The Aim is The Way
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The Aim is The Way

Community leaders OGs: We Need to Talk about your Mental Health

(Thanks to Dan Meyers for sharing their work on Unsplash.)

Much has been said about Founder Depression and Mental. My journey into the topic started when I stumbled upon The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship by Jessica Brude on Inc. Magazine. I felt I could relate to the story, having faced bouts of feeling down multiple times as I faced many failures and setback in my life and through the highs and lows of cofounding HUBBA and Techsauce. But I never thought that I was depressed, it just seemed like a blip that I usually bounced out of given some time.

I always felt that because I was a community leader, I had the best job in the world where I was paid to help others succeed and hence there’s very little chance I could be depressed. In my mind, I thought that:

  • I was doing great work for the community as an entrepreneur and community builder, helping startups succeed and that my work has meaning. People were thanking us for all the hard work and activities that we organized and kept encouraging us to do more. The media loved us and for the first two years of operations, we were doing 100 media interviews a year!
I believed in my mission so much I eve did a TEDx Chiang Mai talk on How Coworking Spaces can Change the World. (Obviously this was way before WeWork and Covid-19!)
  • the high of helping others, and enjoy the sense that the success of other startups, whether they are in my coworking space or not, was a noble cause that would repay dividends later as if I was collecting karma points that will. I wholeheartedly believe in #givefirst which was the ethos of the Startup Weekend community and believed that good things would come as it did in the past.
#givefirst and HUBBA’s first slogan which I came up with, #youwillneverworkalone were the ethos that turn HUBBA from a simple coworking space into a community powerhouse!
  • the recognition for the work and impact that we have created, the many awards that I have won both personally and as a company will open doors to many benevolent corporations, angel investors and government agencies who will support us to do more.
After 5 years of dating and proving our commitment to the startup ecosystem, finally we became the one and only Google for Startup Partner Hub in Thailand. Big thanks to Mike Kim, APAC Partnership Manager at Google for Startups and his team for believing in us!
  • I had many friends in the startup community, and if I need help, I knew how to ask for it and I was certain that they would come to my aid. And we were throwing the most epic parties, seriously how you can be unhappy?
How can you be sad when you are throwing conferences and after parties this epic?

Well, this post is meant to talk about founder mental health, not boast about my accomplishments. Because despite all the happy faces you see above and behind ever well photographed memory, lies a bigger picture that most community leaders are familiar with:

  • It took years for HUBBA to be recognized as a legitimate business and community builder and many people believe that we were destined to go out of business in 3 months, maybe 6. Definitely we should not survive more than 3 years. People were telling us that we had no chance once the big real estate company, land lords, large conglomerates, Starbucks, WeWork etc. come into our space, we would be steamrolled. That constant anxiety of dying meant we put in more hours to organized events, attend networking sessions, host webinars, write blogs, clean the space after a party and clock in on Sundays to see if other people’s meetups are going well. Life revolved around the space, like a second home. Initially that was great, and since the original HUBBA is literally a house, we felt like we were just living and working inside a friend’s house. But before you know it, by year one I spent a month sleeping in the coworking space, some days with not enough money to fill up the gas tank in my car.
Behind this beautiful photo was me sleeping under the reception counter. In the early days, I have been known to open the space in my pajamas.
  • The more we were encouraged to help, the more we felt that we had to live to a standard of being helpful, all the time. Even after work and on weekends. What started as making virtual intros for friends turned into hundreds of request for coffee chat, brain picking sessions, ecosystem briefings, judging and speaking opportunities. Hundreds of emails fill our inbox, and we are compelled to keep a zero inbox. We are never sure of who will be a helpful person or a waste of time, so we try our best to catchup by writing shorter emails, by setting up systems to answer the FAQs. But the more we do, the more there is to be done. At times, we end up feeling like we have very little to give, but when we need help, only a few people will actually respond to our emails and chats for help. And now, due to Covid-19, our self-image of worth is shattered as the startups that we serve are winding down and failing, but we have no tools or capital to help them.
  • Many community leaders are eventually recognized for the work that we do, but those awards don’t come cheap. We only get acknowledged if we survive long enough and beat all odds, and that could mean 4–5 years. Partnerships, investors and sponsorship conversations are touch and go for years because people love the idea to support the community, but usually not when they the ones paying for it (afterall, it benefits everyone like a public good). Awards and proposals that require months of preparation for paper work, only to turn out to be a waste of time, with no monetary reward or no boost in traction. We get a good pat on the back, but feel perpetually insecure about our finances. Few programs are like Google for Startups where there is genuine support in terms of content, manpower, PR and support for our programs; most require us to invest pro-bono, to sponsor our space, our man-hours, our mental bandwidth and hope that some magic comes out of all the efforts that we put in. But in our mind we know that more often than not, there’s not much we can expect from our good will.
I wish in real life the pizzas we order were this delicious looking! (Photo by Peter Bravo de los Rios on Unsplash)
  • We eat left over sodas and pizzas from our meetups and conferences, and end up hanging out til the very end to clean up after the closing time. Every other night we drink beer, go out to parties or host some of our own, and end up working late shifts and packing on weight. We get home exhausted, sleep a little then get up again to fight another day and prepare for the next day’s events and activities. Most of us gain weight, are sleep deprived, and overworked. We can do it for a while but as the years go by, we start to become demotivated just thinking about hanging out in our community and network, we give excuses that we have no time or are too tired to go to the gym, and begin to feel like there’s too many Zoom calls and webinars, that we have to work at home, on weekends, in between meals. Worse, we could be waking up some days and feel like we don’t want to go to our coworking space, attend that event and meet people, or eve checking our calendar and emails.
The story behind this photo of Techstars Community Leaders APAC Summit in 2018, my team and I worked 11 days straight hosting a Corporate Innovation Day with Techstars and the Stock Exchange of Thailand, 5days of events for Thailand Startup Week, 2 days of Techsauce Global Summit and 3 days of this event. Let’s just say we took a moth off afterwards.

