When I was 13, I watched my father die of a heart attack in the middle of an episode of “Miami Vice.” I was just a kid, but I dealt with that tragedy like the venture capitalist I would grow up to be. I didn’t mourn; I spun. I wove a story about how my dad’s death was certainly sad but taught me valuable lessons about making every moment count because life is uncertain. That attitude propelled me forward in my professional life, where I became known as the guy who could get things done, who had no patience for b.s. — the guy who never quit hustling.
I never stopped to question my mentality, and why would I? The chest-thumping “I’m killing it” attitude is normal in the world of VCs and startups. But in 2014, I went to the doctor for a heart murmur that appeared while I was raising my fund’s first institutional round and simultaneously running my own venture-backed startup. Rather than undergoing long-term treatment that might have slowed down my frantic professional pace, I opted for a quick-fix surgery.
Unfortunately, that surgery went very wrong and my health took a nosedive. I lost 30 pounds in a month. I couldn’t eat, but I couldn’t slow down either. It didn’t hit me until I looked at my grey reflection in a hotel mirror during yet another business trip: I was in danger of leaving my children just like my father left me. The skills that had facilitated my initial success were no longer serving me, either professionally or personally. I was burning out, and if I was going to sustain what I’d worked so hard to grow, I needed help.
Today our culture is in the midst of a massive shift in how we view human thriving. Employers promote their offices’ wellness programs and support for work-life balance. Some of the most talked-about startups at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) focused on mental well-being, meditation, and sleep.
This cultural moment needs emotionally intelligent leaders more than ever. Millennials care deeply about the values of the companies they work for and buy from; the kind of “work hard, play hard” culture that used to be common at young, growing firms is now a liability. Coupled with social media’s ability to turn internal friction into headline news, this environment demands a different type of CEO from the abrasive personalities that built Apple and Amazon. The Twitter meltdown, the boardroom gaffe, or employee stories of hostile work environments can permanently damage a brand, even if its product is great.
Why a founder’s health matters to a company’s success
Many promising startups struggle because their founders weren’t prepared for the stresses of leading a high-growth company. I’ve seen a founder come down with an incapacitating case of shingles due to stress and overwork. I’ve watched co-founders whose partnership was the cornerstone of their company fall apart because they lacked the basic tools to constructively disagree. I’ve seen a founder almost lose his home because he compromised his personal finances to “save the company.”
For investors, avoiding issues like this isn’t a touchy-feely notion; it’s risk mitigation. Experience has taught VCs the indisputable value of keeping founders at the helms of their companies for the long term. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to replicate a founder’s vision and passion in an outsider.
That’s why VCs must make founders’ emotional health a core component of what they offer startups. This could include offering portfolio companies coaching, peer-group support, personality assessments, and myriad other services tailored specifically to the company’s needs. And these programs shouldn’t be opt-in: Every founder should get this kind of support.
Having undergone this type of intensive coaching myself, I can speak to its value: Reorienting myself has made me a better colleague, a happier person, and even enabled me to finally mourn my dad.
How VCs can support founders — and vice versa
For investors, encouraging founders to prioritize their health and personal growth has another advantage: It allows them to be vulnerable. Freed from pressure to look like they’re “killing it,” founders can talk to their investors about the good news as well as the bad and get help quickly when they’re struggling — for example, when there is a death in the family in the middle of a round of financing.
Even if a fund doesn’t choose to implement a complete wellness program, investors can support their founders’ emotional health less formally. They can ask founders about their work-life balance and their relationships with other members of the management team, signaling clearly that emotional health is a high priority. Investors can also help founders build a robust support network by connecting them to peers and mentors and recommending coaches and other professionals who will support their personal growth. Most importantly investors can model the behaviors they want to see in founders by taking time out to self-reflect and work on themselves, whether that’s through coaching, therapy, mindfulness practice, or some other means.
And the due diligence goes both ways: Entrepreneurs should feel equally comfortable making sure their investors value their well-being and share values that go beyond dollar amounts. For me, living these values means making sure the founders I invest in get the support they need to steer their companies for the long haul. It’s the soundest strategy for being effective stewards of our startups, our LPs’ capital, and the long-term viability of our entire tech community.
Brian Garrett is co-founder and managing director at Crosscut Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital fund in Los Angeles.