Startups may sound glamorous, but the reality is far from it for many hard-working founders. (Aaron Tait)
In Silicon Valley, the archetypical startup founder is brilliant, young, hyper-ambitious to a fault, and rarely shows weakness.
But in reality, many founders are struggling.
Entrepreneurs often shout from the rooftops about their personal and company milestones, whether it's a new investor or technical hire. But under all that bravado and outward confidence, many entrepreneur will face a lot of anxiety, stress and pressure to succeed.
"I've been through two startups and it's rough," said Glen Moriarty, a trained psychologist and the founder of 7 Cups of Tea, a website and app that connects entrepreneurs with peers, who act as confidential listeners.
"Founder life is incredibly challenging, but we rarely talk about it."
That's why 7 Cups of Tea launched a program to support the emotional health of founders of other startups. 7 Cups of Tea's team is deeply embedded in the startup network. It was among the first health companies to graduate from Y Combinator, the accelerator program based in Mountain View, Calif.
It takes advantage of a growing trend for digital services that connect people with online health support. 7 Cups of Tea specializes in matching people with trained listeners who complete its online course. Other apps like Doctor on Demand and MDLive offer on-demand access to doctors and therapists -- all that's required is an Internet connection.
Here's how it works: Register via the 7 Cups of Tea website or app, and connect to one of thousands of confidential listeners, who communicate with you via text message. Or alternatively, sign up for a group chat session with a featured expert.
I logged in one evening to a public 7 Cups of Tea session, where Charlie Hoehn, author of Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety, responded to concerns raised by startup founders, many of whom were anonymous. The experience is similar to a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" (AMA).
Some founders shared tips ("In my experience, leaving the environment I am in really helps. So I leave office and go to a coffee shop or a library"); others asked Hoehn questions ("If the focus on my startup is what is causing all the anxiety, how can I balance it with focusing on other things like family or hobbies?").
After an hour or so of monitoring the discussion, it seemed clear that startup founders didn't have many alternative spaces to discuss such topics as work-life balance, and dealing with both anxiety and depression.
Popular Q&A site Quora is one of the few alternative online destinations for founders to share their real feelings and connect with peers. When a user posed the question, "What's it like to be a startup founder," over two-dozen people responded. The answers were surprisingly frank: One founder likened it to the experience of raising a child; calling his startup an act of "creation."Another admitted that he thought about his startup an unhealthy amount: Every waking moment, including while spending time with his family or in the shower.
Chatting with a therapist face-to-face is advisable for stressed-out founders. But the virtual approach offers a few benefits of its own, and may work best in concert with traditional therapy. For one thing, entrepreneurs can chat anonymously with peers in the startup world, who share similar experiences.
But will the majority of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs flock to a service like 7 Cups of Tea? At present, it has only reached a small percentage of the startup community. And will the key influencers embrace a culture of vulnerability and openness, rather than perpetuate long-standing myths about the dogged startup founder?
In the wake of a series of suicides that rocked the startup community, Feld called for more honest discussion about how intense it can be to start a company.
Colorado-based Feld is now one of the biggest advocates for 7 Cups Of Tea's startup program.
"This shouldn't be a taboo subject," said Feld.
"Founders are buried by the myth that leaders must be strong... and that emotional and mental health issues will negatively impact their ability to be effective, so they must suppress them if they want to succeed as an entrepreneur," he added.
For his part, Moriarty believes it can help to match up people who share a visceral understanding of the day-to-day stresses of running a company.
Aside from reaching out to entrepreneurs to sign up or act as counselors, Moriarty also hopes to convince venture capitalists to recommend 7 Cups of Tea to founders.
"Not a lot of people understand that a startup isn't like grad school or a job, where hard work is often sufficient. With a startup, there is a lot of luck involved, regardless of your age and experience. A lot of things have to go right," said Moriarty. "That's very stressful."