Patrick Riley: Founders’ Mental Health Matters

The startup scene is often characterized by fast-paced growth, euphoric wins, and an endless hunger to always be better. Yet, it is also a humbling experience full of crushing lows, strings of failure, and incessant stress. In 2017, the GAN (Global Accelerator Network) family was forced to face a sobering tragedy: suicide. Two startups from their community of accelerator programs had seen their founder take their own life as a result of their struggle with depression. CEO of GAN and Managing Partner & Co-Founder of GAN Ventures, Patrick Riley, described it as a devastating loss. This hit close to home for Riley: being passionate about mental health matters, the CEO never imagined such a misfortune happening in his own community.

Sacrifices of the startup life

We know depression and suicide are not exclusive to the startup world. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 800,000 people commit suicide every year, which can be equated to one person every 40 seconds.

Yet, with the high pressures that come with building a company, we can see how founders can easily succumb to the stress and feel like they alone must bear all of its weightleaving them isolated and vulnerable. Starting a company might be one of the most stressful jobs in the world: according to a study by Michael Freeman at UC San Francisco, entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to suffer a mental condition, and twice as likely to suffer from depression, TechCrunch reports. 

As part of Chinacclerator’s 8×8 Speaker Series, GAN CEO Patrick Riley shares the steps he and his company have taken to support the mental wellbeing of their founders and the importance of doing so in order to avoid another devastating loss. And because mental health affects everyone, see if you can pick up some tips for yourself along the way.

Burnout: an all-too-familiar problem, rarely discussed

“I’m feeling so burnt out”
“I’m feeling exhausted”
“I don’t know how long I can continue to do this”
“I’m just not really that happy right now”

Sound familiar? Riley recalls that even though startup founders are getting enough rest, talking to others, and even educating themselves on the signs of depression, many founders can’t help but feel the consequences of burnout.

Patrick Riley found that, according to data from Crunchbase, “66% of the reasons startups fail is because of either fighting among the team, or burnout among the CEOs, or the founders lose passion.”

To actively address this problem, Riley and his colleagues at GAN established the Founder Wellness Pact: a set of 10 things GAN accelerators have committed to in order to support their founders’ well-being. The science of happiness and well-being has always been at the core of what he does: prior to becoming CEO of GAN, Riley studied interpersonal communication and social psychology at college. Drawing upon his degree and discussions with relevant experts, Riley lays out some important points including:

  • Look at our culture and be upfront and honest about what negative behaviors our accelerator programs may be promoting

  • Educate ourselves on the signs of depression to be able to recognize those as early as possible

  • Host a weekly, off the record meeting with the purpose of giving founders the chance to provide status updates for both personal and professional well-being

  • Give each team a coach or mental health counselor or the resources to find one

  • Celebrate the small wins of each founder

  • Commit to one full day dedicated to “Founder Wellness” during the program where accelerators get out of the office to do a hike, plan a fun activity or something else that cares for founders.

My personal favorite is to “Celebrate the small wins of each founder” because anyone can easily integrate this into their own life. Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic thrusting people into remote work, it’s easy for us to fall into a robotic routine and transform into a working machine. Sometimes, we just need to slow down, distance ourselves, and appreciate our achievements no matter how small. You got out of bed today? Good on you! De-cluttered your work desk? Yay! Finally cleared your inbox? Congrats! Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.

A growing movement within the tech community

Riley knows that this alone is not a solution, but it is a step in the right direction. By opening up the conversation and forcing the discussion of mental health out into the open, founders know they are not alone in their struggle and do not need to suffer in silence.

Elsewhere, a small, but growing, cohort of venture capital firms—including Starting Line, Crosscut, Felicis and Alpha Bridge—are explicitly offering mental health services for their portfolios, Crunchbase News reports.

Health check: know the signs

“I seriously doubt that I would have been as successful in my career (and happy in my personal life) if I hadn’t always placed importance on my health and fitness.”— English businessman magnate Richard Branson.

Founder mental health is reflected in the startup lifecycle: entrepreneurs should think of it as integral to the growth of their company, taking care of the engines before launching the rocket ship. As laid out in the Founders Wellness Pact, entrepreneurs should educate themselves on the signs of mental conditions to be able to recognize them as early as possible. 

Riley himself opened up about a personal experience to show just how easily people can succumb to stress and the ramifications of its physical manifestation. While walking around a park during a phone call with his assistant, he suddenly felt his heart start racing. Riley then noticed that he had lost sensation on the left side of his face. Rushing himself to the hospital, they wondered if he was suffering from a stroke or even a heart attack? After running scans, they found that Riley was physically fine and that he had just experienced a panic attack. This was a result of constant stress causing the body to go into extreme “fight-mode” of the fight-or-flight response.

Entrepreneurs are “in this pressure cooker, they’re in this incredibly intense environment and sustained period of stress, which can lead to burnout and can lead to periods of ineffectiveness,” Karan Singh, founder of mental health company Ginger, told MIT Sloan Review.

Yet, founders who do seem to be getting enough sleep and doing all the right things, are still feeling exhausted or unhappy…

Patrick Riley believes that there is a bigger and deeper issue going on. And to get to the root of it, we have to ask ourselves why? To delve into this matter, Riley recalled a conversation he had with this counselor:

Counselor: “Why are you doing this work?”
Patrick Riley: “Because I love being a CEO.”

Counselor: “No Pat, why are you doing this work?”
Patrick Riley: “Because I love leading.”

Counselor: “No, no, no Pat. Why are you doing this work?”
Patrick Riley: “Well, I love building and growing things.”

Counselor: “Nope. Why are you doing this work?”
Patrick Riley: “Because I want to feel useful.”

Counselor: “But why do you need to feel useful?”
Patrick Riley: “Unless I feel useful, then I don’t feel valuable as a human being.”

It took five ‘whys?’ for the GAN CEO to realize that “It’s this need to feel valuable that ultimately was driving me to work so hard and to reach a point where my body couldn’t handle it anymore. To reach a point where I knew all the signs of depression and anxiety, but it was this underlying motivation that led me to work crazy hours and to also have a panic attack.” 

Dissecting this from a psychological standpoint, we must understand that humans are social creatures with a need to belong. And in order to belong, humans believe that it requires us to feel useful and valuable in our society. To be needed. So, as soon as we are no longer needed and no longer valued, what do we do? We throw ourselves into a mental spiral in constant questioning of our self-worth and finding ways to be ‘valuable’ again. 

Thus, it is vital for us to ask ourselves the root why we are doing what we do. Summarizing a quote from a Buddhist monk, Riley reminds us that “the things we hold onto will ultimately rule and drive us”.

Key takeaways

  • Anyone can suffer from mental health issues, it doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO of a big firm or a first-time founder
  • Entrepreneurs are twice as likely to succumb to mental health conditions and founder burnout is one of the top reasons why a startup fails
  • GAN’s Founder Wellness Pact: a set of 10 things GAN accelerators have committed to in order to support their founders’ well-being
  • Integrating mental health initiatives is becoming a growing movement amongst VCs
  • Remind yourself why you are doing what you do—  what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

Watch Patrick Riley’s full 8×8 speaker series session here.

Apply to MOX for holistic support for founders.