Interviews

Building bulletproof resiliency: How these entrepreneurs overcame their darkest times

20 min read

05 November 2018

Editorial Director

On the brink of divorce, destitution and despondency: Entrepreneurs share their darkest hours.

Mentally exhausted. Crying on kitchen steps. Suffering in silence.

It can be impossibly lonely at the top, yet this is not the image commonly associated with being an entrepreneur today. In a world where you are your business, where you’re only as good as your TrustPilot reviews, where growth is painted in black (or red) at the end of the financial year, and your public image is under constant scrutiny (thanks, social media!), business owners are faced with mounting pressures of a different kind.

Often boasting 20% year-on-year staff and turnover increases, founders of SMEs are often celebrated as UK growth heroes. Success is everywhere; on the front of business publications (including ours), on social media, at networking events and on brightly lit stages at industry conferences. But what lies behind the flashy headshots and PR sound bites? What is life really like for entrepreneurs juggling their personal ambitions, an indifferent, dog-eat-dog marketplace, and a volatile currency market?

It’s a multi-factorial issue with profound societal context, says Dr Arup Paul, deputy chief medical officer at AXA PPP healthcare. “We live in VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) times. This has had micro, meso and macro effects. Companies and their decision makers are facing pressure, this transmits throughout organisations and becomes an insidious anxiety.”

“In this state, perspectives aren’t clear and become distorted. For example, the definitions of value and return become perverse, such that focus is centred on the wrong things.” –Dr Arup Paul

#tooreal? 10 darkest moments you may be able to identify with

Founders of some of the UK’s top high-growth businesses have revealed the personal toll that building a successful company has had on their mental health. These are the darkest thoughts and lowest points 10 anonymous entrepreneurs have battled (and won).

10 entrepreneurs share their toughest battles and darkest times to inspire and empower other business owners."I came precariously close to running out of cash and was on a countdown to collapse.""Mentally exhausted. Crying on kitchen steps. Saying to my wife 'if I die, please tell the children how hard I worked'...""No one around me seemed bothered that I was silently struggling with my world, yet I knew that if I 'went down' they would all be brought down with me.""I was on the brink. I just wanted to run away.""I was burnt out for years, barely able to function, scared and alone.""My business partner wanted me to buy him out as we'd had a terrible year and he felt under threat. At the same time, my mother was on life support and I'd recently discovered that my father had sexually abused both my sisters.""Brink of divorce, destitution and helplessness. No self-worth.""It creates a lot of stress that cannot be relieved very easily, especially as often there is a sense that I have chosen this life.""Sleepless nights. My hair started to go dull and dry. There wasn't enough time with the kids and my marriage fell apart.""I felt completely alone, without anyone to speak to about my feelings as my professional and personal issues became intertwined."

A key theme here is how these founders found the resilience and strength to work through these dark times. Knowing you’re not alone may be the first step.

“If I die, please tell the children how hard I worked”

In a recent qualitative and quantitative study by the 100 Stories of Growth campaign, 45% of founders felt under extreme pressure and 25% of them said growing their business affected their mental health but they suffered in silence. AXA PPP healthcare’s own research into mental resilience and entrepreneurship reveals a similar theme.  More than a third of a surveyed 500 business owners feel that running a business has, at some point, affected their health in a negative way. Only 4 in ten take time off to recharge, despite 70% saying they struggle with sleepless nights.

The knock-on effect of this has been astounding. 43% feel so overwhelmed and burned out that they’ve thought about giving up.

Many have experienced isolation, betrayal, emotional and mental scarring. Others have shared accounts of broken marriages, bankruptcy, mental breakdown and burnout, while they have been growing their company.

According to the study from 100 Stories of Growth, 53% of founders say building their business has been one of the toughest times of their lives and 45% felt under constant extreme pressure.

A staggering 25% of the entrepreneurs questioned revealed that their mental or emotional health has been negatively affected but they’ve “suffered in silence”, while a fifth said they “felt like a burden” to their friends and family. A smaller but not insignificant proportion (8%) have resorted to seeking medical advice due to the notable impact on their mental health. The entrepreneurs in the 100 Stories of Growth campaign collectively employ a total of 14,365 people – their headcount growth is an average of 27% a year. In total, these companies have reported £2.76m in their latest annual turnover, growing annually at an average of 23%. 67% of companies export, and 62% of them export to seven or more countries, while 33% export to over 20.

“Working harder or longer, rather than smarter, becomes a ‘cultural’ norm and there is a generational effect too,” Dr Paul tells Real Business. “Decision makers are still often disciples of Jack Welch– there are a lot of unaddressed cognitive biases!”

