Chasing funds or milestones set by VCs, and dealing with demanding customers, ambitious and warring employees, are among the pressures founders face on a regular basis. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)
Content warning; trigger warning: This article contains a mention of suicidal thoughts.
“Running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends.” - Elon Musk
Looking down from the 13th floor of his flat in Singapore, Harshit Agarwal felt a sudden urge. “Jump,” his mind whispered. He thought about crashing himself and his ambitions alike – but suddenly turned around, in a moment of self-awareness. “I saved myself from suicide,” says the co-founder of Appknox, a mobile security start-up. He was just 26 years old then.
It was the day that he and his co-founders had decided to wind down the company, back in November 2016, unable to cope with the demands of the market and the resultant pressure. Harshit’s case is not an odd example. Thousands of founders, co-founders, employees and investors in India’s tech startup ecosystem have bound themselves up in a pressure cooker that some believe hardly offers any safety valve.
The cumulative pressures of chasing venture capital (VC) funds or milestones set by venture funds, dealing with demanding customers, ambitious and warring employees, fulfilling expectations of oneself, co-founders and immediate family, rest on the shoulders of the founder who’s often in his/her 20s. Clearly, there are easier ways to live a life. But the dreams of creating a unicorn, becoming a renowned entrepreneur with millions in the bank, push many towards starting up, urging them to take outsized risks. However, there is this ubiquitous elephant in the room – mental health - that no one really wants to talk about.
A study by psychiatrist Dr Michael Freeman states that many of the personality traits found in entrepreneurs like creativity, extroversion and a propensity for risk, are also traits associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar conditions and depression.
A pressure cooker without safety valves
It was in 2014 that Harshit started Appknox in Bengaluru along with a co-founder. “In just a year, we managed to raise $650,000 from a VC fund. We were first-time founders and had no experience of being managers when we started out. We had the belief that things will work out.”
But as months rolled on, they realised that the product was not in good shape and sales weren't picking up. “I was in charge of sales as the CEO, but the deals weren’t happening as we initially imagined. The investors knew we were going downhill. We had a spate of meetings, and it was apparent that the company wasn’t growing.”
The VC firm asked them to move to Singapore and work out of there. The VC also appointed a joint-CEO in the company. “At that time, I was really disappointed. I felt I was not good enough for this, and that I had failed as the CEO. I didn’t realise then that the VC was only trying to help us. They wanted to bring in their expertise to save the company. But to me, it felt like I was being put out of control.”
He didn’t want this news to reach his parents, who were very proud of his achievements. “I graduated from KIIT University in Bhubaneswar and set up this company quickly and raised funds. My family was so happy to see me achieve my dreams. And now, so quickly, things were crashing in front of my eyes.” He and his co-founder even started having talks about shutting down the company.
After many weeks of deliberations, they decided to do exactly what they feared all along – wind up the firm. “That day was one of the worst days of my life. We were living on the 13th floor of this building in Singapore. I had this sudden urge to look down from that height. I almost jumped. But quickly regained composure.”
(Representational image) While stories of success and big fund raises are everywhere, the truth is that many startups fail to take off or need to make the difficult decision to shut down. Talking about mental health could help more stakeholders seek help when they're feeling overwhelmed.
The Indian start-up ecosystem, on the outside, is a happy zone. Big fund raises, acquisitions and high valuations give it a celebratory feel. There is plenty of media spotlight and the fame of successful founders spreads globally. This feeling of a happy, successful territory makes it difficult for the founders to express their true emotions.
Many of them appear to be externally confident. They try to camouflage their emotions by trying to look gregarious and joyous. “You see them being extra-talkative, laughing away, while all the time trying to hide their real emotions,” says Sanjay Anandaram, an investor and start-up mentor for over three decades. “A feeling of inadequacy sets in among many of the founders, when they don’t see any success in a long time. They suffer from low self-esteem and feel that they aren’t good enough.”
But this has to be couched, somehow. Who would want the truth to spoil a good story? Will people mistake my anxiety as my weakness? That’s a constant worry for any entrepreneur, even for those who have raised significant amounts of cash and doing fireside chats every fortnight.
A never-ending treadmill
When Infosys started in 1981 or went public in 1993, there was no manic pressure to deliver. But the world has changed, says Anandaram. Now, everyone looks to become a unicorn in 10 years or raise huge capital in five years. It’s like being on a treadmill that you can’t get off of, as everyone
Since most of the founders are young, often in their 20s or early 30s, they find the pressure difficult to handle. Very few seek help. It’s common to see their marriages/friendships break down. This results in a drop in productivity, morale and a sinking feeling. The socio-cultural pressures on youngsters are immense as their environment changes drastically once they become entrepreneurs. Though their aspirations are high, many are not equipped to handle hardship or delaying gratification.
Many founders feel they will lose their face if they reveal their struggles to their friends, family and investors. They don’t want the employees to see them under pressure. “Sadly, and often, all of their fears turn into self-fulfilling prophecies,” says Anandaram.
"It was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten." Does that quote ring a bell?
To keep up with their peers, some entrepreneurs start living beyond their means. There is a tacit expectation that a high-end lifestyle has to be adhered to, for impressing his/her close circles. Often, this is self-inflicted, even when no one really cares about what you do or don’t.
