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The Business Of Anxiety In Business: Giving Heroes Permission To Feel Vulnerable

Lesley Williams, Helen During and Marc Feitelberg have all built successful businesses from the ground up. They have also all experienced anxiety and depression along the way. Many entrepreneurs would relate to their stories. But the stigma attached to mental illness has prevented many from speaking out. Is it time for mental health issues to come out of the closet?

Sarah-Anne Alman

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Entrepreneurs need a bit of crazy

Lesley Williams is Chief Executive Officer of Tshimologong Digital Precinct in Johannesburg. She had initiated various ventures over the years, including the first Impact Hub in Africa. In 2015, Lesley came to a grinding halt. Her business partner absconded, the business was in flux, her health failed, her social infrastructure dried up and a bus smashed into her car. The individual events caused a perfect storm, triggering burnout and depression. It took five months of soul-searching, counselling and crying before she gradually began to rebuild her life.

“Entrepreneurs sign up for a lifestyle that requires a bit of crazy,” she says.

“We get so caught up in the obsessive task of building our business, taking responsibility for the livelihoods of others. When you play at this level, you’re constantly telling others how awesome you are – you’re the hero in the organisation.” But ultimately, she says, every entrepreneur has the same level of human vulnerability.

Related: Deepak Chopra’s 7 Ways To Reduce Stress And Anxiety

What goes up must come down

Integral coach and facilitator Helen During relates to this. Her aromatherapy business was a nine-year overnight success, selling products around the world. “As an entrepreneur you’re driven by a pulse. There’s nothing to stop you, despite the pressure of turning a profit without a cash flow.” In During’s case that pulse manifested physically. “I was so driven, but I would wake up with heart palpitations and fibrillations.” During sold the business when she realised just how much her health was compromised.

Anxiety, she says, is a consequence of a rapidly changing, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. “Uncertainty can cause anxiety. For entrepreneurs, our success is defined by our results and our results are defined by our actions. Anxiety is a gentle nudge – a reminder to stop and reflect,” says During.

In the rush of achieving success, she explains, “it’s important to create places of reflection and physical places of nourishment. This is valuable time for strategic planning that will bring about greater certainty and longevity in the business. That’s how you build resilience.”

The trap of the whiz-kid

Williams also talks about resilience as a key component, but with a tone of caution: “Entrepreneurship is a respected club, but it’s also a very isolated existence. All eyes are on you, because what you’re doing is not the norm. A pioneering entrepreneur’s success can be very public. But when the business hits a rocky path it can be difficult to admit to vulnerability or failure. Instead, those feelings are supressed. Some might interpret that as resilience, but I don’t think it’s healthy. I call it the trap of the whiz-kid.”

“The question is, is the individual resilient enough to withstand obstacles? Symptoms of depression and anxiety manifest when resilience is absent,” says Marc Feitelberg, psychologist and founder of the South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP). He has first-hand experience of dealing with obstacles. Battles on several fronts threatened to destroy his dream of establishing a psychology school, sapping him of all internal and financial resources. But, he says, he was driven by a deep conviction and belief in his vision for the business.

Related: 12 Apps To Help Ease Anxiety

How are you serving your why?

answering-why

“Entrepreneurship is a risky business. You’re stepping out of your comfort zone, so it’s important to know what are the best conditions to help you achieve your goals.” Feitelberg suggests that internal and external conditions play a part in helping entrepreneurs find the equilibrium to support their appetite for risk.

External conditions relate to the ability to meet financial requirements. Internal conditions, he explains, are the entrepreneur’s mental state. “Depression arises when people aren’t doing what they love – irrespective of whether they’re a corporate employee or an entrepreneur,” says Feitelberg.

During agrees: “It’s so important to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. How are you serving and sustaining that ‘why’?”

Symptoms of depression and anxiety range from lack of sleep to anger outbursts, eating disorders and addictive behaviours. “Depression is not the enemy,” says Feitelberg, “it’s a signal. The trick is to understand what the signal is for. What is triggering the depression?” While the mix of symptoms and triggers differ between individuals, there is a commonality: “Often the individual recognises a need to integrate planned or recent changes into their life, or they are overwhelmed by unexpected changes.” When this happens, it’s important to acknowledge the vulnerability and ask for help from trusted supporters, says Feitelberg.

Exposing the elephants in the room

Many entrepreneurs find that difficult, however. Williams say that “the narrative around depression and anxiety needs to change – they’re the elephants in the room.”

