Written By: Michael DeVenney, Halifax, Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur, Chartered Financial Analyst, Avid Cyclist, and Founder of The Mindset Project

“I know how my depression hurt my team, my business, my clients, my friends and family.” – Michael DeVenney, Entrepreneur

My name is Michael DeVenney. I’m an entrepreneur, a Chartered Financial Analyst, an avid cyclist, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve lived on a roller coaster of anxiety and depression.

It wasn’t until three years ago that I was diagnosed with clinical depression after many years of suffering in silence. Only recently have I begun to share my experiences in wider circlesFear of judgement by my peers, punishment by my investors and clients, and a sense that there was something wrong with me all held me back from opening up.

If you look around you, mental illness is probably there. It is widely accepted that about one in five people suffer from depression over their lifetime and even more people suffer from anxiety disorders. The likelihood is someone close to you, a colleague, friend or a family member, or even you, has a mental health disease. And it is a disease.

If you look within the corporate community, where working around the clock and setting unreasonable expectations are treated as badges of honour, open discussion, let alone disclosure of a mental illness is largely taboo. Our corporate culture encourages us to build walls around ourselves to make sure no one finds out we are struggling. This only compounds the stress of maintaining a stiff upper lip amid crippling pressure.

As an entrepreneur, I felt hard-wired to give off an air of confidence, strength and control. There was no challenge too big, no opportunity too small… I was taught to push myself to the brink. I learned to internalize problems. My work was my identity and the only way thing through which I measured self worth.

Out of fear of failing to measure up to others’ expectations of me, I isolated myself. I believed that even my family and friends wouldn’t understand.

… I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When I publicly shared my struggles with anxiety and depression, I was astounded by the number of my peers who reached out to indicate that they had been experiencing the same issues – and suffering in silence.

As we increasingly rely on entrepreneurs – the human beings behind growing businesses – to drive our economy forward, I am concerned about some of the unintended consequences that may come from pushing more people toward entrepreneurship.

“We’re programmed and told over and over again that as leaders we have to be strong; we have to show no weakness.” – Brad Feld, Entrepreneur, Founder 7cups.com

Entrepreneurship Isn’t Easy.

Entrepreneurship comes with a unique combination of stresses and opportunities, which, if managed appropriately, can lead to considerable success. But it isn’t easy.

For starters, simply put, start-ups are statistically more likely to fail than succeed:

  • 92% of tech start-ups fail in the first three years (Harvard Business Review, 2015).
  • 75% of start-ups (all sectors) fail within the first three years (University of Tennessee, 2016).

Of the companies that do survive, very few thrive:

  • According to Statistics Canada, the average annual growth rate of companies that live through their first three years is 3%; and only 4% of surviving companies achieve annual growth rates of over 10%.

So, why do so many businesses meet their demise so early into their existence?

Recent studies by PWC Canada and the University of Tennessee, respectively, tell us that there are a number of common causes for failure:

  • Incompetence (46%) and lack of owner experience (30%)
  • Lack of funding (35%)
  • Lack of revenue generation (28%)
  • Poor operations and processes (14%)
  • Challenges with people and talent (10%)

Above all of this, increasingly, we are discovering that the business isn’t the only thing subject to collapse. Perhaps the most troubling is the impact of entrepreneurship on the mental health of the founder. A small (n=242) 2015 US study by Dr. Michael Freeman of the University of California indicated that:

  • 72% of entrepreneurs deal with some type of mental illness;
  • 49% of first degree relationships (spouses, partners, children and even parents) will develop mental health issues from the second-hand stress of the entrepreneur; and,
  •  32% of entrepreneurs will experience clinical depression, compared to 7% in the general population.

Data related to the intersection of mental health and entrepreneurship is limited, at best, particularly in Canada. We aim hope to change this with the Mindset Project.

“The bigger the gap between where you are and your expectations of where you should be; the higher the stress.” – Glen Moriarty, Psychologist

In our environmental scan of the intersection of mental health and entrepreneurship, we found largely anecdotal evidence of causes and impacts.

We’ve seen a growing number of thoughtful, inspiring and insightful blogs on the topic.

