Founders, Are You Burning Out? Try These 3 Strategies.

Every founder experiences burnout at some point. Here are three unique tips to help them cope.

(This article was initially featured on on Sept 12, 2022)

First, congratulations to you for doing the impossible. Everyone knows the statistics behind how many startups fail each year, and you’re already beating the odds. 

The wind is at your back. You’re smart and motivated. You have a huge vision for your company and you’ve hired a killer team. You’ve raised your first round of funding or bootstrapped your company to profitability. And despite all of the momentum and successes, there’s still a high likelihood that you’ll eventually burn out. 

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Founder burnout is well documented and the majority of entrepreneurs understand the challenge they’re signing up for when they start their companies.

It doesn’t make the experience any easier, and no amount of exercise, sleep, or therapy will totally eliminate what you’re feeling now.

Here are a couple of ideas that you may not read in another founder’s self help book to cope with burnout. 

Get busier

As founders we often become obsessed with the businesses we’re building. Our venture is all consuming and our mental energy goes toward keeping the company alive, making payroll, shipping products, and keeping customers happy. All of that concentrated energy is focused in one direction. The problem with this approach is that when you fail, all of your self worth is wrapped up in that single direction.

To move beyond a single point of failure, get outside of yourself and distribute your self worth and energy across more responsibilities. In other words, get busier.

During my fourth year running Disco, I chose to sign up to be the President of my 3 year old daughter’s PTA to help support fundraising and charity events for families throughout the school. I spent more time giving back to the local community in my hometown in Wisconsin. I advised startups that I had no vested interest in or financial stake. 

My wife and my co founders thought I was crazy at the time because I took on tasks and responsibilities that provided seemingly meaningless returns. However, what I discovered was that by diversifying my workload and contributing to other causes, it forced me to think bigger than myself, build relationships with others that weren’t involved in my business, and more effectively manage my time. 

Constantly revisit your why?

You’re human and humans are always evolving. It takes a minimum of five to ten years to build a meaningful business, and the person you are when you start your company is hopefully not the same person ten years later. As you grow and evolve, your “why” behind starting a business will likely change as well. It is a dynamic and iterative conversation with yourself, one that you should revisit regularly.

Salesforce has a famous framework for introspection on our personal and professional aspirations called the V2MOM (Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, Measures). Employees at Salesforce reference their V2MOMs in development conversations and performance reviews because it anchors the employees in the vision of where they see their career going and what that employee values. What’s more, they track this over time to see how they’re progressing against it.

When I first started Disco, my vision and purpose for starting the company were anchored on financial stability for my family. I wanted to provide a better quality of life for my wife and my daughter. Over time, the monetary value lost its shine, so I began obsessing about proving the nonbelievers wrong. In the early days, literally hundreds of investors rejected us, and I turned that rejection into fuel. That left me feeling pretty empty. So I began to ask myself “why does this work matter?”. Once I revisited my “why” behind becoming an entrepreneur, I began to really empathise with the pains our customers were experiencing and shifted my “why” to be about serving and supporting others to help them live their company values. 

Your why matters when starting a company so remember to revisit that purpose to find the energy or purpose you need to keep going.

Develop a strong BS filter

When you’re starting your company, everyone will have an opinion about what you should or shouldn’t do, the market you should or shouldn’t tackle, how much you should raise. You’ll hear feedback from your family, your investors, your partners, your customers, your neighbour, your doctor, your mail person. You get the idea.

It’s OK to cast a wide net to learn from and gain opinions and multiple perspectives from different folks. However, over time, you’ll want to create a system to filter out the feedback that isn't relevant or helpful to the mission you’re trying to achieve.

During my time building Disco, I had a few associates at prominent VC firms telling me we wouldn’t be able to build a real business and that we should just sell the company. Exhibit A of unhelpful BS.

To combat this, we built out a very strong advisory board to consult on various aspects of what we were building. I also joined a mastermind group with three other founders that I respected that each ran different types of businesses, like a media company and a custom socks business. Each of these groups helped provide an unbiased perspective and opinion on key strategic questions I had been wrestling with.

Lastly, don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to founders that have previously exited or raised a massive round in your category. The first year I started my company, I had the founder of a company that was previously in our category tell me to get out and that failure in our category was inevitable. Exhibit B of unhelpful BS. Every business is unique, as well as the timing in which that business is being built. So unless this information or feedback does something to help you continue to build your business, filter it out.

In Closing

Every founder experiences burnout at some point, so it’s important to acknowledge that and try to reframe our circumstances to continue living when we feel like we’re dying.

Health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal has an inspiring TedTalk titled “How to make stress your friend”. In her talk, Kelly uses her research and findings to make the point that stress can only kill you if you believe that stress kills. 

As founders, if we can positively reframe our view on the challenges we’re facing, we can thrive when things seem to be at their lowest point. If we demonise these feelings, they will ultimately break us; However, if we view our burnout as an educator and a source of energy, it has the potential to propel us forward if we choose to run towards it.

Justin Vandehey

Entrepreneur & Podcaster

Justin Vandehey leads partnerships and business development for Culture Amp, the industry leader in employee engagement solutions. Culture Amp acquired the company he cofounded, Disco, which Justin grew from $0 to seven figures in ARR (and profitable).