How top founders deal with stress: Part one

Work is stressful.

In a 2012 study by the American Psychological Association (APA), sixty-five percent of Americans cited their jobs as the biggest cause of stress in their lives. In the high-pressure startup world, those levels appear even higher.

According to one study conducted by Dr. Michael Freeman at the University of California, San Francusco, depression was reported in thirty percent of entrepreneurs surveyed. That’s significantly more than the rest of the U.S. population, in which about seven percent of people identify as being depressed.

This makes sense. Starting a company takes dedication and sacrifice. That usually translates to time spent away from family and friends, sleepless nights, and an unhealthy diet.

Stress is just a way of life in Silicon Valley.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to manage stress. The APA recommends a few key steps:

  • Track your stressors
  • Develop healthy responses
  • Establish boundaries
  • Take time to recharge
  • Learn how to relax
  • Talk to your supervisor
  • Get some support

We spoke with a number of founders about how they manage their stress levels. Interestingly, many of the tools recommended by the APA reappeared in their answers. This just goes to show that while stress may be prevalent in everyone’s life, the tools to cope with it are just as universal.

Let’s look at some of the ways founders unwind from their high-pressure jobs:

Jill Gwaltney, founder, Rauxa
Jill Gwaltney - Rauxa
@JillGwaltney, @rauxaagency
“To cope with stress and to feel ready to take on anything, I take good care of myself (I know, boring right)—sleep (yeah 8 hours minimim), hydrate, eat right, and exercise. And my father used to say, plan your fun like you plan your work. So pick something you love, that you get lost in, and schedule it.”

Richard Sagman, founder & senior vice president, NEKTAN
Richard Sagman - NEKTAN
“When things get overwhelming I get up from my desk and go outside. Even a ten-minute walk (no calls, no music) can help de-stress. When the sun is shining, which it usually is in Las Vegas, I stop, breathe deeply, close my eyes, and stare at the sun. Then I can walk back in, recharged and ready for the next challenge!”

Alex Lorton, cofounder,
Alex Lorton -
“My main method of managing stress is running. If I’m stressed, nothing helps me calm down and organize my thoughts more than going out for a run. When I go for a run, I intentionally try not to think about anything and just listen to my body and look at my surroundings.

“I come back refreshed mentally and am much better able to prioritize and respond to anything I’m worried about. Perhaps it’s the endorphins, perhaps it’s simply giving myself time to not think about what’s stressing me.

“Regardless, running does wonders. There’s actually a web comic that I like that pretty clearly expresses what I’m talking about:”

David Parks, co-founder & vice president, Bluepoint Leadership Development
David Parks Blue Point Leadership headshot - resize
“The best stress reliever for me is getting outside and running, riding and swimming. Each year I enter a handful of events so I have something to go for. This provides obvious physiological and mental benefits and a total break from the stress of business.

“My office is right by San Francisco Bay and I plan my post-work swims according to the tide tables which is great to look forward to. Also, if I have a proposal to send to a client, I will often run or bike to the drop-off box. It may sound crazy but knowing that the proposal you poured your valuable time into involved real muscle and sweat, makes it all the more meaningful.

“I do like gritty endurance events and see them as the perfect metaphor for business. You set a big goal, push yourself through pain and obstacles and keep going til you get there. Giving up is not an option. Even with a family I have found ways to make all these goals and training work. For example, they bike and I run with them to the sweetie shop!

“Ultimately, I think my passion for triathlons, biking and swimming events makes me stronger, more resilient and ultimately reduces the stress in my life.”

Dulari Amin, co-founder & president, Phenomenon
Dulari Amin - Phenomenon
“When I feel overwhelmed, I take a short break from whatever I am doing. I go make a cup of tea or walk around the block and get a few minutes of quiet. My priorities of ‘what must happen’ surface to the top, and I focus on that for the next few hours. I methodically block out everything to work on the high-priority item for at least 90 minutes before taking another break.

“Even a little bit of progress beats the stress and gets me in back into the positive mind-set. My stress stems from feeling like I cannot control the outcome or that I have too much to do. This tactic address both issues.

