My Queue

There are no Videos in your queue.

Click on the Add to next to any video to save to your queue.

There are no Articles in your queue.

Click on the Add to next to any article to save to your queue.

There are no Podcasts in your queue.

Click on the Add to next to any podcast episode to save to your queue.

You're not following any authors.

Click the Follow button on any author page to keep up with the latest content from your favorite authors.

Entrepreneurs / Startup Culture

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: Handling The Burden Of Business Success

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: Handling The Burden Of Business Success
Image credit: shutterstock
Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East
17 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

"Some people think I betrayed them, but I moved on and now I need to send a message that Aramex was not and is not my life,” says Fadi Ghandour, who last year fully exited Aramex, the first MENA-based courier company that he started in 1982. Over the years, the 58-year-old Ghandour has become a national figure for supporting entrepreneurship across the Arab world. Far from the latter being just the storytelling, Ghandour advises by setting a good example, and in this case, demonstrating that entrepreneurs should not tie their self-worth to their net-worth. “No one should think that their business is their life,” he says. “I spent 35 years there and I am content now. More than half of my life was given to it, it is older than my children. I compromised everything in my life for the business.”

Veteran entrepreneurs, such as Ghandour, are less likely to discuss the emotional strains of running a business. In fact, asking him to talk about the emotional toll of pouring everything into a company that, statistically, might have failed, reveals that, during his Aramex era, hardly had he ever considered the consequences of being an entrepreneur on his mental health. “An entrepreneur, starting up his business, constantly faces crisis, and that is a never-ending process,” he explains. “You are in the business of continuously finding solutions, continuously worrying, continuously having your brain work at a high speed to solve the daily challenges that you face, specifically in the region like ours where all kinds of challenges are out of your control most of the time. Entrepreneurs might have insomnia, not sleeping well, and that is all that I can remember from that period of my life.”

Fadi Ghandour, founder, Aramex.
Source: Aramex
However, the world of entrepreneurship is quite different in 2018. A series of high-profile suicides of tech entrepreneurs grabbed headlines a few years ago, and have been followed by billionaire entrepreneurs tweeting about their “great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress”, or bosses publicly commending their employees for caring about their mental health by taking a day off. Similar actions, I believe, are a rebellious response to today’s pressure on entrepreneurs to put forward a picture of success- even a minor post on social media about an entrepreneur’s daily struggles can quickly pile up “the likes” by hundreds from fellow entrepreneurs who are grateful for the opportunity to open up about their own stress of building a business for a living.

Mona Ataya, the founder and CEO of Mumzworld, and co-founder of Bayt -both of which are considered to be among the region’s most successful online businesses- is the next person I talked to, and her opinion on the matter can be considered somewhat mid-way. She is willing to open up on the sleep difficulties, irritability, and other stress-related symptoms entrepreneurs experience, but points out that those fall under the weight of the ambitions she once readily signed up for. “Do I sleep less? 100%,” she says. “There have been days when I slept [for only] two hours. Since we launched Mumzworld seven years ago, I haven’t had a weekend when I haven’t worked. At the same time, when I’m home, I’m juggling things in a way that my children don’t notice when I’m working, such as when I’m online or checking messages. It’s a balancing act and I ensure that nobody around me is impacted by it. Lack of sleep is one [consequence] for sure, and the other one is not being able to switch off completely. You never ever switch off, not even for a moment. The other thing is that my health, wellness, and physical well-being have been impacted, and I will say that it is completely my fault. Yet, whenever I feel burn out, all I have to do is meet with the members of Entrepreneurs Organisation or Endeavor, which I am a part of, and I’m revived and energized because I’m constantly learning. However, I will say that what does get impacted is your patience, be it with your spouse, your children, your employees, and so on. It is because when you are running, you can’t afford somebody to pull you back. When you are juggling one hundred things at the same time, you cannot afford having patience to sit back and take it easy. But, as long as your mindset is clear on why you are doing what you are doing, that is your motivation.”

Mona Ataya, the founder and CEO of Mumzworld.
Source: Mumzworld
Entrepreneurs having honest discussions about (only potentially) surmountable bumps in the road to achievement has allowed for gathering enough data for drawing first statistical conclusions. A 2015 study by UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco titled Are Entrepreneurs Touched with Fire? reveals that 49% of entrepreneurs have a mental illness/history, including depression (30%), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (29%), and anxiety problems (27%), compared to 32% of the control group. In the MENA region, similar research has not yet been undertaken or published, but four out of six entrepreneurs interviewed by Wamda last year admitted to having depression as a result of their startup life. In most cases, the rare MENA-based startup founders willing to reveal their mental and lifestyle struggles tend to stick to more socially acceptable issues: burnout, anxiety and/or fear of failure, and weight-related health issues. Ayman Fakoussa, co-founder and managing partner of The Qode, and Rachel McArthur, the founder of Digital Ink, however, add another layer.

