CEO Series

We Need To Talk About Startup Depression In Malaysia

The blend of the high stress that comes with entrepreneurship, along with Malaysia’s close-your-eyes-and-it-doesn’t-exist treatment towards mental illness, equals a potentially deadly spiral of silence.

And make no mistake, depression is a deadly problem.

When we posed this question to the startup community, one of those brave enough to speak up informs us that the stress of losing a million dollars almost drove someone to leap to his death.

Went up on a roof and was about to kill himself. But up there he realised that he was in a very good spot to have a million to lose at that age,” he revealed. 

I think there’s a lot of these stories going around. Companies burn really easily. Founders are expected to grow their company 10% week on week.”

“Sometimes an investor pulls out when the company is broke. Sometimes a client refuses to pay or delays payment. Some companies have ended up with days or hours of money left in the bank and have never told their staff. It’s a very rough job.”

Khailee Ng, just earlier this year, brought this issue to the spotlight as well, following two suicides from the 500 Startups fold.

Ask someone in the startup scene: how are you doing? The typical response you get is: I am killing it; my company is growing 800 percent month-on-month; and so on.”

“But deep down inside, the product is broken; customers are leaking out; you got two-months’ runway left; your co-founder hates you; you just made a bad hire; your team hates you; if you go back home, maybe your partner or spouse hates you; your pet hates you; and you don’t even know whether you are supposed to be a founder or not!”

And when you couple this with the long working hours (think: all the time) these startup founders could experience social isolation on top of having to manage their companies.

In fact, Khailee quoted a Harvard study in 2012 that stated 65% of startup failures happen due to personal stress.

Other Malaysian startup founders shared their own stories with us too.

Abdul Wahab from a VR-based real estate startup VRGini has been interested in helping out anyone in the community who are dealing with startup depression for some time.

“Depression among startups is so common these days. I guess that’s what comes with being an entrepreneur, a very rough, depressing start.

For his particular startup’s journey, he described it as “kinda odd”.

“One day goes by and everything goes great and you feel like your startup is going to scale. Other days a simple thing goes bad and all the negativity reels in and you feel like your startup is gonna fail just like 90% other startups.”

And he attributes most of the depression to the CEO of the startups, since they are the ones who have to be optimistic and positive about the business, as leaders.

“As a CEO I feel the need to work 10 times more than my team. It’s not about hours it’s about how productive you are. With that comes founder depression, a very natural thing. But there is no other way except to give yourself time, have ways to calm yourself down and talk to other startup CEOs who are more experienced.”

“As for my team, I would never want them to have an inch of depression, it’s like a plague.”

“If any of my teammates is quiet for a while and seems off, it’s my responsibility to make him feel better and cheerful, to listen to him as a brother and a friend.”

A founder of a systems-based startup opened up with his own experiences too. He recalled that nothing like that ever hit him as bad in his corporate days.

“Sometimes I get burned out by too much work, or things don’t go according to plan. And when there are too many milestones to achieve.”

He informs us that between his investors and joining a global accelerator, the milestones set for them to achieve can seem out of reach.

And for his small, bootstrapped team in phase 2 development to juggle it all, he found himself in the lowest of lows during this period.

A 24-year-old CTO from a Data Analytics Startup said:

I haven’t officially been diagnosed with depression. However, some days, I wake up in the morning and wonder if this is really want I want for the next 5–10 years of my life.”

He’s thankful for co-founders who place their faith in his decisions and expertise, but it’s a struggle.

“The nature of creating something that doesn’t exist in the market yet, and fighting to educate customers on how our product can make their lives better.”

He also opens up about the less sexy aspects of running a startup that we often don’t talk about.

“Sometimes you have to do grunt work—work that is necessary but that doesn’t excite you.”

“Because mental health is such a taboo topic in our region, it’s something that people generally believe you’re supposed to ‘work out yourself’ and if you aren’t able to work it out yourself, you’re ‘defective’. I spent 6 years abroad in the US and UK, and therapy is way more accepted there. Sane, normal people go for therapy, not just ‘mentally-unstable’ people.”

