An Entrepreneur’s Struggle with Mental Health – Q&A with Aaron Houghton

Thursday May 13, 2021

According to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health, 72% of entrepreneurs are directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues, compared to just 48% of non-entrepreneurs. That is why we are teaming up with Aaron Houghton for Mental Health Awareness Month and next week’s Broken to Brilliant workshop. Aaron is a UNC alum and former founder of iContact. His latest creation, Founders First System, was born from his own struggles with anxiety and mental health throughout his entrepreneurial career.

We recently sat down with Aaron to learn more about the unique mental health struggles entrepreneurs face, what drove Aaron to create the Founders First System and the upcoming Broken to Brilliant workshop.

Why is mental health awareness especially important for/relevant to entrepreneurs? 

Aaron: That’s actually a really great question, and gets to the heart of what we’re doing with Founders First. The thing is – we’ve always known entrepreneurs are different. We have unique gifts. Its why top investors compete for the most brilliant entrepreneurial minds that are working to solve the biggest problems. But there’s a catch: researchers have found that the characteristics which compel entrepreneurs to start companies tend to come with predispositions that are often in large part responsible for entrepreneurs and their companies eventually falling apart. Entrepreneurs are actually twice as likely to suffer from depression, three times as likely to abuse substances, and six times more likely to have attention deficit disorder. The statistic that I find most incredible is that entrepreneurs are eleven times more likely to be bipolar.

While the entrepreneurial experience itself is often described as an emotional rollercoaster, what this research now tells us is that the brilliant minds riding that rollercoaster may be far less psychologically resilient to those rises and falls than the general population. We’re not just talking about how entrepreneurs “feel.” We’re talking about their ability to be productive, make good decisions, and stay in the game long enough to find success and deliver the solutions our world needs to move humanity forward. Clearly the stakes are high, and the issue deserves a lot more attention. Not just for the sake of founders and investors, but for society at large.

What do you see as the impact of covid on the entrepreneur community? 

Aaron: I think entrepreneurs have had a really hard year. We’ve built a community of over 1000 founders with Founders First, so we have a pretty good read on how entrepreneurs are doing. If you asked them if they’ve been struggling during COVID, I think you’d get a resounding “YES” from every one of them.

We are a fundamentally at-risk population, and isolation and uncertainty due to COVID has cut off many of our traditional support systems. In-person gatherings with peers, time with loved ones, and our ability to rely on consistent personal schedules have all vanished.  These tools allowed entrepreneurs to learn, to relax, and to get validation that they are on the right course, despite the difficult and unrelenting journey that entrepreneurship can be.

As a result, productivity has fallen, substance abuse is rising, and depression and anxiety are at all-time highs. Entrepreneurs have a lot of catching up to do as we start to come out on the other side of this crisis. Many of us are inclined to get right back to the grind without taking some time to rebuild our mental and physical health, but anyone worth their salt in the mental health space would tell you that’s an especially bad idea.

Why is this topic important to you personally?

Aaron: I’m glad you asked because, for me, this is really about my entire life journey and all I’ve learned from it. As an entrepreneur, I always dreamed of building a $100 million company. When my third company allowed me to experience this milestone, the side-effect of the pace and stress that got me there was extreme anxiety and bouts of depression. Honestly, it scared me, limited my ability as a leader, and eventually was part of the reason we all agreed to sell the business. In the years since, several of my smaller former competitors have gone on to build their companies into billion-dollar organizations as I’ve watched from the sidelines.

I feel incredibly fortunate for my experience as an entrepreneur, and certainly for the outcome.  But so many entrepreneurs today struggle like I did. My mission now is to make their journey easier so they are ready when their big opportunity comes.

What can entrepreneurs expect from this workshop?

Aaron: In three words I’d say solutions, mastery, and hope. What I’ve done is assembled everything I’ve learned; from the lowest points of my experience through my ten-year journey to finding a way to have health and sustained performance coexist in my life. I then boiled it down to a 60-minute interactive workshop experience.

During the workshop, we’ll talk about modern mental health science and what it says about how entrepreneurs can protect their minds while building the greatest companies of tomorrow. Everyone who joins us will leave with a new self-awareness practice and a box of digital tools they can use to restore their health and performance anytime they discover they’re off track.

Are entrepreneurs naturally inclined to struggle with mental health or does being an entrepreneur create those challenges?

Aaron: I get that question a lot, and no one really knows. But it’s important for us to realize the struggle is real, and there are things we can do to prepare ourselves for the challenge. Staying grounded by keeping an eye on statistics about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship is one of them.

Most successful entrepreneurs are serial entrepreneurs, which means that it may take more than one try to reach success. Think of this as akin to the approach startup investors use when building a portfolio. They focus on more than one company to achieve success. Entrepreneurs who focus on more than one business tend to create the best outcomes for themselves. Said another way, a career in entrepreneurship outperforms a one-time cameo as an entrepreneur. While most first-time entrepreneurs believe the project that they’re currently working on will be the next big thing, the reality is it’s probably the next one, or the one after that. The hard part is we have to survive the ups and downs to get to the point where, statistically, we are most likely to thrive.

Of course, many do not survive the ups and downs, but burn out. And what a shame that really is. There’s a massive shortage of entrepreneurial minds in the world, and for every entrepreneur that gets destroyed by the grind, we are robbed of potential answers to our biggest problems.  We’ve got work to do on environmental degradation, distribution of opportunity, food scarcity, education, public health and renewable energy. Communities are falling apart. Kindness is at a major deficit.

Who are the people with the drive, the commitment and the vision to solve these problems? Entrepreneurs.

I’ve been very fortunate in my own journey.  My mission now is to make sure other founders can succeed in theirs. We need them. The whole world needs them.

Presenting Broken to Brilliant, a Free Interactive Workshop

Together with Aaron and Founders First, the Eship Center is offering community members and partners free one-time access to “Broken to Brilliant” an interactive 60-minute mental health and wellness workshop for entrepreneurs. The workshop, scheduled for Thursday, May 20th from 12 – 1:00 p.m. EST, will be led by Aaron.

Workshop participants will learn how to manage stress, learn about the top five mental health challenges for entrepreneurs, and learn how to recapture productivity. In addition, you will learn about tools to measure your stress response, track your stress response as it relates to productivity and track personal metrics.

Participants will also have the opportunity to join in meaningful discussion with others facing some of the same challenges.  Learn more here.