So if my experience resonates with you, you are experiencing community burnout and very well on the way to depression. Trust me, I’ve been on this path before, and while we overclock our lives from time to time to meet the demands of pop-up events and government tender opportunities, the fact is we are getting older. We no longer recover like we did when we started and making up for sleep over the weekend no longer works. Our body doesn’t automatically bounce back and self heal after Netflix and chilling. We picked up bad habits that become part of who we are. And maybe, just maybe something is wrong with us not just emotionally, but due to stress, it has become permanent hardwired into our brain. So what do we do when we start to have abnormal thoughts like thinking of jumping in front of a Skytrain, or disappearing forever? Here’s my five pieces of advice as you start to go on your path to recovery:

1. Observe and acknowledge that you’re not being yourself.

It starts with feeling overwhelmed and a little blurry and tired. We start to drink a bit more, pack a few extra pounds, and start to feel like there’s too much to do and not enough time. That we are not living up to our standards, that we are not moving fast enough to beat the competition or growing as fast as the startups we serve. Normally, this would just be a rough day. But the key is to observe yourself and to listen to your body. While your mind may be telling you that the grind is the sacrifice you make to achieve success, and that if you are not productive and making deals you are not worth anything, your body might be telling you a different story. It might be asking for more love, more self care, more nourishment, and some time off. Trust the signals, because the body is tough, but it is not a machine and will break down.

2. You are not Elon Musk. Go to bed.

Some of the most damaging memes that are floating on the internet in the 80 hour work week. Or 9–9–6 work culture in China. Yes I understand that in business sometimes you need to sprint. But multiple research has already stated the benefits of a full nights sleep and the dangers of chronic lack of sleep. As a community leader, whenever I sleep less than 7 hours, I come to the office more cranky. I noticed that zone out in meetings more, become less interested in the events we organize and find it hard to focus. If we are not fully rested, we cannot do our best work. It’s time we explore any prioritize the amount of work and projects we are working on, drop some stuff that does not make sense or contribute to our goals, and redesign our day so that that we will get 7–8 hours of sleep a day as a default. Have cheat days, but stop glorifying insomnia as a badge of honor.

3. Your life does not revolve around your coworking space / accelerator / online community. Take time off and unplug.

Many times as an ecosystem builder, we often joke that our favorite hobby is to visit other coworking spaces like a tourst (yes, I say this a lot), or spend our weekend checking out events, and we are often invited to different programs and demo days that we are compelled to go to support and show face. But while these hours seems like you’re not working, it is every hour you spend less with your family, exercising, making a healthy meal or learning a new skill. The more you normalize this behavior and hang out with the lovely workaholics in the ecosystem (I was definitely one of them), we are unconsciously reinforcing a behavior that we need to show up at every event to give support, that we should feel FOMO when we miss that epic conference or livestream, or that we are less dedicated to our community because we don’t show up on Sunday. To break this pattern of thinking, make taking a break mandatory. For me, that means Sunday is family day and no work can be booked on this day. Nowadays, during Covid-19, every major startup event is livestream or recorded. Check them out only when it is interesting, and trust me you’re not missing out much as the content is all saying the things (trust me, I run thousands of talks and events). If it is really good, someone will tell you to watch it.