Over the last two-three years, this pressure has increased manifold. Funding rounds have peaked and the money raised from the circuit is humongous. Unicorns and "Soonicorns" are aplenty and the timeframe to make a mark has distinctly reduced.
This has resulted in peer pressure rising to the next level in India’s tech start-up ecosystem. The pressure could come from your classmates or peers who are quickly scaling up their start-ups or raising funds or moving into a large office. Meanwhile, you could be struggling to put together a 10-member team.
Sometimes, there are relationship pressures that can emanate from family members, friends or any other loved one. They want to know why your start-up isn’t scaling fast or getting funded. The pressure mounts from within your circles, when they see that your company isn’t going anywhere. You could be then seen as a misfit who caused shame to the family, who threw away a cushy job and launched a start-up, ignoring all the warning signs. But then, how can you shed the brave-heart image?
“The founder who has high levels of stress is not able to speak to even his/her family or friends, because they don’t want to hear the 'I told you so’ story,” says Puneet Manuja, co-founder of YourDOST, a counselling and emotional wellness platform. “Many of them have launched start-ups despite their immediate circles warning against it. So, they find it difficult to go back to the same set of people to discuss their challenges,” he says.
Consequently, the frustration rises and reaches its zenith, hurting the individual mentally. According to a National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) study released last year, nearly 1.4 lakh suicide cases were reported in India in 2019, rising 3.4% from the previous year. Of them, 67% were young adults in the age group of 18-45 years, translating to more than 90,000 suicides. Mental health was cited as the most important reason in many of these cases, especially among men.
The constant pressure to deliver results - and quickly - can feel like being on a treadmill that never stops. What makes matters worse is that founders often feel they will lose face if they admit they are struggling.
Imposter syndrome is a behavioural pattern in which an individual is doubtful of his/her talent and skills despite their achievements. To counter the feeling of incompetence, the person ends up working even harder, thus entering a never-ending loop.
Delhi-based Vivek Khandelwal, 34, who founded iZooto five years ago, grew up in a middle-class family where failure was looked down upon. “Growing up, our situation was such that there was no option but to ace exams and get into a good college,” he says. iZooto is a user engagement and retention tool that leverages web push notifications to help businesses drive repeat traffic and generate leads.
Khandelwal takes care of marketing at iZooto and depends a lot on cautiously calculated bets and repeating them. Most of these experiments or bets lead to small increments, though a big win is what he’s chasing. As a bootstrapped company, the founders have naturally adopted a frugal mindset. “We are always looking for a silver bullet which would ramp up our lead generation by 100%. I find that seven of the 10 times our experiments fail, two of them show positive signs and one ends up giving us real hope.”
When experiments fail, Khandelwal tends to get bogged down for long periods. In 2020, iZooto spent a considerable amount of money running advertising campaigns and when these attempts didn’t result in a ramp-up of qualified leads generated, he started questioning his ability. “I started doubting my ability to choose, execute or build a team. In fact, I started doubting each and every decision of mine.”
He took a step back and passed on all the decision-making to his team, as his confidence took a real beating. “Add to this, the Covid first wave, health problems of the parents and you have the perfect recipe for a downward spiral loop and the sound of ‘do you even know anything’ constantly grows in the background.”
The imposter syndrome had well and truly taken over.
Mental health issues are still not accorded adequate importance - few of us seek help when we need it, and very few managers are likely to give employees the day off if an employee says they are feeling disoriented.
Investor loyalty rests with company, not necessarily the founder
If you think the pressure is on the founder alone, you are mistaken. The investor has his own set of pressure points to deal with. That’s especially true with a relatively new investor on the circuit, who has to earn his/her stripes. Investors have pressure on them to figure out the right bets and pick potential winners. “People in the system think you are God, as founders desperately try to reach you and your fund. There is the pressure on you to learn fast and deliver faster. That’s when you need the support of the mature and experienced partners, who can show the way,” says investor Sanjay Anandaram.
Beyond a point, the investor community cannot worry about how the entrepreneur is feeling. The investor’s loyalty will always be with the company and not the entrepreneur. When push comes to shove, the investor won’t think twice about taking a harsh call on the founder.
“Investors have their own priorities and pressures. Investor is a fund who has taken money from other investors. The fund has a duration and an expected return. They have expectations of returns within their fund life, and the best return in their competitive space,” says Kris Gopalakrishnan, chairman of Axilor Ventures.
Stigma that sticks
The larger issue is that India does not see mental health and related trauma as a serious concern yet. There's a lot of lip service around the subject. To verify, try calling your manager and seek a day’s leave because you feel mentally disoriented.
Debjani Ghosh, president of the national information technology body NASSCOM, says that mental health issues present a global challenge. It is costing humanity trillions of dollars due to reduced productivity resulting from stress, anxiety, depression and related symptoms, she says in a handbook put together by NASSCOM. “In many societies (including ours) the stigma hasn’t gone away and it is preventing people from seeking professional guidance,” she says.
Kris Gopalakrishnan, who was invested heavily in the area of brain research, feels India has not accepted mental health as a health issue. “We don’t consult doctors since it is not seen as a disease. This is the transition we need to make as a society,” he says. If one does not accept this as a problem, how does one seek a solution?
This is the first article in a three-part series on mental health and the Indian tech start-up ecosystem. Also read How a congratulatory echo-chamber has Indian startups pining for self-care and Startup failure? In the business called life there’s always a new bus to board - the second and third articles in the series.