We Need to Talk: How I Dealt With Founder Depression and Came Out on Top

July 5, 2019
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“Worse than losing competence is losing the ability to even tell if you are competent or not.” 

It was a sentence I circled around for what felt like twenty minutes. Once I got to “not” I’d find myself back at the start with “worse.” 

Not worse. Not worse. Not worse. It began to feel like a mantra where I was trying to convince myself of a feeling opposite of what was happening. I’m “not worse” than I was a year ago. I’m “not worse” than anyone else in my position. Except, I was; at least I felt so in this particular moment.

The piece was written by Hanna Rosin for Lenny Letter. She was chronicling her switch from a 20-year career as a working writer to radio—a medium which she had no experience in. She then found herself back at career ground zero. Now, she is a co-host of the NPR show Invisibilia. It was a bold switch she made in her ‘40s and I was nothing short of envious.

Especially to me, founder of company “X,” devouring her words while simultaneously spooning Honey Nut Cheerios into my mouth and wondering, what if I gave it up all too? What if I said screw this entrepreneur thing, the pitching, the selling, the sweat and tears, and pumping my own money into company “X” for the last five or so years, and started over? Would that even be possible? It’s one thing to switch careers, but to shutter your own baby? I don’t know, I whispered to myself, I just don’t know. Not. Worse. You’re not worse. 

The last statement is not untrue. My company is profitable, though small. I employee 7 people. They have health insurance and paid vacations and I do the right thing by them. I feel respected by other business people and can hold my own in a conference room full of investors. On the other hand, I feel a wave of uncertainty. 

It’s a feeling often pegged as “impostor syndrome.” When you’re not sure why or how you’ve made it and that soon those rose-colored glasses through which everyone sees you, will become less rosy and more mossy. They’ll see that you don’t have the experience, the foresight, and will challenge that you are charging exorbitant prices for your services. (Stick to your money guns, you’re not. There’s a reason someone paid you XYZ to start—you’re worth it). 

In some cases, impostor syndrome can manifest into something far less talked about: founder depression. They don’t talk about it in business school or boardrooms. Women certainly don’t seem to talk about it in front of male peers. From what I’ve seen, they don’t even like to talk about it in front of other female founders. But why? What is founder depression and why does it hover like a grey cloud over your professional and personal life?

Starting a business takes a leap of confidence. It’s you telling the world, “Hey, you need this service or this product and I am going to be the one to deliver it to you. Me. Out of the 7.125 billion people on the planet, I have the ability to solve this problem for you…” That’s no small undertaking. And the outcome of all your hardworking and determination to make you company successful may not always end in happiness or perfection. In some cases, it is common to develop a form of depression that is hard to shake. And how does that affect your confidence and ability to sell yourself as a business owner and your product? Telling someone you’re depressed feels like the opposite of both confident and competent. Especially as the leader of a business venture that you’re trying to sell to the world. Scary, right?

No one, not even your best, most trusted employee, will care as much as you do about your vision for your business. There are days when you’re completely disheartened, as if the anxiety is a tide waiting to pull you under and all your doubts pull you to the bottom of the ocean. There will be nights when you stare at the ceiling wondering why you started the business in the first place and there are moments where you lose the ability to discern if you’re competent or not.

There is no worse feeling—the feeling of incompetence. But it’s also temporary.  (You should also talk to other founders and understand that this feeling, this doubt, this low—is completely normal.)

As a female founder, you don’t want to be perceived as weak. Beyond that, no one wants to feel weak in their leap of faith to launch your own business. I’m telling you to reconsider that feeling. Doubt should be used as a driving force rather than a setback. It’s our missteps that make us stronger. It is our weaknesses that make us reevaluate our strengths and propel us forward.

Look. Here’s what happens on a bad day: an employee quits, three deals blow up in your face, and your dog runs away. You feel completely alone; solopreneur for life. 

Here’s what happens on a good day: homeostasis. 

Here’s what happens on your worst day: your business folds.  

Here’s what happens on a great day: you land an account, something that has been pending for months gets SIGNED, Forbes sticks you on 30 under 30, the most talented copywriter comes to work for you, and your grandma calls to tell you she’s proud.

And that is when you realize, you’re “not worse.” No. Quite the opposite.

“You are competent.” You are brilliantly competent. 

This story was originally published on June 26, 2016 and has since been updated.

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