Ayman Fakoussa, the co-founder and managing partner of The Qode.
Source: The Qode

For Fakoussa, the success of his Dubai-based boutique luxury PR and events agency caused him to feel emptiness rather than elation. “There was another time in my entrepreneurial career where I felt my work lacked true meaning,” he says. “In the kind of work that we do, in the luxury world, you are out on parties a lot, but above and beyond that, you see other problems in the world and start wondering how you can help. Not many people spend enough time trying to help other people. One thing that helped me tremendously was that we started getting very involved with charity initiatives. We used our contacts and relationships to help others, which was very fulfilling and brought meaning to our work. It really changed things for us.” As the founder and managing editor of Digital Ink Media, McArthur provides high quality content services for digital, broadcast and print businesses. Despite the need for this kind of content in this part of the world, she has been facing setbacks, especially due to being a sole founder. “The most stressful time, in my opinion, is about 12 months into a company,” she says.

“That’s when you’re looking back at the last year, seeing how you did, and looking ahead to what’s next and planning the next few months. I’m not going to lie; digital content is still not viewed as an essential service to many companies, and that’s fair enough, considering many have only a little bit of budget to play with. So, there are times when you have little idea what your next few months are going to look like. Also, one thing you’re never really prepared for when ‘going it alone’ is how lonely it is at times. As someone who is a solo founder, you spend most of your time with your team or clients– and the majority of that time is spent managing or mentoring. If you’re down or having a bad day, you cannot show it, as you cannot demoralize the people working with you, and it would be unprofessional to do so in front of a client. That’s one of the biggest things I miss about being an employee.”

Rachel McArthur, the founder of Digital LInk.
Source: Digital LInk

Talking about enlisting the help of a psychologist to sort out their mental health with the majority of MENA entrepreneurs is often followed up by a request to remain anonymous for fear of peer disapproval and other social and family reasons. However, Fakoussa and McArthur neither hesitated to seek professional help when finding themselves caught off-guard, nor to talk about it. “I actually am very open about therapy, and how it has helped me in certain times of my life,” says Fakoussa. “I speak about it to break the taboos in our Arab culture, that something is wrong with you if you go to therapy. There have been examples when I would suggest to people to consider going to therapy if they were feeling depressed or not okay in any way, but there was a perception that, if that was the case, it meant that something was wrong with them. I think that it is so wrong. I grew up in Canada where that is considered a normal thing.”

McArthur adds that while seeking professional help can seem like a challenging experience, entrepreneurs should not rely on sunny optimism as a defense mechanism. “Unfortunately, it [seeking the help of a psychologist] wasn’t a pleasant experience, as I felt that I wasn’t really heard, and the professional’s priority was just prescribing medication. Nevertheless, I think many fear that they would look ‘weak,’ given that they should be promoting how well they’re doing. But I personally think it’s also important to show you’re human. Take Instagram, for example, everyone shows the ‘best self’… But, it’s all a filtered, edited version of reality. We have a responsibility to lead by example and show that, ‘Hey, it’s not all glitter dust and unicorns!’”

A calm demeanor masking a secret used to be a tactic of Tahir Shah, the founder of Moti Roti, a “Pakistani Soul Kitchen” pop-up and food truck. In 2012, Roti left his IT career to create “a go-to delivery place for Pakistani and Indian food.” Yet, the journey ahead included closing the first pop-up store due to low footfall, acquiring one of the first food trucks in Dubai, and then selling it to pivot to a more sustainable business model- Moti Roti’s first bricks and mortar outlet, which opened in JLT in 2016. Over this time, many self-torturing questions gnawed at him.

“It’s just waking up in the morning feeling like ‘I can’t do it, I can’t get out of bed,’” he says. “You are faced with innumerable problems and you think, ‘How do I solve all of them and in a limited amount of time?’ Then, if it does not work out, what to do next. In the early days, when I took a round of funding from family and friends, I had that pressure of the people who had believed in me and invested in me, and I wanted to be able to pay them back. I was constantly thinking, ‘What if I don’t make it through?’ I did think about therapy although I didn’t end up doing it, but I know a lot of people who did it and it helped them a lot. You have to reach deep into your mental resources to cope with that pressure. In that, therapy or any kind of counselling is helpful. You have to put your ego aside, you can’t do all by yourself, and you have to allow someone to gently steer you in the right direction and stabilize the way you are thinking at the moment. I know many entrepreneurs who are in that dark place and it is refreshing that the entrepreneurial community in Dubai is very collective, collaborative and supportive. It’s kind of reassuring to see that other people are also struggling. I think that sense of community in Dubai is really integral and it really plays into the removal of the existing taboos.” (However, not long after this interview with Shah, I was informed that Moti Roti’s outlet in JLT had closed as well.)

