When I set up Cape, our mission of helping founders build better businesses by finding ways to cut wasteful spending and strengthening their cashflow filled me with incredible pride, excitement, but also concerns with the challenge ahead.
Starting a business is a daunting task. That’s true regardless of how many people you employ or whether you operate as a sole trader. Running a business is a demanding thing to do, there’s always more things that need to be done than hours in the day.
If you’re not careful the stress can easily damage your mental health as the isolation and unique challenges of a business owner are not always easily understood by your partner, friends and family.
As the founder of a brand new Expense Management platform that issues Corporate Cards in Cape, and former Managing Director of Europe’s largest digital marketplace for SME finance in Funding Options, I’m well versed in some of the challenges that business owners and founders face. I’ve had first-hand experience with the common mistakes outlined below and have had to learn the hard way with how to avoid them again!
With that in mind, I wanted to share some tips on how I’ve gone about the process of taking care of my mental health, in the hope it can help others so that you can focus on your business without burning yourself out.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made with my career is equating the startup with my identity. It’s taken a while, but I can safely say that I/you are not your business.
As per the saying ‘energy flows where attention goes’ and your business might be something you put all your effort into and it’s undoubtedly an important priority in your life, but you cannot see it as an extension of who you are.
If your business is your identity in your mind then you’ll find it incredibly tricky to trust others to take control of parts of the business where you need to delegate responsibility. Worst of all, you may take valid criticisms of the business as criticisms of who you are rather than constructive feedback of things that need to change or develop.
What’s more, if you’re on that ego trip then when you hire people to make changes and accelerate growth you’re less likely to hire and retain the best person for the job. Instead, you may hire 'yes' men who take a salary and agree with all your ideas but don’t push the business to be better.
It’s taken me a while, but I’ve learnt that a business just has totally different needs from you as an individual. If you started your business to solve a problem it can feel as though every waking moment needs to be dedicated to that cause, it’s easy to slip into the mindset that time not spent working is time wasted.
But that’s just not the case. We can’t function at our best if all we do is work. If we’re not functioning properly then as founders we aren’t able to bring our best efforts to the business. I know that without my exercise routine I would soon implode at work. I’m just a far happier and productive human being when I get to go for a run, swim or do yoga on a regular basis.
As a friend and mentor loves to tell me “you can’t pour from an empty cup, Ryan”. And I think he’s right. As a leader you have a duty of pastoral care. If you’re unable to look after yourself properly then how can you look after others in your team?
Starting a business means going off the beaten track. Unlike most normal people, founders will often work without drawing a salary, especially at the start of a business’s existence.
There is no peace of mind, no reliability, no safety net - starting a business means foregoing all of these mental comforts that salaried jobs provide. You need to be strict with yourself and it won’t always be easy. I was working on the concept of Cape for a while before I took the eventual plunge and I ended up going 20 months without a source of income or salary. One word: Ouch.
That lack of safety net makes it doubly important to focus on creating spaces where your mentality is focused on work or leisure. Being disciplined also means sticking to your boundaries. The lockdowns helped me realise one thing quite quickly and that is working from your bed is not a smart decision, especially as the startup journey can serve up plenty of sleepless nights. If you start working from your bed you’ll find it difficult to disengage from your work and sleep when you need it most.
On the topic of sleep, if you’re a professional athlete that suffered an injury, your coach will be telling you to rest, ice, and elevate. Well, if you’re suffering from burnout, that could mean getting 7 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep. And I know for those out there with kids that this is almost impossible. Well, if not the quantity of sleep then the question comes back to how can you ensure you get some quality Zzz's?
Personally speaking, since I quit alcohol last December it’s the one thing that’s had the biggest impact on the quality of my sleep. Not to mention my waistline, focus, relationships & bank balance.
Protecting your mental health is vital for your business and for your overall well being. I started Cape during the pandemic, which comes with challenges of its own, but as our Engineering team is over in the UK arranging meetings that work across London and Sydney can be painful at times.
It means late nights and early mornings are a must, especially with an 11 hour time difference. For my team that lives locally in Manly, we’ve been able to make it work by creating ‘office’ spaces in our homes, usually a repurposed kitchen table, and staying there until the work is done rather than working from our laptops or phones in bed.
Being strict with timings and boundaries allows us to truly focus on the work when we’re together, rather than being distracted by other things. It also helps to surround yourself, virtually if not physically, with people who support your mental health.
I know that without the colleagues, friends and peers from the industry who support me every day I would be in a much tougher situation. They’re the ones I draw strength from when business is difficult and when we need to knuckle down. They’re also the ones who help me to set my boundaries and force me to take a break from work when I need it.
When that happens you can focus on the leisure spaces in your life. For many of us that’s exercise, volunteering, reading or relaxing with the TV. All of which are valid activities and ones you should make time for. Without taking a moment to recharge and relax your mind you’ll end up in a perpetual state of stress and unable to deliver your best work.
Stress, burnout and exhaustion are all words we’re hearing more often from workplaces these days which is why these tips are here to help support you on your journey with mental wellbeing. It does require you to make room to work on it specifically though. Taking time to meditate or clear your mind or relax unburdened by workplace issues can really improve how you feel.
Of all the suggestions I have, this is probably the fastest one: you only need 15-30 minutes and you can do it whenever you want. Using a mindfulness app like Headspace or Calm before you sit down at your desk at home for the day, or when you go for lunch, or at the end of a long day when you’re exhausted from meetings will give you a clear moment of disconnecting from your work.
If you do decide to meditate or use a mindfulness app, I’d recommend making it a part of your routine. When commuting into Sydney’s CBD I love nothing more than opening up Headspace for the trip. The change has an almost immediate effect and once you’ve made it a daily habit you almost won’t notice you’re doing it, like taking the time to brush your teeth. It’s simply one of the things you do during your day.
Mindfulness isn’t the only way to help protect your mental health, surrounding yourself with good people is something that has been instrumental for me. Having good friends and a strong social life gives me a reason to look forward to things outside of the office with other people.
It may be difficult with the pandemic, but we’re social animals and hiding ourselves in the home office will just make us more irritable if we do it for too long. Making time to connect and socialise virtually with friends and family wherever they might be via Zoom/Hangouts/Messenger provides moments of positivity to get us through some of the harder times when you’re running a business.
Surfing is one of my favourite things to do. I love to be in the ocean. It’s just a giant playground. And Australia has some of the best surf globally and it’s certainly a perk to setting up a business in Manly. But it’s just one form of exercise, one form of leisure activity. And it’s definitely not possible to think about an investor meeting while trying to stay balanced on the waves.
What matters is that you do something that isn’t work that holds some meaning to you and is something you enjoy. If you can make time and space for that then you’re sure to be revitalised at the start of every week.
Not every founder’s journey is the same, if it was then someone would have written the perfect guidemap years ago. Every single business journey is different. However, the problems that we all face are similar: stress, burnout, sleeplessness, fatigue, identity issues, and overwork.
They’re all common to the work of a founder, which is why I’ve realised it’s so helpful to create a routine early on that is sustainable and lets you bring the best of yourself to each and every working day. Otherwise you can slip into focusing only on your business and having your sense of self tied so deeply into the business that you can only rise and fall with how the business is doing.
There will always be difficult times and stressful situations for any business, regardless of even when things are going seemingly well. But if you allow that to dictate how you react and behave then you won’t ever be able to enjoy being a business founder.
Good luck, you’ve got this.