Feitelberg refers to the shame associated with mental health issues. “Society has imposed a culture that requires individuals to manage their emotional issues on their own,” he says.

“Admitting the business is in trouble heightens anxiety because of the sense of shame attached to it. The truth is that it’s okay to be honest about failure or vulnerability; to own the emotion,” adds Williams.

That said, Feitelberg suggests that mental health is becoming less of a taboo subject. He refers to the plethora of articles, podcasts, books and videos that populate mainstream business content. This makes it easier for individuals to see that they are not alone in feeling what they feel and to ask for help.

Related: 4 Stress-Management Tips For Reducing Anxiety And Getting More Done

How can incubators help?

Individual networks and the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem can help too. Incubators, for example, have a role to play in recognising that entrepreneurs are, ultimately, human beings.

“Incubators need to be very intentional in their belief and support,” says Williams. At the same time, she says, it’s also important to establish supportive models that can facilitate exit strategies when required. “Don’t provide oxygen when it’s clear that the business model won’t succeed.” says Williams.

Programming is important too. Events that facilitate interactions beyond the business model or pitching can bring more interpersonal support into the incubator environment.

You are your business

During concludes with a note about self-care through good nutrition, exercise and taking time out for thinking, reflection and planning. “Look at the bigger picture: you are your business. You need to invest in yourself to create the right balance that will sustain the possibilities for it to succeed.”

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Start-up Advice

Put On Your Wellies: It’s Time To Wade Into Risk

Entrepreneurs aren’t all leaping into the unknown like lemmings off a cliff, but they do need to consider it…

Chris Ogden

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You’ve had a great idea. You’ve looked into its development. You’ve recognised that it has potential beyond just what Auntie Mabel and Mike From The Grocer think. And you’ve clearly nailed a pain point that can make money. Now it is time to take the risk of running with it.

Every big idea comes with risk. You can’t step out into the world of entrepreneurial thinking and business development without it. Your idea may fail. It will also be time consuming, demanding, hungry for money, and hard work. It is unrealistic to expect that your project will leap out into the world and be an unmitigated success.

It is also unrealistic to assume that it isn’t worth taking this risk.

There are steps that you can follow to ensure that your risk is managed so you aren’t blindly leaping off that cliff…

Step 01: Do your research

No, canvassing your neighbours, friends and family is not doing research. You need to know that your idea will appeal to a broad market and that it will have significant legs. This may sound like daft advice, but you would be surprised how many people think an idea will take off just because Susan in Accounting said so.

Step 02: Understand the costs

Projects are hungry for money and investment. Realistically work out your budgets and how much it will cost to take your project off the ground and then stick to it.

A calculated risk is a far better bet than one that shoots from the hip and hopes for the best. You can also use this as an opportunity to draw a clear line under where you will stop investing and end the project. If it keeps eating money and isn’t getting anywhere with results you need to be able to walk away.

Step 03: Know when to walk away

As mentioned before, this can be defined by a line you’ve drawn in the proverbial sand (and budget) but no matter where you draw this line, you have to stick to it. Often, when time, money and energy have been poured into a project it can be incredibly hard to walk away.

You think ‘but I have put so much into this, just one more’ and then it gets to a point where the ‘just one more’ has taken you so far down the line that walking away feels impossible. Leave. Learn the lessons. Apply them to your next project.

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Start-up Advice

Mind The Gap

The entrepreneur’s guide to finding the gaps and building the right solutions.

Chris Ogden

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Innovation may very well be the key to business success but finding the gap into which your innovative thinking can fit is often a lot harder than people realise. Some may be struck by inspiration in the shower, others by that moment of blinding insight in a meeting, however, for most people finding that big idea isn’t that simple. They want to be an entrepreneur and start their own high-growth business, but they need some ideas on how to find that big idea.

Here are five…

1. Network

It sounds trite but networking is actually an excellent way of picking up on patterns and trends in conversation and business problems. The trick is to note them down and pay attention. Soon, you will find patterns emerging and ideas forming.

2. Look for pain

Just as networking can reveal trends in the market, so can spending time reading. The latter will also help you find common business pain points. These are the touchpoints that frustrate people, annoy business owners, affect productivity, or impact employee engagement.

Be the Panado that fixes these pains.

