By many measures of success, Laura Moore is a high achiever. As the founder and CEO healthcare start-up Nell Health, the 31-year-old has secured investment in her genetic and blood testing start-up, presented at the prestigious Techstars accelerator in London and is an accomplished speaker in health care and leadership.
Even with her sprawling CV, Moore is among a class of many start-up founders – and millennial leaders in general – who have been left wanting more in the face of their own triumphs.
There are “an endless amount of things you could be doing to make yourself look amazing,” she says. “There’s big pressure to do that. You have founders trying to achieve success on multiple fronts, whether it’s media attention, revenue growth, etc., and that’s where the trap sets in.”
The phenomenon of feeling perpetually dissatisfied on the job is pervasive across industry fields, socioeconomic divides and international borders. But for the millennial founder – a highly diligent, media-savvy and ambitious class of entrepreneur – professional success often breeds personal disillusionment.
There’s an “outside portrayal of founder life as this amazing journey that you have to make look so exciting and so high growth all the time,” says Moore. “I think there’s just an inevitable crash for a lot of people when they feel they’re not living their real life.”
Big checks, big recognition and big success – the image of a young leader is highly curated, but harder behind the scenes (Credit: Getty Images)
‘A very lonely job’
Part of the feeling of chasing that elusive, dangling carrot of success is fostered by the highly competitive nature of Silicon Valley and the tech industry. In the environment that birthed Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, founders are constantly striving not only to raise money and change the world, but to become era-defining stars in some cases.
In order to stay above the competitive fray, one needs to project an image of success, no matter how taxing the day-to-day grind becomes.
“It can be a very lonely job to be a start-up founder,” says Alisa Cohn, an executive coach based in New York, who works with executives and founders across several industries. “Everybody around you feels like they’re killing it, so it’s like you’re the only one who’s got problems” when things don’t work out.
Start-up founders often labour in the dark for years, Cohn says, and usually won’t see any praise until their company goes public, gets acquired, or makes tons of money. The public only sees and celebrates the winners. Without buzz and fanfare, a lucrative sale or IPO might only register with the faintest of thuds in a founder’s mind. Cohn recalls one client who sold a business for an eight-figure sum, but left the deal feeling more distraught than jubilant.
“We don’t see the toiling in the wilderness for five or 10 or 15 years, and that’s what it takes to build a start-up,” says Cohn. “The net of all that is that you’re striving and striving, and it always feels that someone is ahead of you.”
Everybody around you feels like they’re killing it, so it’s like you’re the only one who’s got problems – Alisa Cohn
And, although many people often feel that success is a moving target, millennial leaders are particularly susceptible to feeling disillusioned.
Jamie Gruman, author of Boost: The Science of Recharging Yourself in an Age of Unrelenting Demands, and a professor of organisational behaviour at Canada’s University of Guelph, says millennials feel less in control of their own fates than other generations. The fact that millennials “grew up in an era when the world was in flux, the economy wasn’t good, there were terrorist attacks” makes feelings of helplessness more palpable, he says.
Then there’s social media and press. Feelings of inadequacy can become exacerbated through their constantly churning natures, which emphasise success nearly constantly – and publicise failure, too.
“There are even more celebrity CEOs, and the media with the notion of treating people like royalty plays into all of that,” says Cohn. “And it feels like ‘that’s what I have to aspire to’.”
Behind closed doors, however, it’s often a different story. Matt Wheeler, 35, who helped co-found the college athletics recruitment website Sports Recruits, notes that many CEOs get together not to boast about their accolades, but to vent about their anxiety.
“What you read on Twitter is very different than what you hear when you get into a room with a bunch of start-up CEOs,” Wheeler says. “Everybody is ‘crushing it’ on Twitter and worrying about running out of money behind closed doors. I am involved with a CEO group and our time together feels like therapy. The discussions happening there are not happening on Twitter.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is among the most visible 'celebrity CEOs', whose success and failure is often headline making in global media (Credit: Alamy)
The boss’s boss
“There’s a misconception that when you’re an entrepreneur or start your own company that you don’t have a boss,” says Moore.
But like many executives in tech, Moore is beholden to her VC financiers. She often feels an unrelenting pressure to perform publicly, either through speaking events, media appearances or different avenues. If she doesn’t perform the dual function of corporate executive and public figure, however, potential backers might turn off the financial spigot in favour of someone else.
There’s just an inevitable crash for a lot of people when they feel they’re not living their real life – Laura Moore
As Nell Health’s CEO, Moore is still greatly drawn to the calling of her job. But she knows that the life of a founder can give way to that periodic “trap” or two. Moore says the pressure only begins with traditional business demands. It becomes a deluge when combined with other expectations, presenting the feeling of a pile-on. “You have to have a profile and look really wealthy and look awesome on panels when you’ve slept two hours the night before.
Matthew Bischoff, 28, the co-founder of the software development company Lickability, agrees. Bischoff says there’s constant demand not only to succeed on the job, but to impress one’s counterparts with a side hustle or two.
“Even though you’re running a company full-time, you’re expected to be contributing to open source and have side projects,” Bischoff says. “I think that doesn’t leave a lot of space for family and friends and hobbies outside of tech.”
"You have to have a profile and look really wealthy and look awesome on panels when you’ve slept two hours the night before" – Laura Moore, millennial founder (Credit: Alamy)
The perception of running a disruptive company – and the romance of affecting change and improving people’s lives – is often a far cry from reality.
Gruman says that people often enter the start-up world because they enjoy laying the foundation for a company and leaving a personal impact on an organisation. But values can get muddled and even lost when an organisation expands, giving way to new conflicts.
When people aren’t “getting their hands dirty anymore, they’re not able to do what they love and they forget what they love about the job”, he says. “For some people the work can end up not being very meaningful.”
So how should overworked founders and executives actually take heed of their successes and feel good about their accomplishments?
Cohn advocates an easy and practical approach: “Do a look back every few months with the specific intention of noticing progress made and milestones hit”.
Gruman also advises a soul-searching founder to examine the personal side of their work: “What would objective outsiders think about your success?” he asks. “Would they be impressed?”
The answer, in almost all instances, is a resounding yes.
Update 16 August 2019: This story, originally published on 12 August 2019, has been updated to reflect a change in Laura Moore's career history.