Janos Barberis, Dani Olliffe, Annabelle Camron and Jame Roycroft-Davis, Founders of Founders Taboo
Careers and professional development, Health and wellbeing, Mental health, Stress and anxiety, Work and occupational

‘A founder’s lifestyle can be tough’

Chrissie Fitch, Associate Editor for Culture for The Psychologist hears from the founders of Founders Taboo, a mental health and wellbeing community to support founders.

05 October 2022

Janos Barberis, Founder of Founders Taboo; Dani Olliffe, Founder, Wellbeing Associate; Annabelle Cameron, Founding Team Member of Founders Taboo and James Roycroft-Davis, host of the Founder Mental Health Podcast, Vulnerable, spoke to The Psychologist about the importance of creating Founds Taboo, to provide a safe community to increase the awareness, access and affordability of support for founders mental health and wellbeing in the start-up space. 

How does Founders Taboo operate?

[Janos Barberis, Founder of Founders Taboo] Our name captures the unspoken experiences of founders whilst building their start-ups. Mental health is an urgent topic that needs to be brought to the attention of the start-up ecosystem if we wish to build a sustainable future.

[Annabelle Cameron, Founding Team Member, Founders Taboo] Founders Taboo is a mental health and wellbeing community, resource hub and marketplace, tailored to supporting founders as they navigate their entrepreneurial journey. After speaking to founders across the globe, we tailored our support to suit their needs. Our online community provides a safe and non-judgemental environment for founders to build connections; our resource hub provides expert-led guidance to allow founders to improve their mental health knowledge and self-advocacy skills; our upcoming marketplace will allow founders to source psychological and therapeutic professionals with knowledge and expertise in entrepreneurship; and our events encapsulate all of the above in an informative and engaging space.

What impact do you think you have achieved so far?

[Annabelle and Janos] Poor mental health should not be accepted as a natural by-product of entrepreneurship. We are on a mission to improve the awareness, accessibility and affordability of wellbeing support for founders. Broadening access to tailored support will not only improve the lives of founders, but have knock-on impacts on the functioning of the start-up ecosystem and society at large.

We’re still at the beginning of our journey as a company… but we had almost 600 founders across the globe sign up to our waitlist, and 1000 downloads of our podcast in the first month. This traction suggests a desire and need for more mental health resources for founders.

Through in our in-person wellbeing retreat, we’ve seen a shift to understanding that openness around mental health is not a sign of vulnerability. Prioritising wellbeing is a crucial asset for building a sustainable and fulfilling entrepreneurial career and life. One founder told us: ‘I now realise how much we keep inside… each time someone says out loud “your mental health is important, this is a safe place”, it really helps to release feelings, like taking off a huge weight from your shoulders.’

What made you start a podcast, and what makes it stand out?

[James Roycroft-Davis, host of the Founder Mental Health Podcast, Vulnerable)] As a founder myself, my last start-up was accompanied by a real decline in my own mental health. Depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts took over, and I was unsure how to talk about it. This is an all-too common experience for founders that often remains unvoiced… I wanted to bring attention to the silent struggle.

I met a fellow founder, Janos, and we connected through our shared mental health challenges. I’ve built podcasts before and have seen the real impact they can have on normalising stigmatised topics. We noticed there was a lack of open and honest founder-to-founder discussions, and podcasts dedicated to discussing entrepreneurship and the founder journey without rose-tinted glasses. We felt that there was such a stigma attached to talking about your mental health as a founder: and so Vulnerable was born.

[Dani Olliffe, Founder, Wellbeing Associate] There’s a raw, authentic, real-ness about our guests and the discussion points. For our founder audience, Vulnerable is a space that verbalises the things that everyone is thinking, but feels like they cannot say. It draws the curtain and exposes the real thoughts and experiences of founders without a filter and without complication. There is no right or wrong way to feel, no right or wrong way to think, and Vulnerable allows people to hear that, contemplate that, and reflect on what they think too.

Do you have a favourite episode?

[James] Episode 8 with Patrick Hulsen. Patrick had never spoken so publicly about his journey, and his journey to and from crisis point whilst running a multi-million dollar company is extraordinary. I personally learnt so much listening to him. Not only from his mental health experiences, but how he did this all whilst building an incredible business. Phenomenal.

What are the common well-being issues that founders and entrepreneurs face?

[Dani] A founder’s lifestyle can be tough. More often than not it’s a high-stakes environment that generates very little reward in the early stages, and takes a great deal of personal strength, endurance and motivation. As a result, many founders each day are on the brink of burnout, coping with emotional overwhelm and intense stress, alongside social stresses such as relationship breakdowns and friendship issues.

Entrepreneurship is shown to bear a heavy weight on an individual’s life, often impacting non-work related aspects of their life too. A 2019 study led by Michael Freeman at the University of California found that mental health differences impacted 72 per cent of their sample of entrepreneurs, and founders were more likely to be impacted by depression, ADHD, substance use and bipolar disorder than comparison participants.

Founders are not dissimilar to high-performing athletes, in terms of lifestyle and the high-pressure environments they work in. We’re increasingly seeing mental health professionals as supporting staff for high-performing athletes… and we, amongst growing numbers of others, have identified the need for attention towards mental health in the entrepreneurial world as well.

Where do you hope to take Founders Taboo in future?

[Annabelle and Janos] Success to us looks like a change in the system… founders feeling supported and able to break the taboo in order to voice their concerns, challenges and doubts. We want to change outdated norms and ideals – burnout is not a badge of honour or a right-of-passage to being a founder. We want to promote mindfulness within entrepreneurship, harmony rather than conflict between health and building a business.

On a larger scale, we are pursuing partnerships with researchers to build on studies that have started exploring promising psychological interventions for entrepreneurs, but also to substantiate a link between founder mental health, venture performance and return on investment. With such data, we hope to change policy and practices in the Venture Capital industry to tackle the issue on a systemic level.