Insights | Talent

Mental Health at Early-Stage Startups: Finding Your Passion

Jessica headshot

Jessica Bernido

February 24, 2020
Alice Financial Jake

We’re excited to announce a new series focused on raising awareness around mental health at early-stage startups. Historically, mental health has been stigmatized and a touchy subject to discuss. As an HR professional, I’ve spent countless hours working through difficult personal and professional situations with individuals who were trusting enough to confide in me. I’ve concluded that the prejudice is isolating and counterproductive but also makes no sense at all given most people struggle with mental health at some point in their lives. I’ve generally found that people are inclined to struggle with their burden silently, but what if by sharing our stories we could ignite a positive change?

Despite the social stigma, mental health status has been closely tied to workplace performance. The average American spends about 90,000 hours in their lifetime at work and the WHO recognizes burnout as an occupational phenomenon. Boston University published research linking conditions such as an inability to concentrate, fatigue, and difficulty multitasking with poor mental health.

It’s no coincidence that there have been multitudes of mental health startups and we at Bowery are joining the cause by creating a platform for sharing these stories within our community. This will be a multi-part series focused on managing your mental health and we’ll be starting with top sales professionals who are bravely stepping up to share their stories. Our intention is to continue creating space for the discussion around mental health at early stage startups in hopes of improving awareness and facilitating the sharing of experiences. Given that the amount of money being poured into early stage ventures is at an all time high of $130.9M as of 2018, it is far past time that we open up the conversation and help create cultures supporting mental health. For this inaugural post, we will discuss how finding your passion can help you maintain a healthy mental state at an early-stage startup.

“If our mind remains freeze-framed by inhibiting and hampering habits, in an ever-changing world, we won’t be able to get rid of that weird feeling of not belonging anywhere and not taking part in authentic life challenges. (“Not on the shortlist”)”

Erik Pevernagie

Salespeople typically see a magnified effect of stress, as the revenue-chasing nature of the position tends to silo people. Think about it. Salespeople often have the expectations of the entire startup on their shoulders and the moment they stop performing, they often only have a small window of time to turn it around before they’re out. It’s high stakes and pressure, but alas, with high rewards and praise too.

This week we spoke with Jake Farmakis, Senior Account Executive, at Alice Financial to learn more about his experience navigating the high pressures of early-stage sales, and how he manages to achieve an impressive work/life balance. Since making a 2 year move out West in 2017 (he has since returned to NYC), Jake has become intensely passionate about finding balance between his professional and personal lives. He is consistently a top performing rep who has held the highly coveted position of being the #1 AE for the last 4 years and as any good rep knows, this sort of performance does not happen without rigid discipline, long hours, and an intense amount of personal and professional stress.

External Mental Health – Managing Expectations:

An important tactic to managing external mental health is managing expectations. As a sales professional, you are accountable to many different stakeholders, both personal and professional. Family, friends, colleagues, and clients. All of these stakeholders can pull you in many different directions, all with different expectations for your performance. Living up to their myriad expectations can be particularly stressful for a sales professional as you are inevitably forced to juggle their requests.

Jake suggests that the best strategy to manage these expectations is to be open about what’s important to you when managing your stakeholders. For example, Jake is largely career-focused at this stage in his life, and he is very upfront about that to his family and friends. He schedules time with them very clearly and communicates his availability well in advance. It makes more sense to carve out actual quality time with people you care about rather than spending it absent-minded over post-work dinner or drinks. This way, you have the capacity to spend time finding your passion. To their credit, his family and friends have been receptive as he seeks to maximize the amount of positivity within his social circle and reduce negative influences.

To be a successful salesperson, you have to learn how to say no. It’s natural to want to engage with everyone and help them, but you have to make sure to align their requests with your goals. Jake suggests asking yourself the following when presented with a request: (i) is this something that can be accomplished to the same effect at a later time; (ii) what are my goals for the day, for the week; (iii) is this something that I am necessary to play a critical role in? It is critical to know what your goals are, and not just long term, but to establish what you want to accomplish today. Building these objectives on a daily and weekly basis can help you understand which requests will help you get there and which requests you can say no to.

