Founder mental health: Interview with Dan Kirby

In the latest article in our Founder Mental Health series, AIN sits down with seasoned entrepreneur Dan Kirby, the exited founder of renowned digital agency The Tech Dept, and host of the widely acclaimed business podcast, “Honey I Blew Up the Business.” 

Dan is the founder of the new wellness program ‘Founders Are Mental’ and in this revealing and honest interview he talks to AIN about the intricacies of his entrepreneurial path — from immense success to burnout to now finding new balance and prioritising mental health. 

In addressing the lessons he has learned he has some invaluable practical advice he can offer about how we can all support our mental wellness while running a business. Why we all need to find ‘a good groove’.

Can you elaborate on how success contributed to your mental health challenges and the impact it had on your wellbeing?

Success, accolades, and awards often act as a veil, concealing underlying issues. Like – why are you so driven to prove yourself in the first place?! I was proud to launch a start up, the Tech Dept and build it up into a globally renowned agency helping companies build tech products, working with world class companies like NBC Universal and Microsoft and creating BBC Children in Need’s fundraising platform.

Despite external achievements, I realised I wasn’t attuned to my body’s signals and wasn’t aware of bad habits – which in hindsight were completely obvious. I faced repeated burnouts, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and had a significant problem in 2017 – when we nearly lost the business (and I nearly lost my marriage). 

I call this 2017 experience “the blow up”! 

This turning point at age 45 when everything unraveled. It was a reckoning, a realisation that the way I was achieving success came at too high a price, and I needed to change. Success can be deceiving; it masked unhealthy patterns in my life – what I would now call a “bad groove”. This undermined every area of my life – especially my mental state.

How did your personal struggles impact your role as a founder and leader, and what toll did it take on your business?

My personal struggles took a severe toll on my role as a founder and leader. My bad groove affected the business. I wasn’t checked in, drank excessively (because we were hosting events and winning awards), neglected my mental health. I became suboptimal, and the business suffered. It took a significant toll on my family, marriage, and professional life. It was a stark reminder that your individual well-being is intrinsically tied to the success and health of the business.

What lessons have you learned, and how did you transform personally and professionally after the blow-up in 2017?

The blow-up in 2017 was a catalyst for a profound reset. A personal and professional transformation. Confronting my ego, I recognised the paradox of success a startup founder. While it gave me the freedom, motivation and drive to succeed it also meant I didn’t know when to stop and listen to the quiet voice in my head telling me to slow down.

Confronting my demons, controlling bad mental grooves, and prioritising self-awareness became unavoidable. The journey was painful yet necessary. It totally changed my approach to business and life. Looking back, it was a blessing. 

Can you shed more light on the founder’s paradox and the importance of mental wellness in entrepreneurship, especially considering the uncertainty and pressure?

Founders crave freedom – but this freedom comes with uncertainty. However, uncertainty triggers fear, stress, and chronic stress, harming mental health – and physical health (your immune system). Handling uncertainty is crucial; it’s the yin of the yang of freedom. The key is working on how you handle uncertainty to maintain mental well-being.

You need to become at peace with uncertainty being the only certainty of startup life. To do this requires you to understand and confront your ego – your identity – as a founder. Success amplifies both positive and negative mental aspects, leading to unique challenges and making mental wellness harder to sustain. 

Recognising this paradox early – being aware of it – and proactively addressing your awareness is the hidden key for your mental health. If you want a better chance to  thrive in the roller coaster ride of launching a business – I suggest working on your awareness.

In fact the real work is on building what I call your “awareness muscle”. The awareness of your mental health, and emotional health. Often you can simply let thoughts and emotions take you down a dead end. Worrying about things. Or shouting at the intern! 

Becoming more aware – and strenthening that with daily practice you can simply observe any negative thoughts and emotions – and let them drift away. 80% of the drama you feel is just your imagination.

How do you reflect on your entrepreneurial journey now, and what advice do you have for fellow founders in prioritising mental wellness?

My advice to fellow founders is very simple—prioritise your own self care. If you are broken the business breaks. Full stop. You can – and often have to – grind it out. But that only lasts so long, and entrepreneurship is a long game.

Mental wellness is a balance of elements – which is what I learnt in The Blow Up of 2017. This is what I call The Groove. What is your Groove? Your day to day patterns and habits. Are they good or bad?

