Eight out of ten entrepreneurs are on the verge of tears at least once a week, says multi-tech firm founder Marco Houwen. In this article, he shares strategies for entrepreneurs to better manage the mental load of running a business.
It is 9am on a Friday and Marco Houwen’s smile and energy beam at me from the laptop screen for our video interview. The serial tech entrepreneur and founder of leadership training firm Zentrapreneur can barely contain his delight at speaking about his favourite topic: entrepreneur mental health.
“Being an entrepreneur is probably the most lonely place you can be in life,” he tells me straight off the bat.
“I see C level guys telling me the same story, ‘I’m confronted with a catastrophe every single day, on all different levels. Is it my delivery, my financing, my family? My board wants results, my investors want returns and I need to be the shining fearless leader to my troops, otherwise they won’t deliver!’”
Generally speaking, there is a stigma keeping mouths tightly shut on this topic. Houwen credits this to the macho narrative around entrepreneurship, although it is beginning to change.
“It’s about the figure, the representation of being strong”, he says. The strain is often exacerbated by the compromises entrepreneurs make when growing their business. Houwen explains that around the second and third stage of investing are often the moments when a founder becomes alienated from their original vision and values, because of the growing pressure for results and revenues.
However, ignoring personal struggles does not necessarily help a business. “It makes every entrepreneur less efficient, less fulfilled, which makes your company less efficient,” the expert explains.
Talk about it
One solution is to seek out a listening ear. Houwen’s career spans over 20 years as a tech founder, establishing successful businesses such as Lux Cloud and Data Center. During this time, he says he was fortunate to have close advisors with which he could talk frankly about the personal impact of the business. “Every entrepreneur should, at some level, talk about this and have a healthy conversation with a coach, advisor or mentor with whom you can exchange. Someone who is not only there to tell you what market to address next but who is there to listen,” he says.
“We only ever talk about our wins. Failure gives you the possibility to think, to analyse and say ‘I didn’t like this. Maybe I could do it next time like that.’”
Allow yourself to be vulnerable
The taboo surrounding vulnerability is closely related to that of mental health. The moment Houwen allowed himself to be vulnerable and let go of the need to be perfect was a breakthrough. “When I was running one of my companies, they called me ‘the fearless leader’. If only they knew how much fear I had! It was crazy!” he recalls. Asking for help here, he says, would have made the experience very different.
Ask who not how
Coupled with vulnerability, is the importance of delegating, a strategy also known as the “who not how”, popularised by coach Dan Sullivan. “Very often all-rounders like me think that we can do everything. For instance, I made the trailer at the beginning of my podcast. It was a mistake, because there are people that can do that way better, allowing me to focus on what I have to do,” says Houwen.
“I see it with entrepreneurs who burn out and with what I call external achievers, entrepreneurs or corporate people between 45 and 60 years old, who have it all. They have Porsches, the houses and their family looks happy. But for them, there is no meaning and that’s because they’re not connecting to the why,” says Houwen.
When we do something based on our own inspiration, it is easier to get through the hard times, he says. But, if you are pursuing a goal to be like Elon Musk, for instance, then it may be time to rethink the vision.
“I would say that at least once a week eight out of 10 entrepreneurs are close to tears with everything that happens because it’s just so straining. Don’t get me wrong. I love it. But even today, it’s always a challenge. I do it because it is based on who I am and what I really love doing.”
Examine the triggers
Once they have identified the key challenges, entrepreneurs should try to better understand the triggers and see the bigger picture.
“For instance, you’re in a board meeting and you go in with the best intentions. And then after five minutes you are so incredibly defensive. Where is that coming from? Maybe it’s from your entourage who says the board is bad. Maybe it comes from your upbringing,” Houwen says. Here entrepreneurs should examine the root cause of the triggers. In the above example it could be as simple as asking oneself: “do I want to create a proactive growth environment together with my board? Because I chose them to have people who are not in the day to day so that they can advise me and give an outside perspective. Am I ready? How can I create this relationship with them as deeply as possible and where do I have to go?”
Consider failures as lessons learned
“We only ever talk about our wins,” says Houwen, adding that: “Failure gives you the possibility to think, to analyse and say ‘I didn’t like this. Maybe I could do it next time like that.’”
The entrepreneur cites his own learning journey in which he ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 2018 with the ambition of leading the digitalisation agenda in Luxembourg.
“Was that a failure? No. I’m so happy with what I’m doing now,” he laughs. “
“What we call success and failure is all subjective. What did I learn? Politics is really nothing for me.”