Internal Mental Health – Self Improvement:

Jake explained that the early days of a company are some of the most stressful but also the most fun. There’s a tremendous amount of energy, chaos, and optimism about creating something from nothing. Never will you work in an environment with so much idealism and irrational energy outside of an early startup. As a result, it’s no surprise that anxiety can be caused by many factors in and out of the office. One method Jake employs to reduce external influences that exacerbate his anxiety is reducing his caffeine consumption. Excessive caffeine consumption has been linked to increased stress and abnormal sleep cycles, which can adversely affect mental health in the workplace. Jake suggests a transition to either green or turmeric tea, both of which have less caffeine and better health benefits. This small switch could help boost sleep efficacy and lower cortisol levels.

A frequent condition that affects professionals across all industries is burnout. Burnout has been linked to losses up to $300B per year in the US alone. To combat the internal stress build-up, Jake carves out time from his busy day to meditate. Meditation, although somewhat “in vogue” at this point, can help center you in the mornings and enter the day reinvigorated. If you are new to meditation, there are several apps that can help you such as InsightTimer, YogaGlo, and Headspace. Jake, in particular, has invested heavily in transcendental meditation. Taking time to meditate each morning for 20 minutes may seem counterproductive, but, by slowing down his mind early in the morning, Jake has noticed significantly improved concentration and clarity throughout the day.

Exercise and acupuncture can help increase effective time, as well. Jake notices that when he misses a workout or monthly acupuncture appointment, he tends to be more groggy during the day and less effective in meetings. Even when traveling, Jake always makes sure to carve out time to workout. There is no one-size fits all solution for exercise, but it is important to stay disciplined with your schedule regardless of how you feel that day. Jake admits that exercise sometimes takes away from quality time with his wife, but she understands that it helps him focus and stay more productive at work. To better functionalize his time while exercising, Jake frequently listens to podcasts from successful sales professionals such as our own Bowery Capital Startup Sales Podcast.

It’s not all downside, however. Jake has been with companies from Series A through C, and it does get better. Once you’ve sat in the driver’s seat for long enough, you build your reputation and your network. The intensity, however, never really plateaus. Startup sales are a marathon, not a sprint so the earlier you can engage with a company, the better you can take advantage of the opportunity. Not everyone is comfortable at every stage, so be sure to join at a stage you’re comfortable at and work from there. You’re not going to jump in right away and add value. It takes time to learn how to sell. Jake recommends reaching out to your network and speaking to successful sales professionals personally, as well as listening to top Sales podcasts like John Barrows, Scott Ingram’s Daily Sales Tips, and The GaryVee Audio Experience.

Top Tip For Managing Mental Health – Finding Your Passion:

Jake’s top tip for managing mental health in startup sales is finding your passion for a product. If you are truly passionate about the features and benefits of a product, it is not only easier for you to sell it, but also reduces stress on the job. Finding your passion can also be a huge factor in reducing your chances of burnout. How do you know if you are truly passionate about a product? Jake suggests learning as much as possible about the product beforehand and practice selling it. Pretend you are already at the company and pitch the product to your friends and family. Jake actually spent an entire Memorial Day weekend passionately selling Alice Financial’s product to his family and friends after he had listened to the CEO’s podcast. He felt comfortable in that role and believed strongly in the company’s roadmap.

Always be sure to check in with yourself. If you’re finding your passion in your job, you’re going to suffer from increased pressure and reduced mental health. When Jake worked in the financial industry to start his career, he worked less hours than he does today, but he wasn’t fulfilled. Though he works harder now in his role, he feels fulfilled and has been able to manage his mental health successfully. Sometimes you are unaware of the amount of stress you’re carrying, so you need to be proactively monitoring your happiness. This was one of the main takeaways Jake realized after meeting with Tim Clarke following an impromptu meeting in Los Angeles last year. During one of the John Barrows podcasts, Jake heard Tim was starting a company called UNCrushed. He reached out directly as he felt it was worthwhile to build a connection with Tim to learn more about his experience with mental health and chat about ways in which he could help the sales community. They continue to chat and share best practices as this topic continues to get more attention in the early-stage startup community.

In closing, it’s great to see startups and large corporations begin to invest more attention towards mental health. It’s everything – if you’re not mentally happy, stable, or healthy, it doesn’t matter how good you are at selling. Prospects won’t buy from you if they can see you’re not in a great mental state. It eventually creeps up on you if you don’t proactively train for improved mental health as Jake outlined above, and finding your passion is the biggest differentiator of a “good” sales professional vs. a professional who wants to be in the top 1%.