Knocking Down Doors

Smart start-up lessons for smart start-up people

The Psychology of Running a Startup

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GoCardless, a London-based fintech company, just raised $22.5 million in Series D funds, putting its total funding at over $50 million. It’s the sort of startup story entrepreneurs dream of: work hard, make something fantastic, and go on to wild success and wealth.

GoCardless CEO and co-founder Hiroki Takeuchi is the type of entrepreneur others want to be. An Oxford grad and former McKinsey consultant, Takeuchi left the consulting firm and taught himself to code before founding GoCardless six months later.

A year ago, things took a turn when Takeuchi’s bike slammed into a car in Regent’s Park. He’s paralyzed from the chest down, but already back at GoCardless.

The day after the accident, Takeuchi called co-founder Matt Robinson to the hospital. “There was me and him talking,” Robinson told TechCrunch. “Family and friends there, obviously sobbing and upset, and Hiroki and I are having a business meeting about what we’re gonna do.”

It goes on from there. Conference calls within days of the accident. A determination to get out of the hospital in record time. Two months after waking up in the hospital, he was back at work, addressing the company at its holiday party.

What mentality does this type of dedication and single focus require? What kind of person would put themselves through the accelerated recovery wringer just to get back to level ground?

The psychology of startup leaders is fascinating. While there’s plenty of variance, there are identifiable common threads and themes. Do you have what it takes—mentally—to make it to the big leagues?

We’ll examine what entrepreneurs look like (psychologically), talk about a few major mental challenges founders face, and give you some tools to help you overcome those challenges.

Profiling entrepreneurs and CEOs

In 2015, Barclays and the University of Cambridge ran a study to psychologically profile entrepreneurs, surveying more than 2,000 entrepreneurs and employees. The study concluded, “Entrepreneurs do differ from employees, but as a group, they are still incredibly diverse and often misunderstood.”

That’s not surprising. The differences between the two groups—employees and entrepreneurs—is much more eye-opening.

Psychological comparison of employees and entrepreneurs. [via Barclays]

The largest gap between the two groups is their need for autonomy. Employees generally report very little need for influence over the work they do, while entrepreneurs score almost off the chart.

The pursuit of autonomy can come with an intense mental burden. When you’re the one setting the goals, plans, and desired outcomes for a business, you’re often held solely responsible for how it all turns out.

David Rock, from the NeuroLeadership Institute, wrote:

“When an employee experiences a lack of control, or agency, his or her perception of uncertainty is also aroused, further raising stress levels. By contrast, the perception of greater autonomy increases the feeling of certainty and reduces stress.”

Fighting off stress is important for entrepreneurial success. In its study, Barclays found that leaders (entrepreneurs) score low on the scale for neuroticism—defined as “one’s tendency to experience negative emotions.” Lower-scoring participants are less prone to experiencing the anxiety and moodiness that comes from having the world on your shoulders.

Entrepreneurs in the study also scored lower than general employees on extraversion and agreeableness, meaning that they tend to hang back in social situations and are often more “competitive, stubborn, self-confident, or aggressive.”

Keeping your head above water

Statistics are not fate. Outgoing people, agreeable individuals, and introverts all become entrepreneurs.

One of the often overlooked facets of business psychology is how the people around you affect the outcomes you can achieve. A study from Fayetteville State found that “environmental [factors] such as [a] supportive environment may have a moderating influence on the relationship between psychological traits and entrepreneurial orientation.”

Better living through friendship

A good team can be more than just a buffer. We’ve talked before about the loneliness that comes with starting a business. Your family and friends may not understand why you left the corporate world—or whatever your past job was—behind and ask whether you’re sure it was the right thing to do.

In the early stages, you may be the only thing standing between success and failure—failure that can often mean personal financial ruin.

A support group is crucial for surviving such hard times. A study out of Harvard and UC San Diego found that “individuals who associate themselves with cheerful people have a happier demeanor and consequently a better sense of well-being.”

To build a support group, you need to find a balance of people who will tell you when you’re wrong, support you when you’re right, and help you think about something else—hockey, food, music, etc.—when you’re overwhelmed.

The benefits of networking

If you’re struggling to build a personal support group, consider attending a networking event, a place where upbeat and optimism often rule.

Good entrepreneur networking events are full of talkative, optimistic leaders and founders. It’s a place entrepreneurs can go to find people just like themselves; people who gave up good jobs to chase a dream, who get questioned by their families at Thanksgiving, and who have $17,000 of credit card debt riding on this quarter’s sales.

Even if you’re not feeling lonely, attending uplifting events can be beneficial. Studies have shown that “optimism cuts the risk of coronary heart disease by half.”

Optimism, it turns out, can help you stave off all sorts of bad news.

The positive aspects of being an entrepreneur

Looking back at the chart from Barclays, it’s not all bad news. Entrepreneurs also score high for conscientiousness, initiative, and innovation.

Conscientiousness—defined as “organised, self-controlled, punctual, and achievement-oriented, but not controlling”—may be the most important part of this equation. While we all know good ideas often fail and that even the best products won’t beat out bad market timing or lackluster demand, a driven, goal-oriented, and organized founder can make just about anything work.

Hidehiko Yuzaki, the governor of Hiroshima Prefecture, told Stanford Business School:

“There are a lot of smart people out there with very good ideas, but persistent execution is very rare. You need to keep executing, making adjustments to what you do based on the results, and keep doing it again and again until eventually you succeed.”

The results of an entrepreneurial mindset

GoCardless is thriving, and Takeuchi is back at work. While outsiders may think he jumped back into work before his recovery even began, the reality is that he wasn’t supplanting his life for his work; his work is a huge part of his life.

Setting returning to work as the goal that keeps you going against insurmountable odds won’t work for everyone, but it did for him.

psychology of startup

Hiroki Takeuchi working to recover from his accident. [Source: TechCrunch]

As an entrepreneur, you have considerations that other people don’t have to think about. The same people who don’t understand why you left a cushy job or can’t sleep past 5 AM might think doing business from the hospital is odd.

If you’re reading this, you probably don’t.

It’s just who some people are. More specifically: it’s who most entrepreneurs are.

To be the best leader, manager, and entrepreneur you can be, you have to understand how to work with your mind, not against it.

If you surround yourself with a strong support group and make clear plans for your mental health, you can take your ideas and turn them into something beautiful—a thriving business.

It’s no easy task, but for those who can make it work, it can mean nothing short of changing the world.

Mental health resources

If you’re feeling up against it, remember that there is help.

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available at 1-800-273-8255. You can also visit the website to chat online.
  • 7 Cups is an online therapy and counseling resource that connects users with free support, ranging from simple listening to full-on counseling.
  • Psychology Today’s Therapist Directory can help you find resources near you, whether you need a group of folks to talk to or a dedicated mental health professional.
  • Brad Feld has been one of the most vocal entrepreneurs regarding the effects and demands of the job. His blog series on mental health is reassuring and eye-opening.

Do you have additional resources or success stories to share?

Do you have any experience overcoming the mental challenges that come with running a business? Any favorite resources that can help fellow entrepreneurs? Leave a comment below or drop me a line.

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About the Author

Andrew Marder

Andrew Marder is a writer for Capterra. His background is in retail management, banking, and financial writing. When he’s not working, Andrew enjoys spending time with his son and playing board games of all stripes.

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