4. Hang out with people and community who actually care about mental health

For a lot of us, we don’t know that our friends are having mental health issues. Nobody goes around and brag to people that there’s something wrong with them and most people do not have the experience and bravery to share the deepest, darkest side. But these communities of care exists, and they talk about our failures, our shortcomings, our emotions openly and honestly especially for founders and community leaders who are often misunderstood by the general public. This is the kind of community that you want to be a part of, because the best communities not only care about how successful you are, how much money you have raise, how big is your team and exit and what sneakers or selfies with famous people you have. For a community to be really strong and genuine, it has to deal with the uncomfortable truths that people aren’t perfect, that there are times we will not crush it, that our ventures will flop or that we will make bad decisions we live to regret.

So ask yourself, what communities are you a part of and are they really the ones that support you and love you for who you are without judgement, or is it just about a brand, a transaction or a data acquisition play? One of the most important communities in my life that I have a chance to be a part of is Techstars which openly encourages conversation about mental health. When I was in Turin, Italy last year for the OGR Summit hosted by Techstars where the top active community leaders across the world convened to reconnect and learn from one another, one of the most important talk was by my friend Matt Helt who shared his story of battling anxiety, panic attacks, and obsessive-compulsive disorder through out his life. It wasn’t just another feel good session, but a genuine talk that needed to be make public and front of mind for many people. I don’t know if other attendees were as moved as me, but it was a talk I needed to hear as I was battling my own severe bout of depression in my ventures and teams. As Matt finished his talk, I charged in and poured my heart out to this friend, who without judgement, shared his life story too. By the end of our 15 minute networking session, I had a revelation that no other communities or mentors could have given me; that I might be depressed and my body might not be able self-heal and recover like I used to. He recommend me that I get help, and be unashamed to do it. Because of that one talk and a 15 minute session, I was able to seek help and got on the road to recovery after 9 months. (And in case you were wondering, I have never been happier now than anytime in this past decade.)

Here’s a short version of Matt’s story shared at the OGR Summit in Turin. Just imagine how brave he is to sharee this publicly to the world.

5. Seek professional help and no, your cofounder/mentor/investor is not a shrink.

In the end, we usually seek our buddies who seem like they know a thing or two about our work and usually dishes out great advice. But like the advice we usually give to startups, we always advise founders to talk to experts, and ignore the noise of the casual mentor and life coaches who gives you nuggets of wisdom (like go get a massage, go run, go get a drink, go meditate bla bla bla) but don’t really know what you are going through and how serious the situation is. Some of their strategies may work for them but everyone is unique so try them but be mindful that it could be a like applying bandaid on a gunshot wound. Their intention may be good but sometimes they have a hidden motive, like this one time when a VC told me, after I came back from a monk retreat that I should not take those practices back to my life too much like being more mindful, slowing down and work less because you need to make an exit for the fund. Many times, there are stuff you cannot share with folks in your community, your team, or your investor. And even if you have a great cofounder and backers, they are also going through their own stress, addictions and depression and are not in the position to support and understand you.

This is what professional help looks like.

So while finding a secret group of people for you to rant with and reminiscing on your collective misfortune is fun and important like what one of the group I work with, Founder Therapy, does on a biweekly basis and HUBBA does in our Founder Square program, there are times when you need professional help to identify the root causes of your distress, to assess your body’s ability to heal and deal with the trauma of startup life and aid it with medicine when our body comes short of fixing itself. Don’t be shameful to seek help, and reframe your perception of it. 20% of all of us will be depressed some times in our lives, so think of yourself like a high performance athlete that needs a special coach and tutor to take your game to the next level. Normalize it. Be comfortable. Be true to yourself.

Because community building is a marathon, if you are in a dark place, you cannot be the light that everyone needs you to be. So use this Covid-19 pandemic to fix you, and let your light shine again brighter and longer than it ever did before. Community Leader OGs like you and me are a rare and dying breed, a group of people not motivated by money but by the success of others. Over the past decade, less that 10% of Community Leaders I worked with are still active, growing and happy. Most are jaded, burnt out, disillusioned and have move on. We need you to do your magic when the world goes into a Post-Covid 19 recovery, but in this World Mental Health Awareness month and everyday, we need you to take care on yourself before you can take care of everyone else.

Thank you to Techstars for inspiring me to write this post. Visit here for more resources and check out the rest of the videos in the 4-part series:

Women founders can face severe mental health issues as well. So always ask people how they really are doing even if they seem happy.
Brad Feld’s book on Startup Communities is the Bible that have guided my professional career as an ecosystem builder in Thailand. It’s even more incredible that he is also open to sharing his mental health struggles!

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Amarit (Aim) Charoenphan

Amarit (Aim) Charoenphan

Transplanetarian & Ecosystem Developer. ASEAN Director, ImpactCollective. Innovation Advisor, VERSO International School. EHF Fellow, Obama Fdn. Leader APAC.