January. No month better encapsulates the promise, the potential, the energy of the entrepreneur, than this. It’s the month that offers us all something of a “clean slate” and the chance to start over.

It’s also a time for reflection. To review the year gone by, and consider the many hidden lessons we encountered in the course of the previous 12 months. Learn from those lessons and you’ll move ahead to the next level. Fail to learn and you’ll be doomed to repeat them until you get it right.

While we can only guess what key themes will emerge in 2019, if there was one big learning opportunity from 2018 that stood out for me in our year in entrepreneurship in Aotearoa, it would have to be around our awareness of founder mental health.

Because while it’s been a hot topic in overseas ecosystems for some time, it’s an issue that our close knit domestic ecosystem has only just begun to talk about and we need to ensure we continue the conversation.

Sure, the mental, emotional and physical stresses that accompany the responsibilities of entrepreneurship are not a new phenomenon.

Some would point out that they are the obvious companions of the risk, long hours, financial pressure and instability that come with building a startup.

“If you can’t handle the heat…” some would say, “get out of the kitchen.” It’s just the nature of business. Dog eat dog. Survival of the fittest. It’s always been that way.

This attitude is not only old fashioned, but it is also entirely defeatist.

I’d also go as far as saying it’s actually completely irresponsible. If we are taking it upon ourselves to encourage more people into entrepreneurship, surely we also have a duty to ensure they are going into it with “eyes wide open”? To ensure they know what they are getting themselves into and are aware of the risks, time, effort, mental and emotional strain that they’re bound to encounter?

Not only that, but to ensure that when they are going through these challenges, founders have support mechanisms in place and a safe environment in which they can confide their fears, worries and stresses without fear of judgement or ridicule?

The startup machine can be a brutal mistress. For every “Here’s Another Entrepreneur Killing It” headline there are another 50 untold stories of entrepreneurs slowly being eaten up by the startup machine.

In our rush to find, nurture and grow the next unicorn, we need to remind ourselves that entrepreneurship should be less an exercise in deal flow and more one of people development.

Depression, addiction, insomnia, breakups, breakdowns… we need to acknowledge the human cost of entrepreneurship, talk about it and prepare our founders for it.

“Harden up” needs to become, “open up.”

Whatever amazing and shiny new things we see this year, we’ll be paying special attention to the subject of founder mental health with an ongoing series dedicated to keeping the discussion going.

In our pursuit of innovation, deals and economic development I hope this is also the year we put humanity back into startup culture.


Richard Liew is founder and editor at NZ Entrepreneur.

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