3. Luck

luck

This is probably the most annoying of the ideas, but it is unfortunately (or fortunately) very true. Luck does play a role in helping you capture that big idea. However, luck isn’t just standing around and random people offering you opportunities. Luck is found at networking events, it is found in research and it is found in conversations with other entrepreneurs.

4. Luck needs courage

You may have found the big idea through your network, a pain point or pure blind luck, but if you don’t have the courage to take it and run with it, you will lose it to someone else.

Being bold in business is highly underrated because most people assume that everyone is bold and prepared to take big leaps into the unknown. However, not all brilliant entrepreneurs were ready to throw their family funds to the wind and leap into an idea – they were courageous enough to figure out a way of harnessing their ideas realistically.

5. Pay attention

This is probably one of the most vital ways of finding a gap in the market. Often, people are so busy that they don’t really pay attention to that niggling issue that always bothers them on a commute, or in a mall, or at a meeting. This niggling issue could very well be the next big business opportunity. Pay attention to it and find out if that issue can be solved with your innovative thinking.

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Start-up Advice

5 Things To Know About Your “Toddler” Business

As you navigate this new toddler phase of your business, here are five things to bear in mind.

Catherine Black

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Ah, toddlers. Those irresistible bundles of joy bring a huge amount of energy, curiosity and fun to any family – but there’s also frustration and worry that comes with their unpredictability, as they grow and start to become more independent. If you own a business and it’s successfully past its “infancy” of the first year or so, it’s likely it will also go through a toddler stage of its lifecycle.

Pete Hammond, founder of luxury safari company SafariScapes, agrees with this. “Our business is now three and a half years old, and we’ve found that we’re not yet big enough to justify employing a large team of people to handle the day-to-day admin tasks, yet we still need to grow the business as well,” he says. “As a result, our main challenge is finding the time to step back and see the bigger picture. Kind of like when you are raising a busy toddler and you spend most of your time running after them!”

As you navigate this new toddler phase of your business, here are five things to bear in mind:

1. This too shall pass

Everything in life is temporary – and that goes for both the good and the bad. It’s as helpful to remember this when you’re facing the might of a toddler temper tantrum, as it is when you’re facing throws of uncertainty in your business. If your new(ish) venture is going through a rough patch in its first few years, it can be easy to think about giving up – but don’t. As long as you have an overall big idea that you believe can add value to your customers, keep pushing through the rough parts until you come out the other side.

2. Appreciate what this phase brings

The toddler years mean that the initial newborn joy is officially behind you. But these small humans also bring their own kinds of joy, as you watch them learn new skills, say funny things, and give affection back to you. While your two-year-old business may not hold the same exhilaration for you as it did during those first few months, there are now different things to appreciate about it: Maybe you’re expanding your product range, or employing new people who can take the workload off you.

3. Establish boundaries

Toddlers thrive on boundary and routine – and your toddler business will too. As it grows into a new phase, try and establish limits in terms of the type of clients you want to work with and the type of work you’ll do. It’s also a good idea to make a decision about the hours you’ll work and when you’ll switch off, which will help you establish a good work-life balance.

4. Take a break

Every parent with a toddler needs a break every now and then, even if that means a walk around the block (on your own!), a dinner out with friends, or even a few days away. The same is true for a demanding small business: every so often, remember to take time out to rest properly, where you switch off your laptop and completely unplug. You’ll return much more inspired and resilient to deal with the everyday uncertainty that it brings.

5. Give it space to make mistakes

While the unpredictability of a young business can be stressful and tiring, it’s also a time for trying new things without the risk of huge consequences if they don’t quite work. After all, it’s much simpler to change your USP if you’re a small business employing a few people, rather than a big company where 50 people are relying on you for their salary, or where you’ve received a huge amount of investment capital. While you may fail in some of the things you try with your business (in fact, this is almost guaranteed), see it as a toddler that’s resilient enough to pick itself up, dust its knees and keep moving forward.

During this phase of business growth it’s also essential to have the right type of medical aid cover. There are medical schemes such as Fedhealth which has a number of medical aid options and value-added benefits to ensure that your health and wellness is taken care of too. After all, the healthier you and your staff are, the more productive your business will be – during the toddler (business) stage and beyond.

While this phase can be frustrating, it’s a sign that your business is growing and adapting, rather than remaining in its infancy, and that can only be a good thing! So embrace the difficulties, learn from them, and watch as your business strides forward confidently into the next exciting phase.

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