Why founder fatigue should be a thing of the past

Columnists

The number of new tech start-ups incorporated in the UK has grown by 14% in the past year alone, and so it is clear that the volume of new companies, with fresh founders at the helm isn’t slowing down. One prevalent issue that has become difficult to avoid for many of those starting new business ventures is founder fatigue.

Once dismissed as a niche millennial wellness matter, burnout has emerged as an issue overwhelmingly affecting start-up founders which can prove catastrophic for any company in what are the crucial early stages which set a precedent for success or failure. According to the Harvard Business Review, 25% of entrepreneurs claim to experience burnt out.

However, founder fatigue is not an inevitability for those starting new ventures (or indeed those already running established businesses) if it is acknowledged and the warning signs are listened to. Being a founder of a young company is a stress many people will never get to appreciate. It isn’t simply the long hours put in, but a lethal cocktail of the pressure of ‘risking it all’, a passion for what you do, a drive to succeed, fear of failure, and the challenge of never being able to switch off.

As a founder of a business myself, nothing prepares you for the fact work never leaves your mind regardless whether you’re in the office, out with friends, on holiday, or simply trying to sleep. Founder fatigue goes far beyond the physical realm, and so a close attention to personal mental health is paramount.

There is however light at the end of the tunnel for those who realise the pitfalls and are proactive with seeking preventative tools both for their own sanity, and those around them. The continued growth of the use of technology across both internal and external business scenarios has also uncovered a range of useful tools that early stage founders can look to utilise. Understanding it isn’t just about working hard but also working smart from the offset will encourage founders to seek new ways of working to maximise the time they spend on the areas where they create most value and likely they also most enjoy.

Setting Strategy as well as Vision

The stereotype of a successful founder is someone who works constantly to make their business vision a reality. Working all hours of the day might seem the only way to success in the short-term, but it isn’t viable in the long term – for entrepreneurs or their teams. In short, it’s not a strategic plan which will ultimately achieve their vision. This isn’t to say 15 hour days aren’t required at times, but there needs to be balance as you scale – it’s a marathon not a sprint.

There is a difference between strategy and vision. Vision is the founder’s goal for their business; whereas strategy is about how the company gets there. Start-up founders often have lots of the former, but less of the latter, meaning they fail to scale their business into a profitable enterprise. Strategy is more than a commercial issue – it encompasses founders thinking intelligently about how they use their time and the time of their employees.

Naturally concerned about every aspect of the business at its inception, founders often fail to delegate out elements which could more efficiently be done by a team member of third party. This is particularly true with time-intensive administrative tasks like billing clients and navigating tax issues. Unless the founder has a background in any of these technical areas, it is far better to outsource the work to a reliable professional like an accountant. It may cost a little more but it frees the entrepreneur up to do what they’re best at, thus generating more revenue and overall business value long term.

A key element which is essential for founders to be able to manage strategically is having ‘the right people on the bus’, a reference to Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. If you don’t have the right people to delegate to you will never be able to let go which is going to be vital for the business to grow. Many people talk of not running before you can walk, and the risk of taking on too many clients too early on. Whilst this is certainly a potential issue in terms of product or service delivery with a small team, it more comes down to strategically growing your team to meet demand and better forward planning VS simply turning away business.

Agility

At times, start-ups operate in a wildly unpredictable fashion. Changes, big and small, are inevitable during those crucial first 12 months and accepting  this is important in keeping your mind clear, calm and focused. From hiring new staff, implementing structures and processes, to securing new clients and even shifting your product or service to ensure it aligns with market demand, all of which brings about a huge amount of added stress that a founder must take in their stride.

This isn’t about taking a relaxed attitude or leaving everything to chance, but, rather, acknowledging that some changes to the plan are inevitable (such as staff turnover, client churn – or shifts in product development ). By accepting the inevitability of such changes, founders can move with their business as it morphs, saving mental energy for the real battles ahead.

Use Technology to your advantage

Technology when adopted correctly, can help founders streamline many tasks and help to efficiently organise both back office and client facing activities. This in turn will not only lead to a more productive and well oiled machine, but also help to provide less stressful working environments through creating smarter processes and more effectively detecting burnout across the company.

More specifically, AI is being used across a range of business functions to drastically improve processes from accounting, and IT automation, through to sales, marketing, and design. AI is also being utilised in a number of HR applications to help companies become more proactive in diagnosing mental health issues among its employees and also to help treat them.

One example of this is London-based digital healthy company BioBeats, which uses machine learning to predict when users’ stress levels could cause a more serious mental health condition, collecting data from a wearable device. Tech-savvy founders that embed AI tools like these in their standard work practices can help overcome founder fatigue and support team members who may also struggle with mental health issues or stress.

The NHS is an example of a large institution looking to implement AI to improve patient care. But the project has also had the secondary benefit of freeing up over-worked employees from certain lengthy tasks. For instance, the NHS is pioneering AI tools that cut the time patients wait for scan results: Trialled at Moorfields Eye Hospital, an NHS AI system found it made the correct referral decision for over 50 eye diseases with 94% accuracy, matching the world’s best eye experts. In the long term, AI will both make the patient experience smoother and save time for doctors and nurses.

Start-up founders must also harness this “killing-two-birds-with-one-stone” approach and apply it to their own ventures. There are plenty of AI tools already available that will help entrepreneurs streamline their days when things get busy; like Grammarly, which helps founders send error-free e-mails even when under pressure, or AI assistant Amy by x.ai, which can schedule meetings automatically upon receiving a request. Of course, founders need to work hard – but if they also work smart, the physical and mental load will be lighter to carry.

The big picture

Stress is inevitable in modern start-ups, with so many moving parts and decisions to be made. According to the latest Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index, 45% of entrepreneurs said they were constantly stressed – the highest percentage of all workers. But with great stress and responsibility also comes the fulfilment so many entrepreneurs start their businesses for – and a combination of smart working and using technology to alleviate pressure points can improve any entrepreneurs working day. Many practice forms of mindfulness in order to stay in the moment of tasks as they tackle them, which has both benefits for their stress levels and can improve their ability to spot opportunities, according to a 2014 study of Alliant International University’s California School of Professional Psychology. Paired with the use of technology, which can improve both personal health and optimise workflows, this will help entrepreneurs develop an acceptance of the unpredictability of businesses as they grow – and will be vital in preventing founder fatigue.

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