He ends by telling the startup community to keep an eye out, and be alert for signs of depression in their colleagues.

“If you’re a startup founder, it’s on you to watch out for your team and your co-founders, to tell them it’s okay to take a break when they look like they need it.”

AJ, a 38-year-old from a big data and machine learning startup left his cushy middle-management media job to run his startup in 2013.

The idea back then was to raise funding. But when that didn’t happen, the business began eating into his savings. And since his co-founders did things part-time, he felt the stress of running things alone.

“Push came to shove when savings were running low—on fumes basically. Constant calls from the banks on debts, having to borrow money for prolonged periods from my father all took its toll.”

Seeing stories of startups with successful funding stories implanted self-doubt, and lowered his morale.

“Financial burden and things not going according to the ‘business plan’ slowly but surely pushes you into a corner.”

He eventually started to take up corporate jobs to alleviate the financial burdens. After facing retrenchment from the first one, he received the offer letter from an international bank—but he couldn’t sign it. The salary could only cover the bare minimum needed for his expenses.

“That was literally the lowest point for me. Facing potential bankruptcy, distancing myself from friends (kinda hard to keep close when you see people moving up in their life and also due to lack of money to spend unnecessarily), endless stress and uncertainty with no end in sight.”

AJ’s saving grace came a month later when one of his startup contacts gave him a small project. More trickled in afterwards, and after AJ decided to sell his house to help with payments, things began to look up for them, as well as the startup.

But what if it didn’t?

Teh Yong Lin from Kravve is still feeling the low.

His 9-month-old startup went through multiple major pivots, and is now a discovery platform for locally homemade food and snacks. But as per our discussions with him, the rewards have been pretty slim so far.

“When I see so many other companies with only an idea get 6 figure funds, yet having working really hard for the past 9 months, and not even a dime is in my pocket because we have to reinvest every cent back into the business. It’s really depressing seeing no one is willing to support your venture.”

“Even though the business is growing, but having only 1 figure (literally) left in my bank account, I start to question if I had just wasted 9 months.”

“What if I did not start the venture? I could be having a great progress in another company. I feel sorry if the business fails, that I let down everyone especially my co-founder who believed in me who gave up quite a lot to be with the startup.”

When things settle down, Yong Lin eventually wants to organise an event for people to share about the more unpleasant side of entrepreneurship, perhaps to open some eyes and crack some rose-tinted glasses.

Sherlyn of Twenty3 has always been outspoken about her struggle with depression.

She told us of how her moods followed the direction of the business, from even the smallest issue, because it was just such a big part of a life.

As someone who is actively dealing with her depression, she had these words to share.

“I’m coping a lot better these days! I finally found the courage to get myself properly diagnosed by a psychiatrist, and I’ve been prescribed medication which has really helped with tempering my breakdowns. I still suffer from anxiety attacks, but they’re not as severe as before. I can’t recommend seeing a psychiatrist enough, if you suspect that you’re suffering from depression!”

She further stressed, “Don’t hide or suppress your feelings if you feel overwhelmed.”

“I know we all need to portray a certain strength as founders, but it will eat away at you.”

“Talk to people, have a strong foundation of support. See a counsellor or psychiatrist if you need to. If you catch a cold, you’d see a doctor for meds; mental health is just the same.”

Abdul Wahab from VRgini has expressed his interest in hearing from startup founders facing depression.

But if you prefer to remain anonymous, the Befrienders is always available and ready to listen to any of your struggles. Another option is to seek professional help, through therapy or even a psychiatrist.

“I guess depression in startups is very common but startups need to be bold enough to share their depression so the ones who have walked through that untrodden path can lead them the right way,” said Abdul Wahab.

And talking about it, in my opinion, is the most important first step. It can be difficult, of course.

But if more members of the scene are able to talk about facing depression, it will help those going through the worst of it to know that they’re not alone.

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