Founders are increasingly starting from the back foot, reacting to change and external factors than taking on a strategic role. Many become risk-averse as a way to mitigate the shifting environment, which results in what Dr Paul calls a vicious loop of low investment into individual or team continuous development. This leads to a low adoption rate of new ideas and tech, focus on incremental rather than transformative change and a consolidation of outdated values and ideas.

“This then results in misappropriate behaviours at every tier which end up self-perpetuating. Hence, presenteeism: the need to exhibit commitment. And leavism: the need to prove excellence.” – Dr Arup Paul

Entrepreneur Michelle Morgan features in the 100 Stories of Growth campaign and is the co-founder of six businesses including Pjoys. “I physically and mentally burnt out quite violently. As a founder of a business, everything was my responsibility. Weakness wasn’t an option,” she says.

“There’s an ingrained narrative around investment, scaling and growing which is exciting and alluring – you get sucked into pushing yourself harder and harder. I worked around the clock for 15 years, putting my leadership mask on became increasingly difficult and in the end, I had to take time off and out. I couldn’t go on anymore.”

“What I noticed was that it was easier to talk about my heavy periods, hysterectomy and the loss of my fertility with my team and investors than my poor mental health. That needs to change, we need to make mental health an everyday conversation.” – Michelle Morgan

“We need to speak openly about the hidden toll growing a business takes in order to protect and empower others,” she says.

More than access to finance: What can investors do about it?

100 Stories of Growth launched its ‘Don’t Lose It’ initiative last month, encouraging all parts of the investment community to have a much-needed and transparent discussion about the pressures of building a high-growth business. The wider investment industry – from angel investors to VC funds – need to take responsibility for founder wellbeing and be more ‘mindful investors’, says Guy Tolhurst, the man behind the campaign.

The ‘Don’t Lose It’ manifesto will comprise a list of actionable points the investment community can adopt to acknowledge their responsibility and make a positive difference to founder wellbeing – something that was mirrored by 26% of founders in the research who would like to see more support from the investment community.

“The reality of scaling a business in the UK can be exhilarating yet bleak at the same time. It’s a big dipper of high-octane peaks of self-belief, followed by plummeting drops to the depths of self-doubt,” Tolhurst says.

As a serial entrepreneur, small business champion and founder of businesses including Growth Investor AwardsIntelligent Partnership and Mi:Cap, he believes that entrepreneurs need more support from investors– and not just financially. “In the past, the runway to investment was much longer and founders experienced rollercoaster–like highs and lows before they even thought about taking on financial capital, which builds emotional resilience.”

“Today, there’s more money sloshing around than ever before, just waiting to be ploughed into the next big idea, often run by entrepreneurs with little experience of the pressures ahead of them. Investors hand over a wad of cash and urge the founder not to lose it, but they should be advising the same with mental health in mind.” – Guy Tolhurst

According to Tolhurst, the SME investment ecosystem needs to prioritise founder education and development about wellbeing and mental health. Meanwhile, founders need to have an honest think about when best to take on external capital, from whom and why; while weighing up the personal risk-reward equation. “Not all capital is created equally and there’s more than simply financial capital to consider – emotional, intellectual and human capital all play a part in business and personal growth.”

Health and wellbeing strategies risk being tokenistic, Dr Paul warns. Founders, and their businesses by extension, need to develop big-picture perspectives on corporate social responsibility and their role in society as a whole, he says. Employees have a part to play as well. They need to commit their labour with reciprocity or recognise their own roles in shaping and moulding the values of the ‘society’ they are part of. “Changes need top-down and bottom-up buy in with a clear vision. They also need measurable parameters of success but these will not be classic ROI scenarios in the time-frames currently considered.”

Building resilience: Talking about it is the first step

Tolhurst’s own wake-up call came when he realised the only way he could get out of bed was if someone would talk him through getting out of bed on the phone. “At this point, I knew I had to start developing habits and strategies to kick-start my day.”

“On the back of a challenging email, I had a full blown panic attack in plain sight at an industry event, unable to see or hear I guided my way to a fire exit where I finally pulled myself back through a clearing technique I learned during mentoring years before.” – Guy Tolhurst

At that moment it just came to him, and it has become a coping mechanism he advocates to help people deal with day-to-day anxiety in business life.

Here are some of the darkest times faced by UK’s entrepreneurs and what they’ve learned from confronting these issues.