Few efforts are focused on getting hard data to inform the mental health and wellness supports we provide to entrepreneurs. Much like our health system in Canada, a disproportionate amount of effort is being allocated to fixing things that are broken rather than preventing them before they break. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say. This applies to wellness of entrepreneurs.

Through a thoughtfully planned and executed research project, The Mindset Project will dig deep into where entrepreneurship and mental health meet, resulting in the largest collection of data related to founder wellness to date. We’ll be executing a national survey, conducting in-depth interviews to enable more founders to share their stories (here’s a sample), and using the innovative KOLBE assessment diagnostic to break down the unique stresses entrepreneurship.

Survey- Through a secure, confidential online survey hosted on SurveyGizmo, we will ask questions about the entrepreneurial experience, mental health and key stressors associated with entrepreneurship. We have a goal of obtaining 2,000 responses, which will produce the largest collection of data in Canada focused specifically on entrepreneurial mental health. We’ll be using this data to inject evidence into the conversation on founder wellness. You can click here to take our survey and have a chance at winning of one of three $1,000 cash prizes.

Interviews- As Dr. Brene Brown says “maybe stories are just data with a soul”. Through the Mindset Project, we aim to interview 100 entrepreneurs, highlighting their motivation for entrepreneurship, the challenges they faced with respect to managing their mental health, and their best advice for managing the unique stresses that come along with entrepreneurship. With participant consent, the interviews will be transformed into rich narratives to be posted on the Your Stories section of this site.

KOLBE – Through an innovative partnership with Kolbe, we’ll use proprietary assessment software to measure the gap between natural decision-making approaches and strengths for founders with their expectations of those around them (investors, customers, team, members) to determine how much stress they experience is “self-created”.

We’ll be sharing insights and results of our work throughout the Project to better inform how we support entrepreneurs.

There are no silver bullets; but a little silver shrapnel can’t hurt.

There is no shortage of data indicating common reasons for company failure and there is a growing body of evidence (primarily qualitative and anecdotal at this point) on the personal impact of operating a business. If we want different results, clearly, we need to do things differently.

So, what can we do differently?

It is time that we let the numbers do the talking and put into play an approach to start-up support that encompasses in-step development of the entrepreneurial venture and the founder behind it.

First and foremost, I believe it is imperative that we acknowledge the significant stresses and mental health impacts of entrepreneurship through regular, open dialogue. Entrepreneurship is tough, but it’s even tougher when you are carrying the weight of lofty expectations on your own. The data tells us there is a problem. Let’s own up to it.

Next, we’ve got to get beyond talk. It frightens me the degree to which the latest generation of entrepreneurs is willing to sacrifice their wellbeing in the pursuit of making it. I’ve encountered countless young Founders who have run into considerable stress and mental health issues and did not have access to appropriate psychological or health system supports. I believe that we could improve both personal and business outcomes through giving start-up entrepreneurs better health plans – a relatively small investment that could have a major impact.

Finally, I’d like to see more emphasis on personal development of entrepreneurs in-step with the growth of their business. As an investor, I’d like to know that the health and wellness of the person who is managing the health of my investment is taking care of themselves and being given the tools (both personal and professional) they need to succeed. Mental illness is a serious business risk, but can be mitigated with thoughtful personal development and appropriate ongoing supports (from cash flow counselling to mindfulness training).

It is time we stop telling entrepreneurs that “stress is a natural part of work” and to “suck it up”. We have to remember the people behind the companies they manage.

There is a better way. By caring as much about the wellness of the entrepreneur as we do about their wellness of their company, we can reach previously uncharted territory in growth and impact. I fundamentally believe that healthier entrepreneurs equal healthier companies that are more capable of creating sustained impact.

I am deeply committed to creating a movement that empowers more entrepreneurs to talk about and manage their mental health and to developing supports to ensure we are developing founders in-step with their businesses. I hope you will join me in making The Mindset Project a success.

“Mental illness is the biggest business risk of this century, and it is largely going unacknowledged.” – Michael DeVenney, Entrepreneur

About the Author
Michael DeVenney is a Halifax, Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur, Chartered Financial Analyst and avid cyclist, and founder of The Mindset Project, a movement to focus on the wellness of entrepreneurs to enable healthier companies.

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This document was created on March 31, 2016 and is based on the best information available at that time. Check here for updates.

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