With more than 1,000 patents filed, Chris and his business partner found and sold two tech/medicinal companies each in four years with a combined exit value of over £150 million. The duo then went on to found and fund several other businesses.
A couple of years ago, I was sitting in Ibiza after having built and sold two businesses in a decade (with my business partner David Newns), for around £155m. I had started the first after setting a record for becoming a qualified pilot in the club’s fastest time. A high flier, literally and metaphorically, with a £1m yacht in the harbour, I appeared to be the cliché picture of success. My mental health, however, painted a very different picture.
I was suffering from depression, anxiety and poor physical health as a result of a ten-year high-wire act of intense almost inhuman stress. Even now, two years on from selling my last business, it’s almost a mystery to me how I ever learnt to fly and perform such great and daring entrepreneurial feats. I still suffer from very debilitating anxieties, despite finally having the time and money to do anything I want.
Is that the price I had to pay for being the most prolific inventor in the UK during that time, inventing well over 1,000 patents and selling the businesses I built whilst creating them? Or is it possible to cope with the sizeable stresses of being an entrepreneur?
3 challenges and solutions for better entrepreneurial mental health
1. Learn to handle stress before you encounter it
When you’re as committed to delivering our vision to get the world’s 1 billion smokers onto something better as I was, you’re in an ultra fast-moving goods market which changes rapidly. It’s adapt or die. My life science business’ core product pivoted so many times from the original idea in order to rapidly react to quick market changes. This required not just constant problem-solving to medical standards against brutally tough deadlines, but also high stake decision-making every week, funding issues…the list goes on. And that all impacts mental health.
I read that pontification is the cause of 70% of anxiety, and I can only agree. Being able to make quick decisions, optimise for them, have the courage to question them, and then pivot again is crucial. Decisiveness is great for reducing stress, whilst dawdling and procrastinating decisions is a sure way to increase anxiety.
I pride myself on my ability to have the optimistic belief that I will solve any problems I need to and reach my goal, combined with enough pessimism to pull my ideas for solutions apart in order to identify problems before they arise or become significant and make sure I will win. It’s yin and yang; held in balance it’s ok, but push one too far, and stress can hit, fast. Too far the other way and your business can fail. At one point, my own anxiety reached the point where I dared not open my laptop lid and read the email headers for business-critical messages as we geared up to sell to an acquirer. I just couldn’t face the unknown, or maybe the uncontrolled.
I have subsequently put my health first – or close to it. It only took me ten years and two multimillion exits valued at nine figures to realise how ill stress had made me. Taking action after the fact is better than nothing, but if I could have turned back the clock, I would have addressed my stress before it turned into severe health problems.
Now, an incredible nutritionist has helped me to restore my physical health which is impacting positively on my mental health too. I have created a better home environment which is also helping. And I have immersed myself in hobbies, both social and solitary, cycling and photography, which are helping me restore some mental calmness and clarity in my life.
Knowing now how to deal with stress in advance of it happening, is a superpower. So try to cultivate that skill before stress strikes.
2. Find a co-founder that you respect
Being an entrepreneur can be isolating, which is one of many reasons to work with a co-founder. Through extreme good luck, I have been lucky to work with an incredible one, David Newns. Despite the rosy success of our ventures, we’ve been through awkward and desperate, sometimes even hellish times. I speak for myself mostly, but I know David has also suffered. The way I have described it to people is getting on a rollercoaster that never, ever stops, with zero chance to hit pause let alone get off.
We have relied on each other constantly and still do. Now the incredible thing – is that never have David and I ever raised a voice or even fallen out. This hasn’t resulted from us thinking the same things, far from it. Neither has it resulted from us being easygoing with the other. It has been due to a simple but very important reason: respect. We respect each other very highly and at first sight of disagreement each of us is eager to hear the other’s point of view in case one of us has missed something.
So find a co-founder, make sure you have a connection, and that your skills complement the other, but foster respect. This helps achieve many things but importantly it allows you to cope with the mental health stresses of entrepreneurial life.
3. Make up for lost time
One of the strangest shocks of my business journey wasn’t a business one, it was finding out my mum was a decade older than I thought. When asking my PA to help me sort a birthday card and gifts for her, I was convinced she was still in her mid-60s, only to be informed she was now in her mid-70s.
This shows just how much my mind was on-mission, immersed in entrepreneurial focus and nothing else. My parents had both grown old and I had missed being there somehow. I had neglected so much and sacrificed so much for my companies that they seemed to be the only things in my life. This was the price I paid for unnatural business success.
Determined to make up for lost time, I recalled that mum had always wanted to travel on the Orient Express to Venice. So I booked three carriages with hers being the one that Agatha Christie had occupied when writing Murder on the Orient Express. She looked forward to it with great enthusiasm for all of the following year. It was an incredible time and a warming reminder that it’s better to make up for lost time than not. Even better, however, bring some balance of time with loved ones into your life along the way. It’s not only good for mental health, but success shared is the best success of all.
I’m renowned for questioning everything. Stepping back and re-evaluating. Whether a technical solution or commercial idea or governmental motives. The one and only thing I never stepped back and questioned was me.
By Chris Lord, a successful serial investor and entrepreneur.