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Startup trauma: when the rollercoaster goes too fast

I love the startup community. Like many I enjoy the taste of energy you get when you work with startup entrepreneurs. Being around them makes me feel inspired and hopeful about all the amazing creations that are waiting to emerge from their potential. This bright and optimistic side is contagious and happily shared through the many startup hubs, events and media.

But there is also a darker side to the startup world that isn’t talked about all that much, at least not openly. It’s a side I get to see in my coaching work when I work with startup entrepreneurs. During my conversations with founders of high-potential startups, I have come across a phenomena I started calling ‘startup trauma’. Maybe this sounds a bit heavy to you, but allow me to elaborate.

Updating our definition of trauma

You probably have some associations with trauma that are popping up right now: things like veterans returning from war, car accidents, natural disasters, and so on. These are all legitimate ideas and events that can result in trauma. But nowadays the perspective on trauma has shifted quite a bit. From a neurobiological view, trauma has not so much to do with specific types of events, but more with the effect certain experiences have on our body and mind. To be more precise, the effect that overwhelming experiences have on our nervous system.

Overwhelming experiences can be simply categorized as anything that has been too much, too fast or too soon. This means we have experienced something that cannot be processed and integrated by our nervous system at the time it occurs. The result is that this unintegrated experience creates dysregulation inside the nervous system. In future articles I will explain more about this.

For now, it is important to know that depending on the severity of the overwhelming experience, it can lead to more or less aversive effects on our functioning and well-being. For example: increased anxiety or irritability, difficulty sleeping, addictive behaviors, mental blankness, impaired concentration and memory, digestive and immune problems, and many more. It is not uncommon for my clients to experience at least several of those problems.

Clearly, the effects of traumatic experiences are undesirable, especially if you are trying to build and scale a company. Such a rollercoaster requires your full capacity to at least survive – and hopefully thrive!

Startup trauma

Now let’s get back to this concept of a startup trauma. The idea here is that startup founders or even whole startup teams can be traumatized when things happen that are too much, too fast or too soon. This results in nervous system dysregulation that interferes with their performance and well-being. Depending on the situation this can affect just the founders, or it can disrupt the ‘collective nervous system’ of the entire team.

High-potential startups often go into environments where they become prone to exactly such experiences that are too fast or too much. Why? Well, we want to ‘accelerate’ our high-potential startups because we need to maximize their ‘first mover advantage’! This urgent need of accelerating the startup as quickly as possible creates tremendous stress, pressure and responsibility for the founder and his or her team. This can turn into a recipe for startup trauma, often within the blink of an eye. Let me give you an example.

When things fall apart, fast

Imagine the following situation. Think of a high-potential startup that starts out great. They realize considerable growth in a short time with the help of investors, mentors, and so on. They build their company as fast as they can. But suddenly they hit a brick wall, caused by a serious cashflow problem.

Hitting a brick wall with your company is painful enough. But what makes this extra painful for most startups or scale-ups, is that by the time they hit that wall they have expanded their team significantly. They’ve grown from a few people to 10, 20 even 30 team members in a very short time. And often they have worked really hard to build a strong cohesion between the team members, further cemented by the shared experience of uncertainty, risk, low salaries and relentless pressure. When the company starts running out of cash fast, sooner or later the founders have to say goodbye to the majority of their team. For a moment, imagine what this is like. Feeling forced to fire many good people – people you had to convince to join your team in the first place!

Making matters worse is the fact that at this point your resilience has already been eroded by months or even years of chronic stress. This will make it very hard to deal with this situation in any constructive way at all. Meanwhile, the daily startup rollercoaster keeps rushing through, leaving little time for the founder and team to recover and reorient.

Without adequate support to effectively deal with these overwhelming experiences, founders (and their teams) will start to run into problems with their performance and well-being.

Feeling isolated? You’re not alone!

What I personally find most painful to see in my coaching work is the isolation that founders experience. “Surely I must be the only one feeling this way, since nobody else is talking about this? If all other founders seem okay, there must be something wrong with me… Maybe I’m too weak or untalented or soft to be an entrepreneur…”

The experience of isolation is yet another feature of being traumatized. On some level, you feel alone and cut-off from the human tribe. Indeed, this is reinforced when startup founders often have little social time left with their partners, friends and family. Feeling guilty over every minute they are not busy improving their startup, they become deprived of the much needed relaxation and nourishment of their social relationships. Even if they are together with the people they care about, their thoughts remains preoccupied with their business.

Finding the missing pieces

I believe we miss important pieces that are needed to help startup founders (and teams) deal with these challenges. An important one is the fact that we collectively seem to forget that founders are simply humans – including founders themselves.

We all have a finite capacity to deal with stress and emotional turmoil. If we ignore this reality, we have to suppress our emotions and biological impulses. But what we resist persists. Not wanting or being able to deal with our chronic stress and difficult feelings will increasingly disrupt our nervous system. Pushing it all away requires a lot of effort and actually puts more stress on our organism. Eventually, this vicious cycle will lead to reduced resilience, decreased performance and quite possibly a burnout.

Denying the human side of being a startup founder will not make it go away and in fact will only make things worse. What can be done to better support a founder in the most difficult parts of their journey?

Breaking the silence

Supporting founders more successfully starts with breaking the silence that dominates the ‘dark side’ of being a startup entrepreneur. We need to be able to have balanced conversations in the startup community, being able to talk about the good and the bad. As a founder, recognizing and normalizing your shared difficult experiences can already make a big change. A first step can be finding a trusted friend, mentor or coach that you feel comfortable sharing such experiences with.

What specifically encourages such conversations is (psychological) safety.  And often that’s exactly what’s missing in the relationships founders have with most of the stakeholders surrounding the startup. Because obviously, your stakeholders may start doubting your fitness for the job if they hear about your more vulnerable side.

Taking responsibility as a founder

Obviously founders have a responsibility for themselves as well. They need to be able to draw boundaries in their calendars and reserve some time to talk to people that can understand what they’re going through. Starting a group with like-minded startup entrepreneurs can be of great value in this. Being able to share and discuss both your positive and negative experiences with a group of people you trust can in itself be transformative. One of the biggest resources in working through (overwhelming) challenges is giving yourself the gift of time and social support. 

In the end, dealing with challenging stuff like a startup trauma requires balance. We need to make room for the ‘dark side’, but to do so constructively we also need to stay in contact with the bright side. Savoring the optimism, excitement and inspiration that is found in startups and their broader community will greatly help with that!

Working with the nervous system dysregulation from (startup) trauma demands some special attention. In addition to having supportive conversations, it requires safely discharging the remaining stress that gets locked inside the nervous system. If you’re interested in working on this in 1-on-1 sessions with me, you can send me a message. Or you can start by reading my eBook on how to optimize your resilience.


I’m curious to hear what you think of this concept of startup trauma. Let me know in the comments!

18 August 2017

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