Tahir Shah, the founder of Moti Roti
Source: Tahir Shah

Furthermore, one of the realities of entrepreneurship is that founders have to deal with an often-endless series of false promises. To Elissa Freiha, the co-founder of WOMENA, a Dubai-based angel investment platform for female investors, embracing her own vulnerability as opposed to projecting bulletproof mentality proved to be a valuable coping strategy. “As we were getting more recognition and were celebrated for the work that we were doing, we did not feel the same amount of success behind the scenes,” she recalls the early challenges of building WOMENA. “There was a lack of transparency from people we were encountering in the sense that we would get a lot of verbal support, but when the time came for them to actually act on it, to sign something or to pay us something, they would disappear. This happened hundreds of times. We would get a quick high when people would tell us they wanted to be a part of WOMENA, and then we would immediately get crashed when they started avoiding our phone calls, and so on.”

An important note here, though. Whilst removing some of the stigma by opening up on what the life of an entrepreneur really looks like is publicly praised and encouraged, their everyday life can commonly bring polar opposite experiences, as McArthur explains. “Last year, I kept on falling ill every few weeks with what seemed like a common cold,” she says. “Then all of a sudden, one evening, I just collapsed. I had developed quite an infection that required bed rest and antibiotics, and my fever was 40 degrees. I had a meeting regarding what I thought was an important opportunity that week, and despite not feeling well at all, I still made the effort, apologized profusely and requested we do a phone meeting until I got better to come in. Sadly, the reaction I received wasn’t all that great. Instead of postponing, I was being told I needed to prepare this, that, and the other, and needed to get it across in 48 hours. To me, that was a huge red flag. If a client isn’t going to forgive a few days due to illness – bearing in mind, the project wasn’t time-sensitive, or tied to an event that week– then chances are you won’t be treated right throughout the entire partnership. The lessons learned here are, one, you can never prepare for illness– when it strikes, it strikes, and no project/ money in the world will prevent it. So, you have to accept that. And two, no matter how big or lucrative a project, if your client expects you to drop everything for them 24/7, you’re better off without it for your own sanity.”

Elissa Freiha, co-founder, WOMENA 
Source: WOMENA

Likewise, Freiha has taken a proactive approach to building mental strength. For that, she has had to debunk some of the other popular myths of entrepreneurship, namely that entrepreneurs should work 24/7 in order to succeed. “It was calming when I finally felt that I was receiving what I deserved, but what was still destabilizing was going against my better judgment in order to follow social pressures that I felt compelled to give in to as an entrepreneur,” she says. “I had a few moments when I was severely depressed, going through the very early challenges of WOMENA, and not being able to achieve balance as an entrepreneur between life and work. I used to sacrifice eating healthy, seeing my friends and family, sleeping well, just to work a little bit more. Entrepreneurs brag about not going on holiday for years. I met a female entrepreneur a few years ago who was highly celebrated in the industry, and I remember her bragging about the fact that she started a business while she had two children, and that she didn’t take a single holiday over this time. I knew that was a lie. That was a blatant lie, she must have taken a day off at least, and to tell everybody that you didn’t have a single day off was a lie. They think it shows that they kind of earned their place, but it’s just an exaggeration. I don’t doubt how hard they work, but it’s about the output. So, I started overcoming my problems by becoming more experienced, but also by being fed up with feeling the way that I felt. For me, seeing my family is important to me, something that I as an individual, a social person, an extrovert, need. Feeling that I was sacrificing the success of my business by spending an afternoon with my father, who is 79 years old, was unhealthy for me. That was destabilizing for me.”

All in all, entrepreneurs dealing with life situations, both draining and exhilarating, are well outside the ordinary. For that reason, Ghandour’s legacy -and presence- remains with young entrepreneurs across the Middle East, especially when it comes to a narrative, which he is particularly annoyed with, that Arab entrepreneurs have a deeply ingrained fear of failure. “I don’t buy the story that there is a specific fear of failure in the Arab culture,” he says. “No culture in the world likes failure, but the way you think about failure is what matters. It is not a cultural thing; you are not born with it. If you appreciate learning by trial and error, then it is a journey. Don’t think of failure as an end. Your most important lessons in life as an entrepreneur, and I’ll challenge any entrepreneur on this, happens when you actually face an obstacle that you don’t overcome, when you don’t make it. When you make it, you don’t remember what happened. Yet, when you don’t make it, it is then that you remember. And that’s the biggest lesson in life. The recovery happens immediately, you have to move on very quickly. But, if your character says, ‘I can’t handle failure,’ then don’t be an entrepreneur. Therefore, it is a character trait and not a cultural thing.”

Ataya adds to conclude, “There will be naysayers around you, and the reality is that you need to kill the noise, and be very focused. I’ve been blessed that I have always been very focused on my vision and what I want to achieve. The entrepreneurship ride is a very difficult one, and as long as your mindset remains positive, and you know why you are doing what you are doing, the noise and the difficulties are really irrelevant. If it gets hard, so what? It’s part of your journey, it’s part of what you’ve signed up for. It’s not a punishment, but you [are] being blessed by an opportunity to create something that will impact your ecosystem. How amazing is that?”

Related: You're Not Alone: Entrepreneurs Need To Talk About Their Mental Health Battles 

5 Reasons to Keep a Startup Mindset for the Long Haul