Can You Have Mental Wellness While Running a Startup?

In M13’s Overheard on Slack series, two partners share how to support founders’ mental wellness.

Last Updated: October 7, 2020

Published: March 16, 2020

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M13 will occasionally share what we’re overhearing on our Slack channels as our team unpacks the day’s news.

M13 Partner and Head of Brand Christine Choi returned from Upfront Summit thinking about mental wellness and founding teams. She and M13 Partner and Head of Talent Matt Hoffman have an uncanny level of synchronicity, and sure enough, that same week Matt slacked the M13 team a WSJ story about how big corporations are offering therapy to employees. Have a read.

Christine 8:43 PM

Hi Matt. You have a knack for posting stories that capture what's on people's minds right now—and right now that topic is mental health.

Matt Hoffman 8:43 PM

Hi! Guess what. I’m actually just coming back from doing indoor skydiving with my kids. No joke.

Christine 8:45 PM

Take your time, and have fun! I just returned from Upfront's conference. It’s a pretty remarkable gathering of investors and founding teams hosted by Mark Suster who years ago wrote a tribute about my friend, a beloved and accomplished entrepreneur who killed himself. Jody was a bright light in the LA ecosystem, and his death still haunts me.

I'm new to venture so at Upfront, I asked people for advice. One of the best came from a reporter who said, "Make sure your founders take care of their mental wellness." Do founders already recognize they need to prioritize it, or are we at the start of the conversation?

Matt Hoffman 10:13 PM

Hi Hi Christine—I'm so sorry to hear that story, and I can't even imagine how that must have impacted you and all of your friends' loved ones. Even without a stark example like that, I absolutely believe that one of the most important things startup founders and leaders can do to ensure their (and their companies') long-term success is to prioritize their mental health.

I think more and more founders are paying attention to this, and it's gratifying to see the conversation becoming more prevalent as the stigma around the topic diminishes. Top leadership coaches like Jerry Colonna and famed investors like Suster and Brad Feld are a big reason why that's the case, but the trend is nonetheless very positive.

Christine 10:39 PM

Yes, agreed! The WSJ article you shared features examples of large companies offering services that startups can’t afford. I am just starting to get to know our founders and earn their trust and wonder about how to balance wellness talk with strategic planning. The other week I brought food to a meeting with a founder because I wanted to share some treats from my favorite bakery. Turns out the founder hadn’t eaten all day and was grateful to enjoy literally breaking bread and having a conversation. Rosemary fougasse from Lafayette for her—an essential learning moment for me to be mindful of the pressure founding teams put on themselves. What can we do to encourage them to take care of themselves?

Matt Hoffman 10:54 PM

‍Founders today are under excruciatingly immense pressure. In addition to the constant drive to "hustle harder"—often brought on by VCs like ourselves—they run on a seemingly never-ending treadmill. There are always more decisions to make and work to do than hours in the day, and they are quite literally responsible for the livelihoods of their entire employee base.

That's a tremendous load for any human to bear. Is it any wonder that they are not prioritizing time for their own mental wellness?

Giving founders permission to take care of themselves, much in the way you did, Christine, is one of the most important things we can do as investors and board members. Let them know it's not selfish to focus on their own self-care, and that they are not letting us down by pausing to take the time to do so.

We always say investing is a long game and giving founders the same patience and time horizon we give ourselves can be an important first step. More tactically, there are a number of great coaching resources available to founders and leaders, and we should be ready to direct them to teams like Reboot, Refound, and others can be tremendously helpful.

Christine 11:21 PM

It’s hard to slow down when we are supposed to be going and growing so fast. Sometimes only experiencing it can show you the value of taking care of ourselves. What I value about our Propulsion work at M13 is the opportunity to start with a seemingly basic operational question—for example, “I need a PR agency”—and let it unpack the real needs and a sequence of work that results in clarity and better decisions. Founding teams already say there is tremendous and cathartic benefit from a trusted sounding board, active listeners, people who have been in their shoes.

Matt Hoffman 11:34 PM

Yep. Fit is paramount and that comes with being a trusted partner, approaching founder conversations with curiosity and empathy. That allows us to really understand how we can be most helpful and not just come with a one-size-fits-all approach. Related to the broader topic, finding the right coach takes time. Fit is so critical—almost more so than with any other aspect of work—so it’s important to make the effort to authentically understand what the founder needs and help direct her to the right type of coach for that kind of support.

Christine 11:47 PM

Now I have to acknowledge your efforts to bring a nuanced balance to M13’s own intense culture. On Rob’s and my first day at M13, you and Jerry and his colleague facilitated team-wide coaching. An entire day of listening and learning about each other was an amazing way to start at M13 reinforced what matters to us here, which is to truly be there for our teammates and founding teams as we build purposeful organizations.

Matt Hoffman 12:11 AM

Thank you! I would argue that taking the time to set a strong foundation of team building, getting to know your work colleagues as human beings, ensuring values alignment is one of the most important things a leadership can do to ensure they move fast later on.

It's like a world-class soccer team, the more you know and understand your teammates, the more you can predict where they are going and pass the ball there (not where they are now). It eliminates so much confusion and need for multiple communications.


I think one of the biggest ways we will impact our Launchpad companies is by instituting these types of programs at the very beginning of their lifecycle.

Christine 9:45 AM

On that note, I like to start my week with Sunday morning yoga—just finished and feeling ready. Our yoga teacher shared an anecdote about his teacher, describing him as the kind of person you want to be around and soak in his energy. It was a nice reminder that even teachers have teachers and there is always something more we can learn from each other. Enjoy your Sunday #GirlDad.##