Brett van Zuiden

Advice for friends of struggling founders: make them feel loved

Many startup founders end up tying their sense of self-worth to the success of their company. This is dangerous in good times and crushing when things go south. If you are close to a founder whose startup is struggling, try to make them feel like a loved, valuable person independent of their business.

Early on in my startup journey, a friend of mine who was also starting a company asked if I had any techniques for separating my personal happiness from the success of my startup, since he was struggling to do so. My honest answer was that I had tried a number of different approaches but none of them worked, so I resigned myself to the fact that the two were coupled and that “hopefully if things get really bad my friends will pull me out before I hit depression.”

Twelve months later, I lost a cofounder, started running out of money, did layoffs, and ultimately had to sell the company. I was stressed out and deeply unhappy. Fortunately, the people close to me saw what was happening and took active steps to help me decouple my sense of self-worth from the success of the company. They made me take vacations, spend time with friends, and pick up hobbies outside of work; they helped me rebuild my identity apart from work. And while I did have to take 4 months to recuperate before taking another job, I made it out relatively unscathed.

Founders are encouraged - financially and culturally - to do everything that they can to make the startup successful. Perhaps this is necessary to create the “unicorn” levels of growth. But most startups fail and – despite knowing that luck plays a huge role – when something struggles that you have done everything you can to make successful, it’s hard to not see that as a reflection on your own ability and worth.

If you are close to a founder at a struggling company, help them see that they are a good, worthy person, independent of the startup. Avoid asking them how work is going or referring to the company as “their” startup. If you can, get them to set work aside and go do an activity that they enjoy. Reminisce, laugh together, and tell them all the ways you appreciate them that have nothing to do with work.

In the wake of COVID-19, a huge number of startups are going through very difficult times and many will not make it. Founder depression is a real thing - if you know a founder who is struggling, make them feel loved.