Opinion: Successful startups are led by healthy founders

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we’re launching the Flourishing Founders section on our site. At Flourish, we want founders to thrive, along with their companies. The page collects resources for company leaders and lays out our founder-centric approach. In the past few years, we have explored many sides of the entrepreneur experience, from ‘founder wellness’ to ‘founder wellbeing,’ and we’ve sponsored research into ‘founder mental health’. 

We find all these words being used interchangeably, but as evidence-based investors, we see real distinctions. Each refers to different experiences, behaviors – and consequently – needs. And if an investor says they support founder wellbeing, it should be clear what they mean.

It Makes Sense for Investors to Care About Wellbeing

We started this work because we care about the entrepreneurs we partner with, as human beings. We also want them to be great leaders who build large and impactful companies. We don’t see a tradeoff – in fact, these values reinforce each other. 

Our experience as investors has borne this out: We have seen that healthier founders remain entrepreneurs longer and innovate more, in service of a better society.

This has never diminished our focus on company performance, unit economics, societal impact, and financial metrics. We are fintech experts who go deep into the particulars of every business we back, we do our diligence, and are not afraid to have the tough conversations or make the difficult decisions when needed. We do not compromise on that. 

But we do genuinely care about the individual. As our colleague and Flourish Managing Partner Tilman Ehrbeck, puts it, “We are hard-headed, but soft-hearted.”

This is why we focus on founder wellbeing. As investors, it’s important that the founders we partner with experience mental, physical, social, and emotional health and satisfaction. Wellbeing encompasses all of this, sustainable work/life balance, how entrepreneurs feel about their work, and their relationships with key stakeholders, including team members, business partners, and board members

Wellness: Habits and Intentional Practices That Feed Wellbeing 

If wellbeing is the outcome, wellness includes all the personal inputs. And they’re all pretty well known and well documented. In fact, there is an entire industry of CEO wellness books, podcasts, and retreats with lots of good ideas, including: eating healthy foods, prioritizing exercise and movement, getting enough sleep, and incorporating contemplative practices such as meditation and journaling into your daily routine. 

These are practices. Most people – especially anyone building a company – knows they should get more sleep, it’s just hard. 

They are also very personal. As your funding partners, we care that you are prioritizing your own health, but how you choose to, is up to you.

This Forbes blog on CEO Wellness captures quick interviews with different CEOs on what works for them. For some, it’s waking up early and getting to the gym; for others, it’s blocking off mornings so they can get that much-needed extra hour of sleep. 

This is where CEOs can unleash their capacity for self-leadership. Start with awareness: How are you feeling day-to-day? What habits are working for you – and which are not? And you’re not alone. Join a CEO Circle to solicit ideas and develop support from other entrepreneurs. Tap the resources on our site, such as coaching from Reboot or Torch, or workplace health tools for you and your employees from Resilience Lab or Modern Health

Talking About Mental Health Is Okay As Well

Mental health is the most sensitive side of all this, especially for CEOs, who are not only responsible for themselves, but also the many people they employ. The pressure is intense and can lead to stress, anxiety, and burnout. 

There’s a lot less stigma today, but mental health can still be hard to talk about. We want to push back against that, and advocate for more conversations and more resources. As part of Flourishing Founders, we are funding more research into mental health for entrepreneurs, and will continue to be vocal.

Most of the time, most founders are doing well, but several stages in the startup lifecycle can be destabilizing – including the most hoped-for milestones. A fundraise or an exit, even with the best outcomes, can trigger changes in the continuum along one’s mental health journey. The tougher parts in startup life, like layoffs or shutdowns, are going to challenge even the most resilient of founders. 

Founders dealing with anxiety, burnout, or depression – while continuing to run and build a company – should feel supported by their investors. It’s true, investors are not mental health professionals. The best we can do is create a supportive and open environment where you feel safe to have an honest conversation. We also can provide tools or suggest resources to help leaders get the support they need. 

The Founder/Funder Relationship Is Key to Wellbeing

Our conviction is not only that investors should show up for founders in this personal capacity, but also that it makes for smart investing. Being an effective partner not only requires professional competencies and wisdom, but also strong emotional intelligence and empathy for founders. Investors have meaningful influence on whether or not founders feel supported and experience mutual trust. 

There are no tradeoffs between performance and empathy. Healthier founders build stronger startups. By starting with a trust-based relationship, investors have more credibility (even in the tough conversations), more visibility into their portfolio, better communication with CEOs, and can become true advisors – when it’s needed most.  

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