for a company to provide. It’s something to think about systemically–whether to offer it to your executives or everyone at your company–but I think you’d see more happy employees who understand themselves better and better relate to others.

What was it like to tell people that you went to therapy?

It was definitely hard to say it to other people at first. It’s weirdly taboo in our society. It’s something I try to mention because I think people are better off if there’s more social acceptance of therapy. So, I just bite the bullet and say, “You know what, I’m seeing a therapist and it helps me.”

I agree–it helps so much. What do you wish founders knew about therapy?

One of the most important things an effective founder can do is retain their job. Just like you would spend a lot of effort trying to retain a great programmer or sales person who’s doing really well for the company, you should invest in making yourself happy and effective at work. It’s easy to burn out. I think think it helps to invest in learning what makes you happy, what triggers good and bad feelings, and how to manage your emotions no matter what is going on in your company. I think going to therapy helps you build that self-awareness.


Kip is a YC startup that provides data-driven therapy to individuals including founders in the Bay Area. We also work with companies to build therapy programs to support high performance teams.