And you know the answer! If you are drinking 10 coffees a day and never exercising – you do not need a nutritionist and a personal trainer to tell you to tweak your habits. 

Be open to learn  from mistakes, share experiences openly, and embrace the inevitable uncertainty and change that comes with entrepreneurship. Don’t think you already know the answer. I didn’t. 

Maybe you are the problem. In my experience, I was the problem. And the only person I have 100% control over. 

Design your mental groove consciously, confront your demons, and seek support from communities like Founders Are Mental. Mental wellness isn’t just a component of success; it’s the foundation that sustains and propels entrepreneurs forward.

Your focus in the Founders Mental program is accountability and community. Why is the best way of supporting entrepreneurs?

Mental health and wellbeing is often seen as something “nice to have”. But making personal change is hard. We believe that to truly serve founders we need to give them tough love. So Founders are Mental isn’t just about content to learn in a  workshop. It’s a community that sustains change through ongoing accountability. 

The program recognises that the real product is the actioning of good habits – a ‘good groove’. Accountability through extreme ownership and community act as the pillars, mirroring the concept of a personal trainer for mental wellness. 

Having peers who hold you to commitments is instrumental. We aim to create an environment where entrepreneurs can share experiences, be real, and collectively navigate the challenges of entrepreneurship. But sometimes you don’t need sympathy, you need a kick up the arse! Someone to hold you accountable to what you said you would do – and you KNOW is the right thing for you to do (eg go to bed earlier). 

Our monthly walkss, called FAMstep, involve a casual, agenda-free walk in nature in my home in The Peak District – or around central London. It provides an opportunity for like-minded founders to connect, support each other, and take a break from the screens! Plus have some jam roly poly

You mentioned the concept of extreme ownership. How does this apply to founders and their mental well being?

Extreme ownership for founders extends beyond business decisions; it encompasses responsibility for mental well being. Acknowledging that, as a founder, you are in charge of your mental state is fundamental. 

The buck stops with you in the business, and it stops with you in your health and wellbeing too.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle, but taking care of your mental health is a crucial aspect of being a successful entrepreneur. Extreme ownership translates into a proactive approach—recognising when adjustments are needed, seeking support, and making intentional choices for sustained mental well-being.

You’ve talked about designing your mental groove consciously. Can you explain what a good groove looks like for a founder’s mental well-being?

A good mental groove for a founder involves recognising factors that contribute to positive mental bandwidth and eliminating those that deplete it. It’s about consciously designing your environment, routines, and habits to maintain mental balance. 

If excessive coffee or lack of sleep affects your mental state negatively, understanding and managing these factors become essential. Designing your groove is an ongoing process of self-awareness, ensuring that your entrepreneurial journey is not only successful but sustainable and fulfilling.

As I showed in my story – there is no point “winning” the game of Founder. And then losing the game of Life.

Finally, what advice would you give founders about navigating the multitude of advice available, and how can they trust their intuition in decision-making?

In my podcast Honey I Blew Up The Business I interview top entrepreneurs. People with OBE’s and proper multi-million exits. I often ask the question: ‘what advice should entrepreneurs ignore…”. And 80% of the responses say: “Ignore other people’s advice”

Then they quickly follow up with: “and listen to your gut, your intuition”

 No advice is universally applicable. Every founder and business is unique, and trusting your intuition is paramount. The quiet voice within knows what’s best for you and your business. Journaling and self-awareness practices help you connect with that inner voice. 

Navigating the sea of advice involves recognising that external guidance can only go so far; ultimately, the decision-making power lies within the founder. Trusting your gut, listening to your intuition, and staying attuned to your unique journey are critical components of successful and authentic entrepreneurship.

If you want to know how to be able to hear your intuition. When you get up in the morning, before you look at your phone or laptop, get a pad and a pen and write out all the shite in your head. Once you have done that, ask yourself what to do. Write it down. Then just have the courage to do it. 

Dan Kirby has founded Founders Are Mental (FAM), a coaching community for entrepreneurs. The course helps entrepreneurs define and follow through on the good habits they know they need to do in just a few hours a month.

Entrepreneurs can join fellow Mental Founders and learn a new way to be a successful founder – a Good Mental Founder. It is free to joining their monthly picnic walks – FAMstep – held in central London and the Peak District: 

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