I didn’t know Jake Millar, save for a few emails swapped with our editor when he was just getting started with Unfiltered.

As for so many others though, the news of his death by suicide last year still came as a shock and with a deep sense of sadness. Sadness for the loss of a bright young New Zealander who had so much going for him, for the terrible loss for Jake’s mother and his whanau and friends, and for the loss of an up and coming innovator and entrepreneur to our business community. 

It also made me angry. Angry that such a tragedy could have occurred – indeed possibly directly attributable – as a result of Jake’s endeavours in the name of this thing we call entrepreneurship. Angry too that we were seemingly unable to prevent this tragic situation from occurring.

Having spent close on a decade working in and reporting on our small but burgeoning startup ecosystem, and a decade before that “building my chops” in other various entrepreneurial endeavours, I am familiar with the toll that entrepreneurship can exact on founder mental health.

Passing through Jake’s old stomping ground of Greymouth recently I wondered if any of the faces I saw may have once known Jake. And only now does it feel like the thoughts and feelings his story stirred for me, are taking some semblance of order. The overarching theme of those thoughts and feelings being that as members of the New Zealand startup ecosystem, and the wider business community, we are still failing miserably in our collective duty of care for the mental health and wellbeing of our entrepreneurs.

As an entrepreneur and educator first, publisher second, I followed Jake’s story with interest. 

Entrepreneurial from a young age, Jake was one of many thousands of Kiwi high school students whose entrepreneurial spirit was provided an outlet through the amazing work of the Young Enterprise Scheme. After enjoying some early success with Oompher, we watched Jake and Unfiltered ascend to seemingly ever greater heights. With a pat on the back from former PM John Key and kudos from the likes of Richard Branson, Unfiltered soon garnered the interest and financial backing to the tune of several million dollars, from a raft of New Zealand business people, described in one Unfiltered media release I received as an “A-list of investors”.

Regardless of what led to it, as news of Unfiltered’s unravelling started to come through, I felt a deep sense of unease and foreboding. Would this young entrepreneur, mistakes aside and lessons learned, bounce back from this business failure in the face of such public excoriation by the media, investors and other entrepreneurs?

His every move and misstep dissected and castigated by the same media and investors who sang his praises when things were going well, one can only guess at the anguish, shame and embarrassment that led the young entrepreneur into – what appeared to me as an uninformed observer – self imposed exile, in Kenya.

Though never to the same extent as the pressure cooker situation Jake found himself in, like most entrepreneurs I have experienced more business building failures and stressful situations than I care to recall. Many of which saw me and my ever patient wife and cofounder in tears, wracked with worry as we tried desperately to overcome challenges and setbacks we had no prior experience dealing with, all while raising a family and dealing with all the usual challenges of life. It is through this lens that Jake’s unfolding plight scared the crap out of me.

The simple truth is that if you have never put your own blood, sweat and tears into starting a business, let alone one that struggles and then fails, it is near impossible to truly empathise with the mental health stresses experienced by entrepreneurs on a regular basis.

Over the years I have heard countless stories from founders about high pressure situations that non-business owners simply do not encounter in the course of “normal” life – which of course is already filled with its own share of challenges and traumas. From bungled or failed critical investment pitches, product faults, injured customers or staff, competitor lawsuits, being hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in debt, shareholder theft and fallouts, losing houses, relationship breakdowns, insomnia, alcohol and drug abuse, health afflictions, bankruptcy, death threats, slander, and public humiliation.

The founder of one global Kiwi clothing company recounted to me a few years ago a high pressure situation that had him curled in a ball at the bottom of the shower, puking his guts out.

Online entrepreneur and founder mental health advocate Jenene Crossan, has openly shared her own battles with mental health and suicidal thoughts. (Crossan also voiced concerns shared by many about the role of media contributing to Jake’s death including entrepreneur and friend to Jake, Ray Avery, prompting media and journalists to do some soul searching of their own.)

Beyond the stress of maintaining the general business equation of Revenue > Expenses (itself no mean feat), and despite reassurances from more experienced entrepreneurs that “you are not your business”, when it’s your name on the label, many founders find their very identity – and therefore value and mana as a human being – becomes intertwined with that of their business. If your business is a success you are a success. Ergo, if your business is a failure, you are a failure.

While the responsibility for building and keeping any business afloat is by itself more than many could bear, if you’ve taken money from investors or lenders, multiply the stress factor by at least a factor of twenty.

And to have it all unfold in such a public arena as in Jake’s case, you now have all the ingredients for a very dangerous mental health cocktail.

We know that stories like Jake’s and Jenene’s are not uncommon and have done for a long time.

