Fitness, fulfilment and foresight: what startup founders & entrepreneurs need to survive

Amanda Price, Head, High Growth Ventures

There are few pursuits in which individual leadership plays as critical a role as building a high-growth venture. A founder’s vision, product development skills and ability to sell will literally make or break their startup.

Put simply: a high-performance growth company can’t exist without high-performance founders and leaders.

Over the past 5 years there have been significant efforts from many sides: governments, universities, investors and corporations, to fast-track Australia’s startup eco-system. The results have been positive, but it is not an overstep to say that, despite these efforts we are still not doing enough to help our startups scale successfully.

A large part of this is that, while our ecosystem has become excellent at teaching founders the hard skills required to build a tech startup, we have not placed enough emphasis on soft skills. Garry Vistonay of Right Click Capital notes that many founders struggle with the soft skills required to effectively run and build their business. He also points to a worrying statistic from Harvard Business School Professor Noam Wasserman, the author of The Founders Dilemmas: 65 percent of startups that fail do so due to ineffective management from the founders, not product or marketing problems.

Our research, published today, is born out of two key hypotheses. Firstly, a founder’s ability to lead their business is a critical success factor that determines the fate of their startup. And secondly, that a founder’s personal wellbeing, their physical and mental health, informs how they lead: everything from how they communicate, how they hire, to how they foster and build the culture necessary for a startup to succeed.

This quote from Elias Bizannes in the recently published Entrepreneur’s Guide from the ASX captures the founder’s struggle: “One of the biggest lessons I learnt with my other businesses is the importance of looking after yourself…Burnout is like depression; you don’t have energy or motivation; you don’t place any value on the work you do. You can be bumbling along thinking you are fine because you are happy otherwise, but the truth is, when you burn out, your capacity to work is so greatly reduced that you are best not working at all.”

While the Australian startup ecosystem offers a lot of support and understanding for founders, much is of this is one dimensional, focusing on the mechanics of starting and building a business. If we want more Australian startups to transition into global businesses, we need to help more founders become world class leaders. This means taking a more holistic approach, and participating in programs focused as much on the mental and physical well-being of the founder as on the performance of the startup.

The mental and physical investment from founders in building a startup is something I believe is not completely understood by those of us who help Australian high-growth ventures to succeed. When we first started looking at high-performance as it relates to founders, it was almost impossible to find data. That is why we have undertaken this research. For those working day-to-day with founders, the findings may not be surprising. But without measurement, there can be no baseline of understanding.

It is our hope this research will start conversations within the startup community, and help founders to talk about the personal challenges they face. By encouraging open dialogue, we can better support founders and make high performance sustainable and realistic. A founder’s individual performance is one of the critical factors to the success or failure of their business. Our research aims to shine a light on some of the unspoken challenges founders face, and to help highlight the link between founder wellbeing and business performance.

Founders are not superheros, nor machines. They are complex human beings with feelings and families. Let’s remember that – and create an environment with access to the full range of skills they need to grow the Australian high-performance, high-growth ventures of the future.

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