Bringing mental health resources to founders
4 min read
4 min read
A new program for founders, by Brex
Today I’m excited to announce Catharsis, a new program designed to support startup founders’ mental health.
A few years ago, I asked Paul Graham what is the job of a founder as a company scales. He told me the job of a founder is to figure out how to be happy. I was puzzled by the answer. And then it started clicking…
Building a great company is a long game. Facebook was founded 18 years ago, Shopify 16 years ago, Stripe 12 years ago, and all of them are still growing at impressive growth rates — and far from their full potential. At Brex, we’re still in year five, and there’s an unfathomable, laughable amount of work to be done.
After a company hits product-market fit, the problem changes from “how hard can you work” to “how long can you do it for.” And you can’t do anything for a long time if you’re unhappy.
Today, I believe one of the biggest causes for companies not reaching their full potential is founders prematurely quitting because of mental health issues. This is a sad and limiting situation for the startup community, and one that founders, investors and executives should deeply care about.
When a founder is completely burnt out, the board may decide to bring an external CEO, or elevate an internal candidate to fill the founder’s gap. And although this may work for the CEO part of the founder’s job, you can’t hire the founder part again. You can’t hire for visceral levels of conviction, or the willingness to make irrational decisions without the fear of being misunderstood. Without the founder, most companies start dying slowly.
And yet, very few people talk about the critical role that mental health plays for a founder’s success. The founder’s job is lonely, hard, and many times, too hard. Since I shared my journey with mental health, dozens of founders reached out to me asking for advice. They were struggling with mental health too, but didn’t know what to do. They were afraid of what their investors, teams and friends would think of them, and they had no idea who could actually help them.
After speaking to a few founders individually, I was blown away by the impact that a few conversations had on their willingness to talk about their struggles and look for help — before it’s too late and they give up.
With Catharsis, we want to use the Brex platform to amplify these conversations and have a positive impact on the life of founders.
I’ve heard stories of founders being afraid to tell their investors they see a psychologist, with the concern of being deemed incapable of running a company. Or founders who miss therapy appointments because they’re too afraid to tell their EAs about it. The first step is to make mental health a completely, utterly normal part of life — to a point where seeing a psychologist sounds as boring as brushing your teeth in the morning.
Mental health issues don’t arise out of nowhere. Most of them are brewing for many months, or even years. Proactively addressing it is crucial. Regularly seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist is the easiest and best way to deal with anxiety and emotional challenges before they become big problems.
Sometimes, however, founders do have mental health crises. Layoffs, intense competition, executives quitting, co-founders fighting, etc. When a founder hits the bottom, the sense of hopelessness can be so visceral that you don’t think there’s a way out. You feel it in your bones that you’ll be stuck in this state forever. Unless someone who’s been there tells you that, as hard as it may seem at that moment, things do get better if you look for help.
To normalize mental health care — proactive and reactive — we need to share stories of founders who struggled with mental health, how they dealt with therapy and/or medication, and how they ended up in a great place now. There’s nothing more helpful than hearing peers (or even founders you admire) talking about the very thing you’re struggling with.
We are starting a series where we have founders (starting with me) share their own mental health journeys. Since one in every four startups use Brex, I believe this has a good chance of starting to change the stigma around mental health. You can find the video series here.
Connecting founders with mental health professionals
As we normalize talking about mental health, the second part is connecting founders with qualified mental health professionals. This is harder than it seems, because few therapists are actually well-versed in the specific challenges that founders go through.
Our second goal is to provide resources dedicated to addressing mental health. We’re teaming up with Spring Health to connect founders with qualified mental health professionals. Customers can redeem their healthcare session packages through Spring Health directly from their Brex dashboard, including using their Brex points. Brex makes no revenue from this service.
By reducing the stigma around mental health, and making it easy for founders to meet qualified professionals, there’s no reason why every founder wouldn’t proactively take care of their own mental health.
Small step, big impact
We believe mental health is one of the largest and most important challenges of the startup community today, and we’re excited about the impact that Catharsis can have on the next generation of founders.