“To manage stress on an ongoing basis I found most success with the basics—eat well, exercise, and getting enough sleep. Finally, surround yourself with positivity—loved ones, pets, and things that inspire you.”

William Fanning, founder, The Shift Drink
William Fanning - The Shift Drink
“Do something for someone whose life is objectively worse than your own. Or if you are lazy/sh#tty, just acknowledge these people exist and realize that the simple fact you get to play the ‘follow your dreams’ game is kind of ridiculous. I am pretty sure perspective is the only long-term remedy for stress.”

Mikael Kretz, founder & executive partner, Q Group
Mikael Kretz - Q Group
“I train physical sport! Doing Brazilian jiu jitsu, boxing and running. Because when you are on the tatami or trail running, you can’t focus on anything else and you will cleanse your mind and reboot your hard drive! Then, once a year really empty yourself with an ironman or multi-stage race that lasts a week, like Marathon Des Sable (250k running in the Sahara desert!).”

Ben Welch-Bolen, founder & CEO, Pressed.Net
Ben Welch-Bolen - Pressed
“Exercise of some kind, even if it is just walking. Just getting out into some open space clears my head, and puts life in perspective.”

Vishal Purohit, founder & CEO, Wooqer
“Besides setting up everyday time limits for everything (including getting out unless the problem is unsolved), cut out on incessant reading about everything happening all across the world in the space of startups, funding, valuations and other media amplifications.

“Engage with few trusted sources, track a few but deeply, follow some and delete every app from your phone that can throw a notification at you (except core life/work apps). It’s magical that you do not lose anything and have so much more time to play your thoughts. There appears to be a magical relationship between productively engagement mind and stress reduction.”

Stewart William Ramsey, co-founder, Krochet Kids International
“I believe we can have a healthy relationship with stress. Stress, when managed well can help develop a sharpening and focusing. However, if managed poorly stress leads to poor decision making, paralyzing indecision and ultimately a caustic environment (externally at work or internally in your body).

“In attempting to manage stress for good I work to achieve some sort of balance in my life. Balance primarily involves my family and my health. Specifically, carving out time to be intentional with non-work related relationships. And being intentional about a healthy diet (avoiding excess), good exercise (climbing and surfing), and sleep (consistent).

“My relationship with stress also involves preventive work that goes into minimizing and avoiding unhealthy stress levels. Often times we don’t realize everything we are carrying around until it is either too late or the stressor is removed. Again, I try to seek balance even when it might not feel like I need balance because by then it is too late. Just like most things in life there are actions we can take now to ensure a better future.”

Resources For Stress Management

No matter where you work, stress is going to be a factor. But remember there are a ton of techniques and tools out there to help you manage. Each person handles pressure differently, so look around and see what works best for you.

Here are a few tools you can use to help manage the stress in your life:

101 Strategies for Coping With Stress: University of Minnesota’s list of tips for coping with stress.

Stress Much?: Find out how high your stress level is with this interactive quiz from West Virginia University. The American Institute of Stress provides information on the effects of stress.

Sleep Time — Alarm Clock: This app uses the accelerometer in your phone to find out quickly you fall asleep, when you enter each phase of sleep, how efficient each phase is, and will gently wake you up at the right time of day.

Inner Balance: Inner Balance works with a heart measuring sensor that clips to your earlobe. The app offers three to five minute sessions that aim to reduce exhaustion, improve mental focus, and your ability to shift from high anxiety to low anxiety moods.

7 Minute Workout: A healthy body is one of the most powerful ways to combat the stress in your life. This app allows you to become your own personal trainer. Its makers boast it will help you lose weight and get fit with fast daily workouts.

Headspace: Headspace is a guided meditation app. In ten-minute sessions Headspace will teach you how to meditate, while keeping track of your progress.

7 Cups of Tea: This on-demand service allows users to anonymously and securely connect with real listeners in a one-on-one chat.

Tyler Trumbull

Ty splits his time between Canada and Mexico. He’s been writing for Gigster since early 2016 where he really enjoys learning and sharing clients’ stories. He plays banjo in one of Mexico’s only country bands, wishes he could write like Thomas Pynchon, and is generally a fan of the Oxford comma.