7 Tips For Founders To Beat Burnout

Burnout is still one of the most underdiscussed (and yet one of the most common) experiences founders face.

To help you beat the silent startup killer, last month we invited you to join Madeleine Evans, Andy Skipper and Natalie Falconer for an in-depth panel discussion on the subject.

The panellists

  • shared their experiences of being hit by burnout, seemingly out of nowhere,
  • gave advice on how to handle burnout as a startup leader, and
  • highlighted the importance of creating the right team culture.

If you'd like more information on what burnout is, take a detour via Madeleine's guide on The Path Forward. Then keep reading for 7 more tips on how to avoid it.

Tip 1: Beware: burnout can take you by surprise

Andy: “It's a bit like boiling a frog. You suddenly start to feel the physical exhaustion. You start to spot problems in how you communicate with people, how people communicate with you, how cynical you feel about the mission of the company. You don't tend to see the whole picture. And suddenly you think “OK, that's burnout.'”

Natalie: “I didn't realize at the time I was burnt out. And now when I reflect on it, I [say] ‘Oh my goodness, I definitely was burnt out'. But at the time I was like 'No, I'm just stressed. I'm trying to be a founder. And this is the norm. You're just meant to be really overworked and really tired and that's what everyone else does so it's fine.'

I then came home to my husband [and said] 'I just don't want to do it anymore. I hate it. I don't have a passion for it anymore. I just want to give up.'

That for me was my moment. I was unhappy, really demotivated, hated what I was doing, was frustrated with the team - even though they were incredible.'

Madeleine: “It's like a cheese grater on your soul. That's how I really felt. It was that deeply awful. I remember exactly the day. It was in May: 'I'm just done. I'm done.' My motivation completely snapped. It came out of nowhere and that was it. My behaviour totally changed and it took a while to come back from that."

Tip 2: Discuss warning signs openly with your team

Nat: “We talk about burnout [in our team] so we all know what each other's triggers are. We'll call each other out if we need a duvet morning. All three of us have procrastination as a factor that we can identify as 'We're starting to burn out a little bit' because we're just not getting [things] done.

It's been really good to have real-time conversations with our team about it […] We call each other out if:

  1. we look exhausted
  2. we're not getting what we said we might get done and
  3. our team meetings [turn] negative”

Madeleine: “You need others who are part of your team that are willing to share the real, granular details of what they're doing. To work through whether [they've got] process efficiencies or whether you actually need to hire more people.

That can be excruciating for people because we all like to think we're really efficient, that we know exactly what we're doing and how to structure our days. But, you know, very few people actually are.”

Tip 3: Founders, be realistic

Andy: “You have to start being more ruthless with your own energies and your own priorities. From there it'll trickle down.

The rest of the team will follow your lead. If you're expecting ‘heroic effort’ from yourself, the rest of the business is going to do that, whether you explicitly ask for it or not […]

Show people that you recognize the negative aspects of day-to-day work as well as the positives and that you're open to discussions about changing some of those negative things.”

Natalie: “There's almost an element from my perspective that you're leading the team, so you want to protect them.

So I think I sometimes try and pretend like everything's okay. But in the back of my mind I'm thinking ‘Oh no, am I actually where I think I might be?’ and need to maybe take a moment to myself.”

Tip 4: Create the right culture

Natalie: “[We introduced] that foundation of absolute psychological safety and trust, so we can genuinely be ourselves in our team.

So if we're having a really [bad] day, we're able to say to each other, 'I'm having a really bad day, I just need some space'.

And that might mean that one of our team doesn’t deliver that day. But there's an acceptance in the team that that's not going to be forever, because we're giving ourselves the downtime and ability to take that time back.”

Andy: “It's about treating [your team] as individuals and finding out their motivations. Finding out what's causing them to put in that extra effort that's pushing them too far.”

Madeleine: “Definitely approach the setup of the organization and the team with [the risk of burnout] in mind. The good news is the flip side is a culture that ferments high performance. Keep up a consistent dialogue with everyone on the team. And make sure you do regular reviews [of your] demand and resource."

Tip 5: Be selective about your investors

Natalie: “That investor-founder relationship has to be really tight. That might mean you choose a different investor because you need to be able to have a really close relationship where you can just talk about it all.

The advice I give to the founders that have - in truth - become pals now is:

  • Choose the [advisors] that really get you and get what your business is.
  • Politely ignore everybody else for a bit.
  • Just focus on the people that are going to really add value to your product, to your business, but also to your headspace and you personally.

That's easier said than done, right. Having that conversation with investors to say ‘I appreciate what you're saying, I buy into it, but I'm delaying that for six months'. It's hard.

But I think if we can give founders that toolkit that would be a massive starting point."

Madeleine: “It is really important the investor is empathetic and understands what you are actually going through. [That they’re] helping you prioritize yourself in relation to the company.

If the investor is only focused on the company, it doesn't respect the fact that in the very early days the founder and the founder’s health is so important. [Your health] has to be treated almost as an asset.”

Andy: “You need to focus on investors who have some kind of alignment with your resilience levels […] Typically you'll have a general idea of how much pressure you can take and you can match that up.

For example, there are some bigger VCs who are very focused on the numbers and the outcomes, and not necessarily on the culture and the people within the teams, and you can find that out pretty easily.”

Tip 6: Be ruthless about balance

Andy: “You have to invest in [yourself] like a car. Do an MOT. Take it for a check-up. Put gas in for it to continue to work.

Until I shifted my beliefs on that, I struggled to put the right amount of effort into maintaining myself effectively.

Now I see it differently: maintaining myself and my health -- psychologically, physically, emotionally -- is equally as important. And it's a core driver of success in my business."

Tip 7: Build resilience

Madeleine: “Be realistic with yourself. In the startup world there's a culture of overreach. The more we recognize that, the better.

  • Be open to discussing it with people
  • Improve your sleep, exercise and diet
  • Try therapy”

Read more on tackling burnout in Madeleine's guide on Path Forward.

If you found this article useful, consider retweeting this thread summary so others can learn more about facing burnout.

These insights have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


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The Rise of No-Code Platforms

31 CEOs and 6 Strategies For Returning To The Office

Empathic Leadership: The Secrets To Startup Leadership

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