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Start-up burnout: how corporate partnerships can lighten the burden

(Image credit: Shutterstock.com / Pressmaster)

The UK has become one of the strongest incubators for technology start-ups in the world. This is for many good reasons; but chief among them are the country’s advanced, diversified economy, and the number of investors prepared to support start-ups in their expansion and development.

It should therefore come as little surprise that last year a record £10bn was invested into British technology start-ups. This represented a 44 per cent increase on the previous year, during a period when both the US and China experienced decreases in technology start-up investment.

The fact that investors are so receptive to tech innovation emerging from the UK should be celebrated. It’s particularly great news for potential start-up founders who want to launch a business in response to an unfilled market niche. Their success has every likelihood of benefitting the economy; there’s also a strong chance that their work, if well nurtured, will positively impact society more broadly.

It is easy to get caught up in the potential of these start-ups. So much so that we overlook the negative consequences start-up founders may face as a result of their endeavours. Starting a business is stressful and time-consuming. This means that in their quest to make the world a better place, start-up founders’ own health can take a hit. 

RB, in partnership with Startup Grind, recently surveyed over 500 start-up founders on this topic, finding that nearly two-thirds (67 per cent) suffer from personal health issues as a direct result of their professional lives. We shouldn’t overlook a statistic like this. Not only does it raise questions about the daily demands of running a small business, but it also causes doubt around their longevity.

What’s behind founders’ declining health?

Getting a business off the ground means putting in the work. For many founders, that equates to long hours. Our research suggested that this may be part of the problem, with almost half of all founders (49 per cent) working over 50 hours per week, and one in four (28 per cent) putting in over 60 hours. In contrast, the average UK worker spends on average 37.1 hours per week at work. 

Such long hours have consequences. Over a third (38 per cent) of respondents reported that they suffer from insomnia or poor sleep, and one in four (26 per cent) indicated mental health complaints, including stress, anxiety and depression, resulted from their work.

Other stressors involved with starting a business compound these health complications. Access to funding and developing solid cashflow was identified as the top stressor by nearly half (44 per cent) of founders surveyed, closely followed by staffing (39 per cent) and innovation (33 per cent). One fifth also listed legal and regulatory concerns as a significant stressor. This figure is likely to rise in the future, given the expected increase in regulation designed to contain the powers of tech behemoths.

While these concerns are faced by business owners across the board, they are likely to be felt more acutely by start-up founders. Start-ups are smaller than the average business: this may make them more agile, but it also puts a limit on the number of support relationships and in-house experts they have access to. 

These stressors are unlikely to disappear as companies grow, so it’s imperative that founders develop the tools to neuter them before they disrupt both business and personal health. 

Innovation isn’t all doom and gloom

Although our research made clear the negative health consequences involved with starting a business, it also shed light on some of the more positive aspects. For example: 41 per cent found that launching a start-up improved their relationships with family members; 38 per cent said they’re now in a stronger position financially; and another 38 per cent have even seen improvements in their love lives.

Founders should not be held back from experiencing these benefits by the stresses of start-up life. They should feel able and equipped to get the most out of their determination to make a difference. This desire was underscored by our research: a majority (66.7 per cent) said their desire to improve people’s lives was the primary motivation behind establishing their business in the first place. For just under half (48.1 per cent), this is followed by the hope that they may create a new and innovative product.

While these results are heartening, it’s critical that more tech start-up founders experience these benefits if the UK’s rich start-up scene is to continue to thrive. This means ensuring founders have access to support in the areas they find most stressful – and the best way to do this is through corporate partnerships. 

How can start-ups access the right support?

Corporate partners can forge mutually beneficial relationships with start-ups. For fledgling businesses, the advantages are manifold, as they can gain access to a range of business expertise, alongside start-of-the-art R&D facilities. It comes as little surprise then, that our research shows over half of start-ups (56 per cent) would consider partnering.

However, many have not started the search for a corporate partner. There are several reasons for this. Some start-up owners have concerns regarding IP ownership. There is also the chance of a clash in working cultures, something that can happen when organisations of significantly different sizes work together. Other founders worry that ‘unnecessary’ bureaucracy and lengthy decision-making processes will hold them back from getting their idea to market quickly.

Hurdling these potential obstacles requires clear communication between each party prior to establishing the partnership. Provided both companies trust and understand what the other wishes to achieve, as well as their shared capabilities and differences in capacity, these concerns should not materialise.

At RB, we exist to protect, heal and nurture in the relentless pursuit of a cleaner, healthier world. We look for partners who share this fundamental purpose because when challenges arise – which they inevitably do when innovating and testing new ideas – it’s easier to stay on course when reminded of what we set out to achieve.

Corporate partnerships are not one-sided. Indeed, large organisations can learn a lot from smaller, potentially nimbler peers. Through partnering, both corporates and start-ups have the opportunity to enter new markets, tapping into the significant – and often niche – knowledge that each possesses in their product areas. 

Final thoughts

Innovation should not come at the cost of start-up founders’ own health and wellbeing. This is why corporate partners could play such an important role in future of tech innovation; the expertise and resources they provide to start-ups are invaluable for easing the demands of starting a business.

We need to ensure that start-ups understand the support that corporates can provide. Partnering does not mean losing autonomy and speed; it means creating products and solutions that are well-rounded, unique, and fit for purpose. It also means helping founders to achieve a healthy work-life balance.

Fundamentally, effective partnerships can have far-reaching benefits, as founders with improved wellbeing become better placed to create and develop innovative, life-changing solutions.

Dr Philip Bolton, Interim VP Innovation, RB