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Three avoidable causes of start-up burnout


Most business owners start their business with a dream. They envision calling the shots (rather than being told what to do), remuneration in line with their efforts (rather than receiving a capped salary from an ungrateful boss) and working when they want (not when they have to). In short: more freedom, more money, more time. 

Sounds idyllic, right? Then why does the dream become a nightmare for so many? The long hours, the 7-day weeks, financial returns equivalent to welfare payments and the feeling of being on a leash that just barely stretches to their home.

Five years of living under those conditions is enough to make even the strongest, most stubborn and determined business owners feel worn out and ineffective – symptoms of burnout.

I’ve worked with thousands of business, and had many of my own, and I consistently see three major causes for small business owners simply running out of steam:

One: Spending time instead of money

Initially, business owners have massive enthusiasm fuelled by their new environment. However, working capital will be tight if their budget is focused on opening the business rather than being open. Of course, owners most often come into the business as the chief technician. For all those reasons they can quickly establish the habit of doing everything themselves. As the business grows, they hang on to all the roles, necessitating longer work days just to ‘keep up’. They increase their cash flow but don’t reinvest it into better processes or people.

Two: No-one-does-it-like-me syndrome

Business owners fail to recruit others to the business when they should for many reasons but a big one is the control factor. Many start their business to be more ‘in control’ so it’s often an inherent trait of business owners. They can lack the trust in others to deliver products and services at the same level they believe they can. The challenge created by spending time rather than money then means they won’t stop to build and document processes and train others in the right methodology and so the cycle continues.

Three: confusing an understanding of the trade for an understanding of the business

New business owners often come from being technicians in someone else’s business. They‘ve learned the core skills of their trade or profession, but had little or no exposure to the other essential components of the business, such as marketing, sales, organisational development, planning and financial intelligence. These essential elements of a business that can scale are all ‘background’ functions they just didn’t see beforehand, let alone understand. So the business is constrained by a knowledge gap, and the inability to hire it in due to the above two causes.

Burnout does not have to occur. Long hours, poor returns, stress, and imbalance do not need to be an intrinsic characteristic of business ownership. Rather, these need to be recognised as choices made by business owners due to their own knowledge and behaviours, and they definitely can be changed. My definition of a business is, ‘a commercial, profitable enterprise that works without me’.

About the author

Paul Henshall is the CEO of business coaching firm ActionCOACH Australia and New Zealand