Macho Sectors and Mental Health: The Truth Behind Startup Fundraising

We don’t often address mental health in male-domintated sectors, despite well-being becoming a more accepted topic in mainstream media. There is a lingering macho stoicism surrounding the conversation about the toll that raising capital can take on business leaders, which is perhaps no wonder in a field where the pursuit of work-life balance is seen as a weakness.

Raising money for your business can be stressful, confusing and - in the incidence of failure - devastating. In my case, I fell short of my fundraising target to the detriment of my first business. I founded an e-commerce startup straight out of university and raised early stage capital pretty easily. As things started to go well I  became over-confident and took my eye off the financial operations of the business. When I went back to my investors to generate my next round, it turned out that I needed to raise close to £1m to be able to compete online. It soon became apparent that my go-to angel investors were not about to part with  that kind of capital.

Having painted myself into a corner, I borrowed almost £100k to pay off my suppliers and fold the business. The aftermath was brutal. I began to lose my hair due to stress-related alopecia. I lost an unhealthy amount of weight. The ghost of my failure was having a devastating effect on my well-being. After avoiding speaking about what had happened (and why) for over a year, I began dissecting the root of my failures with friends, family and peers who worked in venture capital.

In retrospect, it is clear that much could have been avoided had I been more prepared for the challenges ahead. The picture painted in films and media today is more often than not of the successful young founder, skyrocketing to fame and success, learning on the job and navigating the pitfalls with superhuman drive. Less time is spent depicting the flip side; the other version of the founder journey. This can lead to unprepared founders entering the venture capital field and exposes them to the psychological dangers of the fundraising process. Many have no formal training or expertise in funding or finance. My breakdown is by no means an anomaly in this sector and yet it’s not often that we hear these stories. Why? 

A possible explanation is that the entrepreneurial field is overwhelmingly male. Two thirds of entrepreneurs in the UK today are men, according to the Allison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship. The Mental Health Foundation and The Priory report that men are much less likely to admit to  mental health issues. If macho sectors are falling behind the global conversation about mental health, it follows that our field is fundamentally less open to discussing the potential psychological impact of fundraising and scaling a business.

Founders entering the venture capital field without a health warning are exposed - unprepared - to the psychological dangers of the fundraising process. Having started an investment consultancy firm four years after my business failure, my advice for business leaders scaling their startups is to look after themselves by leaving time and space in the fundraising process for mistakes and predictable difficulties. Be vigilant of lingering feelings of loneliness, impostor syndrome or burnout. If any of these symptoms persist, seek help, speak to people in your network, and don’t wait to reach out until you are already feeling overwhelmed. The benefits to looking after yourself far outweigh the alternative, and might be the one thing that gives you an edge both in terms of creativity and productivity. 

Looking back, I wish I had known more, not just about how to successfully raise money for a business, but also about how harsh the process would be on my mental well-being. It wouldn’t have stopped me starting my businesses, but it might have encouraged me to better prepare myself for the journey ahead.

Going forward, I hope to see more public discussion surrounding this topic and less macho stoicism when it comes to exploring the ups-and-downs of fundraising.