“Because we hide so much behind a mask and carry so many burdens and responsibilities to others, founders often do not accept they need help or reach out until it is too late.”
There, in the words of Terry Miller, the founder of Wellington startup company eight360, is the essence of a drive by a grieving New Zealand innovation community to erase a toxic culture that research shows is inflicting mental and economic damage.
It’s the double whammy culture of tall poppy syndrome and an unsophisticated popular view that confuses startup business failure with personal failure.
It’s a culture that sometimes seems to revel in failure – blind to the very nature of a startup, which is a gamble to see if a new idea might become a viable business. Blind to the rules of a game that is hugely risky, experimental and marked by failures before success.
That culture is blamed for the fact that few safety rails are available for New Zealand’s brightest – and increasingly younger – innovators, leaving them isolated and terrified of stumbling while their investor backers measure success only in dollars.
Research also suggests the culture is limiting New Zealand’s economic performance, influencing entrepreneurs to set their sights lower, or abandon projects completely, rather than risk attracting the toxic stigma Kiwis apply to failure.
The recent shock death of young Unfiltered company founder Jake Millar and the courage of entrepreneurs like Terry Miller now speaking out, have galvanised a push to change this sort of thinking – by entrepreneurs themselves, by investors and funders, and by all Kiwis.
Callaghan Innovation chief executive Vic Crone is one who has put her name to the initiative, which kicked off with an online innovation community hui last weekend.
“I joined because of my experience in the innovation system and also my experiences around mental health challenges, and recognising the need for us to provide much more support to our founders and entrepreneurs, and also those who have battle scars.
“This is not about diminishing any other challenge anyone else faces in their life.
“This is just saying these people face challenges and we need to lift the level of support mechanisms and for them to know they are there.”
Crone says that globally, entrepreneurialism has a “hero to zero” culture problem – “we put them up on huge pedestals”.
But research shows New Zealand has another, specific, cultural issue.
“We don’t like them getting too successful, too far ahead of us. We don’t like them being too different from us. If someone is different or flamboyant, the fall is much bigger.”
And there’s another twist.
Research shows entrepreneurs, or “founders” as they’re also called, are naturally prone to mental health issues, Crone says.
She and other sector commentators pointed the Herald to studies by Michael Freeman, a psychiatrist, psychologist and former CEO who serves on the faculty of the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
Freeman is reported, including in US business magazine Forbes, to have found entrepreneurs were 50 per cent more likely to have a mental health condition than the wider population, with 72 per cent of those surveyed self-reporting mental health concerns.
The reasons given for founders having a higher risk of developing mental health issues included stress, isolation and a predisposition, suggesting traits that drive entrepreneurship might be inherited.
The flip side, Freeman is reported as concluding, is that some conditions have positive traits that help entrepreneurs excel. For example, two positive traits of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are a need for speed and an interest in exploration and recognising opportunities.
Dr Amanda Williamson, lecturer in innovation and strategy at Waikato University, says research shows ADHD is more common among those who choose to be entrepreneurs than other careers.
“They like to move in their own direction. They have a lot of get up and go, they want to get moving and do things. And they don’t mind the adversity that comes with entrepreneurship.”
Terry Miller, whose virtual reality motion simulator venture recently marked a significant step in breaking into the global military training market, says the mental health issue is “the great open secret of the startup world”.
“Look at the mental health statistics of founders worldwide. Then add New Zealand’s specific issues with bullying and tall poppy syndrome, youth suicide and the rest.
“But I think people also confuse cause and effect. Often it seems it is those who … don’t fit in because they see the world differently, who are drawn to the startup journey in the first place. Driven to change the world because they don’t feel they have a place in it.
“They have so much more to prove. Deep down they just want to be accepted and feel valued, like everyone else.”
Waikato University’s Williamson says one easy way to improve support for founders is to stop treating them and their business as one.
“When the business fails, it seems the entrepreneur has failed. If we don’t talk about the business alone failing then it’s innately difficult to recover. The individual feels like they are to blame because their identity is all tied up in the venture.
“I think we lack stories – about the people. We live in the Instagram age. The picture of someone (like Elon Musk or the Kardashians) doing something amazing is inspiring. We want to celebrate them but we are ultimately celebrating something that is unsustainable because entrepreneurship has its highs and lows.
“We hold them up to such a height that no person can live up to.”
Callaghan’s Crone says research shows a tendency to blend the founder and the startup is “a very real dynamic”.
“We need to separate them and we need to embrace failure as learning. There’s so much richness in failure from the learning. [It means] they can stand up and go again. Otherwise all that learning is wasted.”
Terry Miller says founders themselves also have work to do here.
“Separating your own identify from that of the business is a huge part of this, recognising that one can survive without the other.
“When your supporters repeat the mantra ‘we invest in founders, not ideas’ it makes it even worse. It all hinges on you.
“Not enough effort is made to remind the first-time founder that this is just the first of many adventures. Win or lose, it doesn’t have to define the rest of your life. Careers are not forever. You can change direction at any age.”
Now 30, Miller was 23 when a hobby project “got out of hand”. He never intended to start a business and “was definitely not prepared for what it has turned into”.
