How to use your depression to your advantage as a start up founder

Originally published on 3-beards.com in August 2016

Starting a business is hard. There are no two ways around it. It takes long hours, deep analysis, and a lot of luck. You want to make sure that you maximise all the factors working in your favour, and minimise anything that adds risk. At first glance, suffering from depression only reduces your chances of success. I'm here to show you otherwise. Depression is just one of many cards in your hand. Play it right, and it can be a powerful tool.

The intersection between mental health and the start-up environment is my life. I'm a neuro-biologist, and co-founder of a mental health tech start-up called Tomo. I've been on all sides of the experience of depression: as a patient, a carer, and a researcher. One thing has always struck me watching the process of recovery from depression. More often than not, people come out the other end happier, more fulfilled, and more productive than they’ve ever been. Here are some of the lessons and tools depression teaches, and how you can use them to your advantage.

Let's start at the foundations of your business: purpose and vision.

This was the title of day one at the Activate Capital start up lab program, which we’ve just completed. When I first saw that, my eyes were rolling before I finished reading, but I quickly discovered I was wrong to be cynical. The session helped us clearly articulate three questions: what problem are you trying to solve, why is it worth solving, and what does success look like? This is profoundly important to get right and to articulate into a mission statement.

You can use your depression as a filter to find something so clear and exciting that it cuts through the fog, cynicism, and all-round ‘meh’. If you can find a mission statement that inspires you into action even when you're feeling low, you've got something strong enough to build a business around.

At Tomo, our first mission statement was ‘helping people manage their mental health’. It's a nice thought, but a weak statement. It’s vague, un-ambitious, and unexciting. So we iterated until we got it right:

Our mission is to unlock the potential of people with depression, and empower them to build a greater life than they thought possible.

2: questioning and doubt.

A depressed brain will naturally look for every possible reason why something won't work. It's like having the world’s toughest investor grilling you constantly. If you view this as confrontation, it will exhaust you. Instead, think of it as a tool.

Don't dismiss your doubts. Listen to them, explore, and then address them. If you've ever had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, you can apply some of the same principles to your business:

Break each doubt down into simple facts, and label them as objectively true, objectively false, or things you don’t know. List the reasons why you've given each item its label, and interrogate those reasons. Your true doubts pile is where you need to brainstorm and innovate. Your false doubts pile is where you need to communicate better to reassure yourself and your team. And your ‘don't know’ pile is where you need to research. Congratulations, you've just turned your anxieties into an action plan.

3: You can cope with a difficult situation

You know what it’s like to have to get out of bed and get on with things, when the whole world seems grey and bleak. Your company will face similar times, and you can use your experience to deal with it better than most. You know that platitudes about everything getting better don’t do much good, and nor does a ‘grin and bear it’ approach. But you also know the bleakness ends, and letting it hold you down solves nothing. When things are rough, and things usually get rough, use your experience to help your team. Help them acknowledge and accept the rough patch, and re-focus them on the tasks immediately at hand, rather than the larger challenges ahead. Remind them that every mountain can be scaled if you take small enough steps.

If morale is really low, then you can use the same techniques that help recovery from depressive slumps. Get your team active with, for example, a company sports day. Make sure they’re spending time with friends and family, and keep the message and mission positive and hopeful.

4: You have an early warning system for your team.

One of the biggest staffing dangers in an intense startup environment is burn-out. Being mental health aware is something many employers lack. Those that are good at it will never understand mental health like you do. You can be the canary in the mine shaft, knowing when to make people go home and stop your best talent (and yourself) from overdoing it. You can earn the trust of your team by understanding when someone needs to take a day off because they are anxious or feeling low, just as much as when they have a fever. Encourage regular mental health checkups, in addition to things like flu jabs and physical checkups. By looking at depression, or any other mental health issue, as a difference rather than an impediment, you can design a workplace and workflows to keep your team healthy, happy, and productive.

Depression is a serious condition, and mental health is as critical a component of wellness as exercise and diet. But like any challenge in life, it brings with it profoundly useful lessons and experience. You just need to be ready to learn.

If you or someone you know are struggling with a mental health issue, please use this list of resources from Mind, and know that there is help out there:

http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/crisis-services/telephone-support/