The secret toll of entrepreneurship

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Ali Chehade-Farhat’s Facebook page reads like the textbook success story every entrepreneur wants to have as their own.

On one day he’s getting ready for an important conference, and another day he’s working on his biceps and six-pack at the gym, all with the encouragement of his large online following.

Then one day he began opening up about his struggle with depression, both online and in person.

While consistent with his open personality, it broke a long-held cultural taboo around talking about depression, all the more so in Lebanon’s tight knit world of entrepreneurs where image is crucial.

“What you see of people isn’t always what they are. People told me, ‘I can’t believe you’re depressed'. When I’m doing my work, I’m performing,” said Chehade-Farhat, whose stories of success aren’t at odds with his darker days, rather, different aspects of a multi-dimensional person.

He was suffering in silence for a long time, while running his company The Dream Matcher, a live event which connects people with dreams with those who can help make them a reality.

“When I first got depression, I was still a first-time entrepreneur. I was making a lot of mistakes, and that made me even more sad,” he said. “As entrepreneurs, we live very competitive lives. My friends were saying they had raised $100,000. I couldn’t raise anything. My parents always bugged me to get a job.”

For entrepreneurs their company is their job, and it isn’t uncommon for them to work to exhaustion as they try to get on their feet in the crucial early stages as a new startup.

“Many of them have lost their work-life balance, and they’ve become obsessed. They work long hours because they don’t want to miss out on opportunities. They know they need to make it,” said Dania Darwish, a Beirut-based psychologist who is familiar with Lebanon’s startup community.

The weight of responsibility

As the founder, an entrepreneur is responsible for the company’s decisions, schedule and finances – every day, come rain or shine. Add in financial insecurity and that can make keeping the black days in check difficult.

“The biggest pressure as an entrepreneur is when you don’t have enough cash to pay salaries. If they’re not getting money at the end of the month, that’s a massive failure. That’s the only thing I can’t deal with. People feed families with a company,” said Beirut-based entrepreneur Abed Agha. “I need to deliver – before clients or anyone else.”

He said his hardest day was when he made his first hire.

“When you’re by yourself, you’re responsible for yourself. Once you start hiring people, you’re totally responsible. That was the toughest and biggest reward.”

And once the hiring starts, the entrepreneur is not only responsible for the salaries, but also for the company morale and culture. Abdallah Absi, the Lebanese founder of crowdfunding site Zoomal, said keeping up emotional appearances was critical.

“If I come to the office in a bad mood because I didn’t sleep well, that reflects on my team. I have to smile even though deep down I have major stress,” he said.

Beirut-based entrepreneur Maher Hassanieah, now on his third startup Visceral Sense, has by now figured out how to manage his time and resources relatively well.

He pushes himself to work, but not overwork, and he sets reasonable goals for himself to avoid unrealistic expectations. Even with things running relatively smoothly, he sometimes stops and asks himself, “when do I know to pull the plug or keep going? Have I wasted my time?”

“I can feel despair and super excited in a matter of minutes,” he said. “It’s an emotional roller coaster.”

Sharing the pain

In recent years, many others around the world have joined an increasingly public discussion about the emotional ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

In Mexico City, a group of friends started an event called Fuck-up Nights, in which people gather to share stories of failure before an audience.

Since it started two years ago, the event has spread to different countries throughout the world including Lebanon. To the welcome surprise of the Beirut Fuck-up Nights organizers, there has been no shortage of volunteers willing to open their unedited biographies, warts and all, during the three events held over the end of 2015 and early 2016.

Chehade-Farhat was a speaker, as was Speed CEO Sami Abou Saab and Nader Dagher, cofounder of medical startup Etobb.

“We were sick of going to the same conferences and hearing success stories. They don’t tell the whole story,” said organizer Aisha Habli, an engineer and aspiring entrepreneur. “We have successful entrepreneurs talk about what made it happen, about their losses and what they did to fix the fuck up. We want to inspire people by sharing real stories.”

She admitted that it hadn’t been easy to find people who’d open up, especially in the beginning, but as the event gained popularity it attracted more entrepreneurs willing to share their hard times.

This is a sharp contrast to the regular startup conferences across the region where attendees are ‘dressed to impress’, where successful entrepreneurs tell adoring fans to ‘go big or go home’ and until then to ‘fake it till you make it’.

Survival mechanisms

The terms ‘faking it’ or ‘be like a duck’ come up often in the world of entrepreneurship.

One refers to a survival mechanism to cope with hard times by pretending you’re successful until you actually are, and the other to scrambling to stay afloat while on the surface it looks like you’re effortlessly gliding across the water.

It can be good advice in a world where perception plays an important role in landing investors, customers and important connections. But it leaves out an important element of the equation: What happens to the entrepreneur while they’re faking it? How long do they pretend like everything is fine?

For many, that period of feigning success and happiness lasts until success arrives which could take years.

One engineer described to Wamda a job he took at a startup where the entrepreneur was making it seem like everything was fine, when in fact he was clearly failing in his endeavor.

In love with his idea, the founder refused to pivot, admit mistakes or take advice from anyone else. The entrepreneur continued pouring money into his company, using money from his savings and profits from his other companies, insisting that it was just a matter of time that his startup would make it big.

The engineer, speaking anonymously to protect the privacy of his former boss and friend, believes that the entrepreneur’s pride is getting in the way of reality, and by not acknowledging it, he’s only digging himself into a deeper hole, professionally and emotionally.

The startup is still alive, but not very active now.

Since Chehade-Farhat began speaking openly about his problems, they haven’t gone away completely, but he has gained more of a sense of community, one where he has realistic expectations of himself and those around him, while not giving up on his dreams.

Feature image via Precision Nutrition.

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