The rise of the ‘augmented’ startup founder

The modern startup founder will tell you work never stops. What they’re far less likely to tell you is that stress, anxiety, panic, and feelings of failure never stop either. 

From worrying about funding and filling skills gaps in an uber-competitive environment, to simply running out of available working time to clear to-do lists — leaders contend with countless unique and interchangeable stresses on a daily basis. 

Whether it’s a lack of time, money or talent, these stresses contribute to a culture of overworking, and a vicious cycle of inefficiency that affects productivity overall. 

In the past we’ve seen ‘toxic resilience’ worn as a badge of honour — looking at Elon Musk’s 100-hour work week and Bill Gates’ suggestion that founders never take a holiday. However, as understanding of mental health grows, there is an increasing awareness — and concern — around the long-term physical and mental impact that these stresses are having on startup leaders. 

Founders struggle with startup pressure

Almost all industry insight available concludes the same thing — startup founders are struggling. Investors are very quick to explain they buy into founders themselves, as well as the businesses they lead. 

For founders, this can necessitate a need to show a near-superhero level of resilience and outward confidence, such is their desperation to get ideas off the ground. However, the data tells us that much of this confidence is an act. 

VCs have described 2024 as the year of an ‘unprecedented founder mental health crisis’, with 72% of founders reporting that entrepreneurship has directly impacted their mental health. This is driving many founders, as many as half, to consider quitting their startup altogether. 

Breega’s scaling squad — designed specifically to provide pastoral support for founders in their business journey — has spoken to countless founders who have reported experiencing huge anxiety, night terrors, and struggles in their personal and professional life. 

All of this relates directly to work-based stress. Fear of failure, massively outdated stigmas around mental health, and the pace of movement in the startup space leave little room for introspection and support-seeking. 

The result, for far too long, has been founders who have become isolated, and ill-equipped to prioritise both growing workloads and their own wellbeing. In short, they’ve lost the ability to breathe.

Unhappy leaders lead to unhappy teams

These struggles don’t occur in a vacuum either. Unhealthy behaviours demonstrated at the top often impact the entire company culture. 

Lack of understanding around wellbeing, and its importance, generates a work environment characterised by fear, suppressed communication, and increased risk of burnout at all levels. This means that innovation suffers, talent retention becomes much more challenging, and team morale erodes over time.

All of this begs the question — as an industry, how can we solve this? 

VCs can play a significant role in offering genuine support and guidance — particularly in the cases where they have operated as founders themselves. Workshopping through an issue, or having a clear support structure and available guidance in place, can provide founders with clarity on next steps, and reduce the level of uncertainty that they may feel in making a decision. 

Becoming an ‘augmented founder’

Equally important is empowering leaders to become ‘augmented founders’ themselves. These are leaders who have developed a low ego and high self-awareness, thanks to robust and regular support systems in place with coaches, therapists or any qualified professional.

They recognise that addressing their personal well-being isn’t a sign of weakness but rather a vital investment in themselves and the longevity of their company.

Just as founders use technology to optimise work, an ‘augmented founder’ taps into the power of human connection. They should begin to acknowledge that their role as a leader is based on enabling others, rather than shouldering every burden alone. 

As such, they surround themselves with a team whose strengths complement their own. This approach requires a willingness to assess their own abilities and weaknesses, and the desire to consciously move away from ego-driven decision-making. 

Self-care needs to be seen as a critical business investment, of which robust support systems are built around. This should flow through all levels of the business — with deliberate hiring efforts to meet ongoing skills gaps, relieving pressure, and building a well-rounded team. Finally, there needs to be a culture of open communication and continuous improvement.

Founders who prioritise their own well-being are not only stronger leaders, but they also inspire and attract top talent who value a healthy work environment. The ‘augmented founder’ isn’t just adapting to change, they’re creating the change by shaping a more sustainable and human-focused future for startups. 

This approach fosters a sort-of kinder resilience in leaders — driving better decision-making, stronger teams, and ultimately, greater potential for long-term business success. 

The pillars of success: courage, clarity, and support

Ultimately, the success of a startup rests upon three core pillars: courage, clarity, and support. 

To foster innovation in the UK, we need a thriving startup culture, in which founders and innovators feel happy and supported as they bring new ideas to market.

Coaching and regular feedback sessions contribute directly to these pillars by assisting in leadership development, promoting open communication, and establishing a supportive environment conducive to continuous learning and growth. 

This approach empowers leaders and creates the ‘augmented founder’ ideal, ultimately driving the success of the organisation. 

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