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‘You can lose everything’: How founders’ mental health also collapsed with SVB’s downfall

March 17, 2023, 6:47 PM UTC
“You're in this scary place where you feel like you're beholden to your investors, your team, and yourself," says one cofounder, reflecting on the mental health of founders.
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While founders must assume some amount of uncertainty and risk, the news of the shutdown of Silicon Valley Bank—the largest bank collapse since the 2008 recession—highlighted another grave reality: The enormous pressure to remain strong, positive, and confident during chaos can come at the expense of founders’ mental health. Startup founders, including many first-timers, made up a large part of the bank’s ecosystem, who were grappling with being responsible for the livelihoods of those who entrusted them.

Those who had assets in SVB had to ask themselves, “How am I going to make payroll?” Nathalie Walton, the cofounder of Expectful, says. 

“In those situations as a founder, you actually don’t take care of yourself,” Walton tells Fortune. She sold her company in January but deeply empathizes with the sudden stress that founders felt after SVB’s news. “You put out the fire, and you make sure that everyone else is fed and taken care of before you take care of yourself.” 

She adds, “I don’t think any founders were practicing self-care this weekend.”  

And when there is a fire to put out, founders have to operate at top speed. 

“Sometimes it comes to the point where it’s like, if you aren’t responding, then you can lose everything,” she says, adding that being a founder had a detrimental effect on her mental health, especially her sleep. 

For Niles Lichtenstein, cofounder and CEO of Nestment, who has worked with a number of startups, the most challenging part of being a founder is when you suddenly lose control of the situation. It feels like the world caves in, he tells Fortune

“You’re in this scary place where you feel like you’re beholden to your investors, your team, and yourself,” he says. “It can be a very lonely position to be in.” 

Brad Feld, a venture capitalist and cofounder at Foundry Group, noticed SVB’s immediate impact on founders’ well-being, especially founders new to the arena. He penned a blog post addressing the issue Tuesday. 

“…the level of stress and anxiety, especially for first-time founders, was extreme,” he wrote, adding that he facilitated several one-on-one conversations with his portfolio company CEOs where people could openly ask questions and “just commiserate.” 

A pledge to center founders’ mental health 

Pioneer Mind, a company providing mental health support for founders who also happened to be funded by SVB, publicly acknowledged the need to address founder mental health this week. Naveed Lalani, the CEO and founder of Pioneer Mind, with the help of Aaron Gershenberg, the former founder of SVB Capital, created a Google document where investors and startup founders can pledge a “commitment to take an active role in encouraging mental healthcare for founders and the greater startup community.” 

It highlights the need for founders to address their own mental health, and foster environments within their workplaces that promote mental wellness. 

“The process of company building requires a tremendous amount of hardship, risk-taking, and intense ambiguity,” the pledge says. “Founders make countless sacrifices, both professional and personal, that come at the expense of their mental health. Yet, founder mental health struggles remain stigmatized and are rarely discussed.”

Thus far, over 30 venture capital firms backed the pledge, totaling over 120 signatures that represent over 13,500 portfolio companies as of Friday. 

This comes as past research from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco, reports founders are more likely to experience symptoms associated with mental health conditions, like depression.

Mental health as a business priority

Lalani hopes this public backing allows founders to speak openly about stress and anxiety, highlighting vulnerability as a strength for the business. He sees VCs’ support as showing “mental health as an advantage versus as a liability.” 

Lalani says building resilience should be seen as a “business expense.” VC firms’ commitment to their founders’ mental health solidifies that mental wellness is part of the bottom line. In a Pioneer Mind survey of 200 Series D+ startup founders and executives who participated in therapy or coaching, either one-on-one or in a group, about 90% reported a reduction in stress and loneliness; 91% improved business performance, and 75% improved employee retention. 

“We don’t make startups easier. We make founders even stronger,” Lalani says, using his team’s internal motto. 

While founders could ease off their gas on Sunday when the FDIC promised to make SVB depositors whole, the panic and pressure to keep climbing lingers. Prioritizing mental health on a habitual basis is key—it’s not a one-and-done kind of thing. 

Taking responsibility and accepting a leadership role comes with the founder territory, Lichtenstein says. But he has succeeded the most when he has what he deems a “patient urgency” or “the urgency to get things done, but also the patience to let certain strategies play out over the long term.” 

While willingness to disrupt the status quo can help founders succeed, “that doesn’t necessarily mean we always need to break and create a ton of friction in the process,” he says. 

Walton suggests founders practice creating boundaries when they are in the “steady state,” when fundraising is not top of mind or the fires seem to have temporarily dimmed. Taking time to recharge will benefit their productivity in the long run, but it’s naive to think that self-care can always be prioritized over the company, she says. 

Brian Femminella, cofounder of SoundMind, a mental health education and technology platform, reminds himself to celebrate the small wins. 

“Being a founder is like truly getting knocked down 99 times, and that one time you win, you need to cherish it, even if it’s a small win because that’s what supports founders’ mental health in the toughest time,” he says. 

There’s also solace in comradery—knowing that other founders are in the same boat. 

“…many founders told me that just feeling part of a larger community was helpful,” Feld writes in his blog post. 

Having someone to call when things get tough has saved Lichtenstein in a lot of ways, he says. He knows there are times when recharging and seeking support, whether in a one-on-one therapy session or a group coaching setting, have given him more resilience for future challenges. 

Addressing founders’ mental health doesn’t solely mean implementing standard self-care practices, but instilling a mindset that while hustle and resilience can be essential, recharging and being vulnerable strengthens the mind and, therefore, the business.

“Are there ways to actually kind of be healthy, be incredibly efficient and productive?” Lichtenstein says. “How do we not have to necessarily give all of our time as founders to just our business?”

While some may call it idealistic, there may be a paradigm forward where founders who move fast and break things are also coming up for air, many of them tell Fortune

“You can move fast and break things, but don’t break people,” Lalani says, a phrase a fellow founder told him once. “People need to be strong to perform better, and that’s what I’m hoping [this pledge] does.”

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