He says in his 20s he needed help but was forced to work through things on his own. He’s had some amazing experiences on the way but has also been through “terrible … things, panics, life or death crunches, disasters and disappointments”.
Now speaking up to help the next generation of founders, he’s the first to say entrepreneurs have their own blind spots.
There’s plenty of information and advice for them out there – “but you have to want it”, he says.
“When you are young you are so confident, defiant and rebellious, you don’t want to listen to boring, but maybe, sage advice.
“More than anything, you don’t want to be seen as weak, the stigma still hangs around ‘having feelings’,” says Miller, acknowledging sports and public figures have helped here by having open conversations.
“But the founder’s ‘reality distortion field’ is both a blessing and a curse. You are used to ignoring people telling you you can’t, or what you should and shouldn’t do.”
Miller says he has felt overwhelmed by expectations to succeed, but adds a caveat.
“Far more than anything else, it has been [by] my own expectations of myself – the pressure I have put myself under, with no self-compassion or leniency or forgiveness. You are always your own harshest critic.”
Williamson and Crone note that entrepreneurs suffer physically on their chosen path.
“The literature around the physiological markers of stress on entrepreneurs … shows they have greater wear and tear on their bodies. Even though they will say they enjoy the autonomy, the underlying story is that it is extremely stressful and it undermines their health,” says Williamson.
Crone: “There’s no doubt it’s physically demanding. They’re hustlers. They work long hours – at times their investors demand it of them.”
At the forefront of the campaign to better safeguard founders is Jenene Crossan, founder of Powered by Flossie, a technology network data company serving the hair and beauty product industry.
Crossan has no doubt there are cultural issues in the sector that need turning around.
“There’s a number of situations here – we’ve built this hero to zero approach, and the fact we call businesses that go well ‘unicorns’. It’s not right, unicorns don’t exist. I know it’s an international [label] but I think it’s demonstrative of the issues we have.
“They’re such unlikely creatures yet we treat them like once they have investment, if they don’t deliver they are just huge failures. So we have a failure perception that needs adjusting.”
An upshot of the recent innovation community conversation is the question: investors have expectations of founders, so shouldn’t entrepreneurs have the same of their backers – particularly their attitude to the “failure” word?
While entrepreneurs like Crossan, who have been through the fire – she started out at 20, and is now 43 – demands her backers show investor credentials, the power imbalance for the startup rookie seems to guarantee the expectations are all on one side.
Miller: “Being a first-time founder … without the trainer wheels of an incubator or accelerator programme, I had no idea what I could expect or demand from them. I was just grateful for their help. One does not look a gift horse in the mouth.”
He adds that the startup investor “angels” are a community.
“They all know each other and work together and are intertwined across the startup landscape. It seems obvious they will close ranks … where will their loyalty fall if it comes to a choice?”
Waikato University’s Williamson says the power imbalance in the relationship is “huge” – particularly with young founders.
“To do anything, you generally need money. A lot of people who have money and support ventures do it with many strings attached. Young entrepreneurs are encouraged to take risks, to go hard and possibly encouraged to do things they’re not entirely comfortable with – they have to give these investors a return on their investment.
“The chances of success are so slim, which investors should know. But they invest anyway.”
Williamson’s message to investors?
“You can’t improve what you don’t measure. If return on investment is the only measure, we’re bound not to treat the people behind it as an equal source of profit.”
Williamson notes there are many “great” New Zealand investors who see their role as supporting young people through their startup journey.
“They give their thoughts and insights and understand that failure is not because the individual has failed, but that the game is prone to failure.”
Crossan says the hui produced many ideas with common themes, including a code of conduct to support behavioural change, how a founder could pair up with another for support when scaling their businesses, direction to specialist and legal support, changing the way business failure is reported by media, and encouraging playing the ball, not the player.
A steering committee for the initiative was being set up this week, she says.
How does Callaghan’sCrone rate the hui’s chances of becoming more than a talkfest?
“I have some hope things will change from this. Mental health is coming to the fore. The amount of change will come down to how we change the environment.”
Crone says Callaghan Innovation, a Crown entity funder, is looking into adding wellbeing checks to its monitoring of startups’ growth and profit.
Williamson is confident that the new initiative will succeed, but suggests a fundamental problem of “surface acting” by entrepreneurs needs addressing.
“It’s acting confident on the outside. ‘Fake it until you make it’ is a big saying. You’ve got to act confident to get the money. People don’t want to let down the mask, they’re very afraid of sharing the harsh realities of what they’re going through.”
Terry Miller knows a lot about that. He says the most valuable support he’s ever had has been from other founders.
“As the founder, the leader, you know you have to be a steady hand. You have to hold it together for everyone’s sake. To suppress your fears and doubts so that you can be calm and confident, to stay the course.
“Fight your negative emotions and never let them show because they are all looking up to you and depending on you.”
Looking for support? It's available
• Call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
• Call PlunketLine 24/7 on 0800 933 922
• Depression helpline: Freephone 0800 111 757
• Healthline: 0800 611 116 (available 24 hours, 7 days a week and free to callers throughout New Zealand, including from a mobile phone)
• Lifeline: 0800 543 35
• Samaritans: 0800 726 666
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