When I was twelve our neighbour, a husband and father of three teenagers, took his life when his business hit trouble after the 1987 sharemarket crash. Occasionally us neighbourhood kids would help load and unload his products for pocket money. Shortly after my parents explained to me what had happened his son soon stopped playing with the rest of us. “Business wasn’t going very well for him,” was the explanation we got and I still remember thinking at the time, “Wow owning a business must be a horrible thing.”

This is what concerns me most some three and a bit decades later – how many other entrepreneurs are out there under our noses right now, grappling with business related mental health issues, perhaps even to the same extent as Jake did, and are just one setback, one criticism or unkind word away from a full breakdown? 

Everyday Kiwis who one day dared to stake their reputation on creating, building or somehow otherwise making a dent in this world (big or small), and are now struggling to get to grips with this thing we call entrepreneurship. 

The business world, like nature, can be abundant and beautiful, yet cruel and unforgiving for the inexperienced, unwary or just plain unlucky at the same time. What mechanisms have we, the business community, put in place to help ourselves grapple with something everyone knows is so commonplace?

Amazing work is happening across Aotearoa to grow our pipeline of entrepreneurial and innovation talent. Organisations from Government, to economic development agencies, innovation hubs and academia are helping inspire Kiwis to begin their entrepreneurial journey, informing and connecting entrepreneurs and creators with all manner of programmes, events, mentoring and investment. Corporate sponsored business idea competitions and accelerators abound.

In terms of building entrepreneurial capability, we are heading in the right direction to develop the talent that will power us into the 22nd Century. More than half of Gen Z say they aspire to be entrepreneurs.

But we must never forget that entrepreneurship is first and foremost an endeavour of human spirit and an endeavour of innovation, technology and capital second. 

Behind every startup, SME and scaleup statistic, and behind every failed pitch, idea, or venture is a human being with thoughts, feelings and frailties like anyone else. Our startup culture must never be reduced to a cold, box ticking, economic development or investment exercise in our quest to find and fund New Zealand’s next hot new success story as I have written before.

In an arena in which it is common knowledge that 9 out of 10 people will fail within five years, we must do better to support those who will experience those failures (ie the vast majority), so that with time, experience and hindsight they can come back for another bite at the cherry, and are not lost to our ecosystem forever.

Resilience, although much talked about and acknowledged as a key trait for success in entrepreneurship, is not something that can be taught. It is something only gained by founders by being subjected to and overcoming challenges, setbacks and hardship time and time again, often over a period of years. “No diamonds without pressure” as the saying goes.

The difficulty for mentors, advisors and investors working with these entrepreneurs is that in the process of developing such resilience, we never know which one of those challenges, setbacks or hardships could be the straw that “breaks the camel’s back”. 

While it is easy to see how the events and circumstances in Jake’s case could have broken any entrepreneur, we need to be mindful that it could actually be just the smallest or most innocuous of things that eventually tips a founder over the edge. 

The breaking of a website, an unkind remark on social media, an unpayable bill, a failed investment campaign or accelerator application, perhaps a disparaging or just ill-considered comment from a mentor or investor.

It is in regard to our roles as mentors and investors that I believe has the most opportunity for impact and therefore needs our most urgent attention.

Disturbingly, I receive feedback from founders around the country about poor treatment by investors, mentors and other entrepreneurs more regularly than I would like.

From business ideas being ridiculed and belittled, cold and rude receptions after reaching out for help or being referred, to experiences in accelerators and investment pitches leaving founders diagnosed with PTSD and depression.

It is irresponsible of us to be encouraging more Kiwis into entrepreneurship, with all it’s inherent risks, without also ensuring we have measures in place to help look after their mental health as they tread the path less travelled – from our very first interaction with them, to after our last.

Encouragingly the issue of founder mental health is as we speak, high on the priority list for many members of the startup ecosystem. Our startup community has come a long way in the 20 years since the dotcom boom in our collective ability to inspire, activate and educate startup founders. Now is the time for us to seriously turn our collective attention to how we can better look after and support them because the preventable loss of just one life in the pursuit of innovation and entrepreneurship is infinitely too many.

Let’s never let what happened to Jake be accepted as inevitable collateral damage inherent of a system in which “survival of the fittest” isn’t just the prevailing wisdom of a market economy, but a literal warning to those who dare venture down the entrepreneurial path. 

As a parent I want to be able to encourage my daughters and all our young ones into entrepreneurship, knowing that we have done our absolute best to make it a safe, inclusive and caring environment.

To that end I would like to pose a number of questions and challenges for mentors, investors and entrepreneurs as set out below. If these questions can help your organisation to start thinking about the impact you can make in better supporting the mental health of our founders – and for entrepreneurs, in supporting your own mental health – that’s a great start. 

