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How founders turn the corner after a burnout

Being an entrepreneur who has to do everything can wear one down, but few realize when they have pushed themselves too hard. Founders who burnt out discuss how they regained their motivation

TJ Tyres co-founder Sameer Panda and Huddle's co-founder Sanil Sachar
TJ Tyres co-founder Sameer Panda and Huddle's co-founder Sanil Sachar

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For 15 months, Sameer Panda found himself irritated, unable to concentrate or sleep, and always fatigued. It surprised the co-founder of two-year-old startup TJ Tyres since he’d always been rather calm and composed.

Now, more than six months later, Panda (40) can clearly see he had been going through a burnout. Back then, he paused to think only after his father and eight-year-old daughter kept pointing out that he was suddenly short-tempered.

Despite realizing he was burnt-out, it took the Hyderabad-based entrepreneur another three months to decide to take a break in October last year. “It’s hard to escape a burnout when you are building a business. We all have limits,” says Panda. He believes that the pressure to raise seed funding, long working hours and not having an initial understanding of the market might have lead to his predicament.

TJ Tyres co-founder Sameer Panda
TJ Tyres co-founder Sameer Panda

Recently World Health Organisation (WHO) defined burnout in detail after observing that it was common in the workplace. WHO does not recognize it as a medical condition but defines burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed … Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Gurugram-based co-founder of startup incubator Huddle Sanil Sachar mistook his burnout for lethargy. “I remember going home and being unable to focus on anything. I had no energy to move. I would be sprawled on the bed, staring at the ceiling. My productivity was zero,” says the 26-year-old. He tried to push himself, believing he was slacking off but that didn’t have results either.

Sachar’s burnout wasn’t due to a heavy workload but how he viewed work. “Work became outcome-oriented instead of about enjoying the output. Whether it was writing or growing channels within the company, the approach made the task seem heavier than it was,” he says. Like Panda, Sachar too forced himself to take a break.

Switching off

Although both took only a week off, they switched off completely from work. Panda forwarded all his work mails, diverted calls, and slept or watched movies. He started going for walks, and spent 30 minutes meditating every day. “I follow this (meditation) even now. During my rest period, I realized that running a startup is not a 400-metre race but a marathon. We are not building a company for valuation but to create a sustainable business,” he says.

Gurugram-based co-founder of startup incubator Huddle Sanil Sachar
Gurugram-based co-founder of startup incubator Huddle Sanil Sachar

Rough patches in business, long working hours, a relationship gone sour and a sense of loneliness came together to erode Sanchit Sethi’s motivation about three years ago. The co-founder of hotel booking website StayUncle in Delhi says the toxic combination left him exhausted. The tipping point came late last year, when his colleagues noticed a dip in his productivity though the company was doing exceedingly well. He dismissed the mental exhaustion as a temporary phase. It was this feeling that prevented him from opening up about what he was going through. With his performance slipping, it came to a point where Sethi contemplated stepping down as CEO. In December 2017, he met a friend from the US. “She mentioned a book, Divine Time Management. I started reading it, and was captivated. I couldn’t take my mind off it till I finished it. I sensed a deep peace within. I could see myself smiling while reading the book,” writes Sethi in a blog post. A month later, Sethi started meditating.

From the initial two to three hours of meditation, he has cut down to one and a half hours every day. “You get a sense of calm, which helps with clarity and focus. People also say I am calmer now. I work faster since meditation helps me cut through clutter in my mind and press the refresh button. Whatever energy I was lacking, I have regained it. I am more compassionate and conscious when interacting with others. Mental conversations have slowed down,” he says.

In Sachar’s case, his company was in a period of positive transition. “It was like a sugar rush. I felt like I was in an amusement park. I enjoyed myself so much that I collapsed,” Sachar says. During his break, he was conscious of focusing on nothing. He meditated, watched a lot of TV serials and movies. Now, when he feels mental exhaustion, he relaxes by watching shows. “What’s the point of exhausting yourself?” he says.

Talking about fatigue

All three admit it was hard to acknowledge to their teams that they were experiencing a burnout. “I still haven’t acknowledged it to others,” says Panda, despite everyone in the team knowing about it.

He feels the team would be demotivated if he talked of fatigue. Considering how committed founders are to building their startup, admitting a lack of drive and energy seems like a failure at personal level. “My team could see it coming way before I did. I was ashamed to admit it as I felt it was a sign of weakness,” he recalls.

About four months ago, Thrive Global’s India chapter created a programme for entrepreneurs to combat stress. Dr Marcus Ranney, general manager-India,Thrive Global, says founders experience burnout because they do not delegate, and are slow to trust others. “Downtime is not a bad thing. Our mind and body need rest to recover. Conversations should revolve around work-life harmony, not balance. With harmony, you can prioritize what is important to you,” he says.

Having survived burnout, these founders have made a few changes in their habits and thinking. Panda says that he was a perfectionist. After the break, he has been consciously trying not be so hung-up on perfection. “In fact, one junior guy from the engineering team came up to me and said, ‘Sir, we are not making jewellery, we are making tyres!’ That sent the message very clearly,” he says. Panda has also realized the value of delegation and creating boundaries. He does this ensuring he does not check work emails before 8am and after 11pm.

Sachar has also learnt to prioritise. “One of my mentors told me that in the industry, you can’t live with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out),” he says. Abiding by that advice, Sachar starts his day with by giving gratitude for all that he achieved rather than reviewing a list of tasks he hasn’t been able to complete. At work, he dedicates Fridays to brainstorming with no agenda. “It took me a month to get back. I haven’t weaned myself of all the bad habits, but I have started being respectful of my time and work,” Sachar says.

Since meditation helped him recover his work mojo, Sethi now makes it a point to attend meditation retreats. “I had to gain control of what I would and would not think. Most of us don’t have this control. We give in to our thoughts,” he says. Sethi consciously works to avoid thinking negatively about a person. “I try to convert it to positive thoughts. Then the person’s behaviour doesn’t affect you,” he says. “Your mind is like a garden, the more weeds there are, the less it will flower.”

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