Business

Start up, burn out: Services support Japan entrepreneurs' mental health in ultracompetitive culture

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Rising entrepreneurs are often treated like heroes, with the media lionizing the way their startups lure sizable investments and how their innovative products might change the world.

But their lives can be rough, as they are more likely to face troubles than leaders in other fields. Consequently, some may end up developing a mental illness, affecting their career.

With more investment pouring into Japanese startups in recent years, it’s possible that more entrepreneurs may be plagued by such an issue.

“Being an entrepreneur, you are putting yourself in quite a tough situation,” said Mari Sakuramoto, who heads Cotree Inc., a Tokyo-based startup that provides online counseling services.

Entrepreneurs shoulder pressure to grow their business, take care of their employees and make high returns for investors, but oftentimes many don’t have people to share their weaknesses with because of their role as a leader.

“It’s natural that you have a greater risk of developing a mental illness … (but) it seems a lot of people are unaware of that.”

This is why Sakuramoto launched a counseling service called Escort, which is designed to take care of entrepreneurs’ mental health. Through the service, she wants to raise the awareness of the issue and make help more accessible for startup founders.

Those in the industry also say that the startup scene needs greater variety in its role models, instead of praising only one path where young firms raise large sums through an initial public offering or buyout, because this path requires a strong mentality and does not suit everyone.

Sakuramoto sensed that a support program dedicated to entrepreneurs’ mental health may be needed because such individuals comprised a number of users for her company’s regular online counseling service.

“When we analyzed the data, we realized that they didn’t really have people around them to talk about their issues,” she said.

Aiming to create a place they can casually turn to, Sakuramoto launched Escort last November with Kazuma Ieiri, an entrepreneur and investor, who had also thought the issue of mental health among entrepreneurs was problematic.

A survey of 127 entrepreneurs in Japan in February 2017 conducted by Zerobase Inc., a Tokyo-based firm that helps other companies develop online services, shows that 37 percent are estimated to have met the criteria for mood disorder or anxiety disorder, about seven times higher than ordinary people.

Sakuramoto said common symptoms of mental illness include insomnia, anxiety, depression and anorexia. Some people prioritize work even after the symptoms arise and put off dealing with them. As a result, the situation might be aggravated to the point where it could be too late to deal with it, Sakuramoto said.

Escort is somewhat different from regular online counseling services because it focuses more on awareness and prevention, according to Sakuramoto. To do that, Escort includes a self-analysis feature to gain a better understanding of users.

“When you launch a company, we suggest that you take the Escort program to know yourself and what kind of issues you are likely to have. This will help you prevent having mental illness,” Sakuramoto said.

Based on the self-analysis and coaching, Escort provides follow-up support depending on individuals’ risk level. It also offers an online chat service, so users have easy access to help.

Currently, Escort takes on 40 new people per month but the number of applicants it is seeing is more than it can handle, Sakuramoto said. It is sponsored by various venture capital firms and other supporters, and leaders of startups that receive investment from the sponsors can use the service for free. Other entrepreneurs need to pay.

Many of those who have been introduced to the program appear to find it useful, based on their Twitter posts regarding their experiences.

Yu Hosoi, CEO of Tokyo-based startup Red Yellow and Green Inc., who tried the service in December, told The Japan Times that the self-analysis was a good opportunity to understand himself from an objective viewpoint.

Hosoi’s company makes salads for companies that want to provide healthy meals to their employees with the aim of improving their health and work performance.

“A lot of entrepreneurs are probably trying hard to be good leaders to their team, to investors and to their clients,” but they are normal humans after all, said Hosoi, who launched his firm in 2016.

He added that the ease of accessibility is also helpful.

“It’s good that Escort offers chat counseling. People can easily use it when needed. If you don’t have anybody to talk to, I think your mind will be under greater pressure,” said Hosoi.

Meanwhile, some argue that one cause of mental health issues among entrepreneurs is startup culture’s tendency to play up only one successful model, said Shino Tsuchiya, co-founder and CEO of Impact Hub Tokyo.

The membership-based co-working space and office for entrepreneurs, which is located in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, facilitates communication among members and provides other support, including business counseling.

Through her community-building efforts, Tsuchiya has seen the mental condition of many entrepreneurs.

“Japan’s startup scene has imported Silicon Valley’s competitive culture along with the burnout issue of entrepreneurs,” said Tsuchiya.

She said there is this notion that venture firms have to go public or attract a major purchase offer from large companies to make investors happy. This scenario is seen as though it were the only successful model, Tsuchiya added.

“It’s not right that only one model is touted as a successful path. And the model demands entrepreneurs have great mental strength, which is almost impossible to achieve for those with fewer resources to back them up.

“It’s like they are all trying to become an ace striker but not everyone is suited for that,” she said, adding that those who develop mental illnesses tend to push themselves to play a role that is unfit for them.

The majority of entrepreneurs are rather ordinary people, so there should be various successful paths depending on their vision and personality, said Tsuchiya.

For instance, an introverted person may not be an outspoken, charismatic leader but they could come up with great products and lead a team with their unique personality.

While services such as Escort are necessary, it is also essential that the Japanese venture scene has communities for entrepreneurs to find peers with whom they feel comfortable and can help each other, Tsuchiya and Sakuramoto of Cotree both said.

When entrepreneurs get together and form communities or groups, they tend to be “competitive,” according to Tsuchiya. There, they talk about topics such as how much money their companies have raised and how they plan to expand their business.

Tsuchiya started Impact Hub Tokyo in 2013 to create a down-to-earth and trustworthy community.

Many entrepreneurs using Impact Hub Tokyo are apparently building close relationships in the community, where each member shares similar underlying values.

Unlike competitive communities, Impact Hub Tokyo members discuss the nature of their business philosophy, potential collaborations and their personal lives, she said.

To prevent mental illness, it is critical for entrepreneurs to have somebody who understands their struggles and who they can rely on when they face difficulties, Tsuchiya said.

“Members of this place say they don’t feel alone here because there is a community here,” she said.