Simon Swan, Founder & CEO of Hiring Hub

We were insolvent. An angel investor that had put debt into the company was sending us winding-up orders every month. We couldn’t make payroll, were behind on PAYE and VAT, and it was the day of our Christmas do. I was on the brink. I just wanted to run away. A week before my parents had just given me £25k inheritance as my gran had died a few months earlier. Without telling my wife, I put all the money into the company to make payroll and pay for the Christmas do. I had a terrible evening. I couldn’t enjoy it. I hated myself for not telling my wife what I’d done.

Charlie Mowatt, Founder & CEO of The Clean Space

I am in a pretty dark spot right now. I feel trapped: I’ve spent 15 years of my life building my business but I am now in a place where I am not enjoying it. Exiting right now would be bad timing for the business so I must battle on. Deep down, I also recognise that digging in and seeing through the dark times is one of the key characteristics of a successful entrepreneur. Carrying on when others would quit is what’s required. One of the triggers for mental illness as I understand it is when someone is ‘split’. Head says one thing and the gut says another. I am split.

Stu Conry, Founder of Active8

I ended up exhausted, drained and The Priory telling me I should pack my bags head in and not talk to anybody for 90 days. I decided against it, changed my lifestyle and worked on a better work/life balance. My business is now focused on helping businesses as when I was on the floor I didn’t know where to go. After going through my dark period I realised I couldn’t be the only one and now I focus on helping business owners. What was interesting when I was with Sir Richard and the Fast Track what amazed me was how many of us as business owners have mental challenges. It’s how we tackle them.

Jonathan Young, Founder of Man Bytes Dog

For the birth of our second child (first child with investors) my wife and I were sent flowers.  For the birth of our third child (second child with investors) I returned from one-week paternity leave to find my office had been knocked down. At this time, the investors had brought in an external CEO, who admitted to me one day that they were taking another of their “founders” to the cleaners, as he had finally run out of money, so they were taking his company, 15 years in the making, from him.  Ruthless, greedy, ignorant motherf*ckers.

Cheryl Hadland, Founder & MD of Hadland Care Group

I discovered that I had made a big loss from my auditors after my financial controller, who was my ex-bank manager, had said we had made a reasonable profit so I’d already agreed to pay rises. I had nothing but credit cards to live on for a year, as a single parent of three.

Impostor syndrome 2.0: The strain of plastering on a perpetual smile

Impostor syndrome isn’t new. Pop psychology has touted it as the ‘fake it till you make it’ mantra, which may have been originally intended to instill confidence in people thrust into high-pressure environments. The impact of having to ‘fake it’ suggests you don’t have the elusive ‘it’ factor to begin with, and many high performers internalise this as a fear of being exposed for being a ‘fraud’.

Even Einstein had a case of impostor syndrome, yet he managed to change the world. He once famously confided in a friend, “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”

Of course, nobody really thinks of Einstein as a fraud, yet he still felt insecure about his research and achievements, just as many competent people today. Research suggests that people who report a high frequency of impostor syndrome are prone to constant feelings of depression, suicide, and shame.

They are the business leaders who change the world, public figures that inspire generations and even employees who dismiss their achievements and struggle with bringing their authentic selves to work.

Impostor syndrome 2.0 seems to be a specifically corporate phenomenon that is compounded by the pressures of living a double life on social media. Everyone is a public figure today, and our social networks and how we’re perceived can fuel the anxieties that lie at the root of impostor syndrome. It’s less about dismissing achievements as a result of luck or good timing and more about bring your perpetually happy, fulfilled and wholesome self (as seen on Instagram) to the real world.

Popular Instagram blogger Chessie King uses her platform to promote body-positivity, showing the ‘true’ side to each ‘perfect’ post by showing, warts and all, how lighting, camera angles and editing can change the way we see #goals.

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What you didn’t see in my last post… 💁🏼‍♀️ My tummy’s been like the right for the past few months. You don’t see it when I’m wearing high waisted thangs so I’m just showing you how it really is. I’m not going to lie, I thought I was pregnant (I’m not @mathewlcarter I promise!) but that’s ruled out… I haven’t stopped eating or moved into the gym for 24/7 sessions on the treadmill like I used to do 🙅🏼‍♀️ I’ve just been super accepting of it, it’s my body & if that’s what it wants to do, I’ll let it. There are so many other things going on in my life that are way more important than worrying about my tummy not being flat. Who else feels a bit puffy but isn’t wasting time being sad about it? ❤️🧡💛

A post shared by C H E S S I E K I N G (@chessiekingg) on

Peering behind the veneer of smiling successful founders and their fail-proof businesses reveals that the UK’s business community is in need of a very similar #realitycheck. It starts with being uncomfortably raw, real, and a lot kinder to yourself.

If you or someone you know is going through a hard time running their business, share this article and get to talking.