But my hope is that we may be able to lay some groundwork for a collaborative approach by the startup ecosystem to do what we can to make entrepreneurship a safer path for all. What might an ecosystem-wide founder mental health accord or support programme look like? What might an ecosystem-wide code of conduct look like to ensure every entrepreneur who comes through our doors is treated with care, consideration and respect?

If you have thoughts, data, learnings or experiences of your own that you would like to share I would love to hear from you. And if you’d like to contribute to a collective initiative to help address these issues please also email me at richardl@nzentrepreneur.co.nz. 

Let’s honour Jake by making New Zealand’s startup ecosystem internationally respected for the gravity, care and aroha we afford in our duty of care for the mental health and wellbeing for our founders.

In his own poignant and prescient words

Make radical change in your own life so that you’re happy with your current situation, that’s the best you can do. The rest is decided by a crazy game called life. Also be nice to people, everyone is fighting their own personal battle.

jake millar
Jake Millar

Questions for investors

With so much on the line, we know that finding and securing investment is one of the most stressful parts of a founder’s job. Bearing in mind that four out of five entrepreneurs statistically have a fear of public speaking, the nerve it takes to stake your name on an idea that is new, weird or unproven, to pitch that idea – often to a room full of people, and to ask them to invest their hard earned money should not be underestimated. Even for those who are successful in securing investment, the stress obviously doesn’t stop there.

  • When engaging with founders, what responsibilities, if any, do we have in regards to supporting their mental health and wellbeing before, during and after investment or consideration for investment? 
  • What are our policies, code of conduct or education programmes for investors in regards to any such responsibilities?
  • What considerations or mental health support programmes do we have in place for the founders we choose to invest in, throughout your post-investment relationship?
  • What considerations or mental health support programmes do we have in place for the founders we choose not to invest in?
  • What are our policies in regards to how we treat every entrepreneur we come into contact with – regardless of what we may personally think of their idea, ability or chances of success?

Questions for mentors and startup hubs

I would like to propose that the main purpose of our work – our “Why” – is not to start, discover or fund the next New Zealand global success story – the purpose of our work is to nurture, grow and care for New Zealand’s collective pool of entrepreneurial talent. To be there for them before, during and after their inevitable successes and failures. Everything else we do (our “What” – programmes, pitches, funding) is secondary but if we succeed with the first, it will greatly improve everything that follows.

As mentors the truth is that we simply don’t know how many of the entrepreneurs we are working with could be just one setback, or one unkind or thoughtless comment away from a full mental breakdown – or worse, feeling like there is only one way out of a hole they can’t see themselves climbing out of.

Yes they will put on a brave face, yes they will smile and nod when you tell them they “have an ugly baby”, and when you ask them how things are going they’ll default immediately to the answer they think they are expected to give… “Yes everything is going great thanks.” But we shouldn’t be so naive to take things at face value. 

  • When engaging with founders, what responsibilities, if any, do we have in regards to supporting their mental health and wellbeing before, during and after any programmes or consideration for programmes? 
  • What are our policies, code of conduct or education programmes for mentors in regards to any such responsibilities?
  • What mental health support programmes do we have in place for the founders we choose to mentor?
  • What mental health support programmes do we have in place for the founders we choose not to mentor?
  • What are our policies in regards to how we treat every entrepreneur we come into contact with – regardless of what we may personally think of their idea, ability or chances of success?

Questions for entrepreneurs

If you’re an entrepreneur reading this, by now you will hopefully understand that every entrepreneur will eventually face challenges on their journey that have the potential to cause a lot of stress, worry and emotional turbulence. From dealing with negativity from family or friends, to financial challenges to setbacks you just can’t imagine when you started out. Eventually you will face a challenge or situation that has you at wits end, requiring every ounce of will and tenacity you can muster to keep pushing forward. Things will go wrong. You will make mistakes. Many things you attempt will fail. Feelings of overwhelm, fear, inadequacy and sometimes outright despair will arise.

Ultimately the journey of an entrepreneur is one of self responsibility. By definition, as a founder, it starts with you.

  • What are your responsibilities, if any, to educate yourself about, and prepare yourself for the potential mental health challenges you may encounter as an entrepreneur?
  • What personal measures do you have in place to recognise when things are taking a toll on your health – mental, physical and emotional?
  • What measures or support mechanisms (practises, people, places, programmes) do you have in place to proactively look after your mental health, and to turn to should you need help with your mental health?  
  • What are your responsibilities, if any, to recognise when other entrepreneurs you know may be struggling with their mental health and what will you do to support them?

Richard Liew is founder and editor at NZ Entrepreneur Magazine and the startup nz entrepreneurs programme, and a trustee at startup queenstown-lakes trust.

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