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Karolina Szczur

For the last seven years (four of which as a co-founder), I’ve been working with Ben↗ on Calibre↗, a software as a service platform for web performance. It’s been the most challenging, rewarding and informative time of my entire professional career nearing twenty years. Several months ago, I made the toughest decision yet—to leave the company I helped build.

Founders departure is still a taboo subject, often interpreted as a failure to realise vision or company potential. I see it quite differently. Leaving a situation that doesn’t serve you is a strength, not a weakness, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. No position has the right to an unbound period of my life, once it stopped serving me, or even more so, started being detrimental to my health and wellbeing. And while being a founder, I’ve experienced the most severe burnout that left me with no other choice than make a drastic change to heal.

I’m sharing in hopes that this will be helpful to other founders, creators, open source maintainers, anyone really—as nobody is immune to burnout. Frequently, it takes quite a while to recognise the signs and acknowledge that what’s happening isn’t temporary stress, but a long-term psychological, emotional and physical overload.

Recognising the signs of burnout #

This is not the first time I’ve faced burnout. Despite knowing how it feels like↗, I’ve found founder burnout manifesting itself in a very different way to previous stints. I attribute not experiencing physical symptoms to successfully managing anxiety with the help of cognitive behavioural therapy and SSRIs (medication used to manage depression and anxiety). I wasn’t waking up in the middle of the night or feeling the physical impacts of long term stress. While those tools shielded me from physical discomfort, but not mental and emotional suffering.

This time, I couldn’t attribute it to the lack of sense of purpose or disillusionment with someone else’s leadership (which often are the main drivers). I had a high level of control and was finally working 100% true to my values. A dream, some might say. Yet I found myself:

  • feeling worn out and depleted, no matter the amount of time off
  • feeling overwhelmed, as if I couldn’t keep my head above water
  • feeling hopeless, as if nothing I do matters or makes a difference
  • being “empty” and disassociating
  • unable to engage in activities during time off
  • starting to fantasise about departing the company

The onset of burnout is gradual—it doesn’t happen overnight. Periodically, it would momentarily improve, but then come back crashing like a wave. What I found most insidious was that I was already using numerous strategies, both at personal and professional level, to prevent stress and burnout. It still found me.

There’s no bulletproof burnout prevention #

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy making Calibre the best place to work it can be. From hiring practices↗, high-level principles to care for employees↗, to implementing four-day workweek↗, which are only the top of the mountain. We nearly never worked over time, managed projects carefully and sweated how well we treated anyone who interacted with us. One would think with so many boundaries and conscious strategies for sustainable, kind way of working, burnout wouldn’t be possible. Alas, for founders, it very much is.

You can create a great place to work for your employees. But as a founder, the level of responsibility you carry alone can invalidate the no-stress environment fostered. Even with a four-day workweek, thoughts of business strategy don’t disappear. Even with four weeks of annual leave, it might be difficult to find a “good time” to disappear for a few days. Even with near-full control over company strategy, you can feel lacking any control over its future. When working with respect to your values, your truth, you can still be disillusioned and let down that the same values don’t resonate or have the effect you expected.

My experience of both working for others and creating a business from the ground-up has taught me that you can burn out in any environment, for different reasons. As a co-founder at a small, bootstrapped company, you shoulder tremendous responsibility. For the future of the business, its financials (no VC to fall back on), employee wellbeing, the product road map. The amount of things to worry about only grows if you care about doing things right. Which we very much do.

Ultimately, while I always felt supported, respected, and had fun collaborating with co-workers and contractors, the weight of an ever-growing to-do list that must be executed accordingly to high standards (I blame you, perfectionism), crushed me. I ran out of tools to manage how I felt and keep going.

Road to recovery #

A lot of advice for managing and healing↗ from burnout includes therapy, mindfulness, setting firm boundaries, exercise and eating well. Some recommend shifting to a different role instead of company departure. These are great suggestions, but I’ve been practising them for a long time prior to burnout. In a small company (Calibre was four people at most when I was there) shifting roles wasn’t an option either.

After months of careful consideration, talking with Ben about my possible departure, counselling with friends, it became obvious the only way for me to begin healing was to part ways with the work I’ve been doing. Co-founder departures are always impactful, especially the smaller the team is. The choice feels even more challenging when your co-founder is also your partner. We were always intentional about managing the impact of work on our relationship (which can be catastrophic) and showing up professionally for our team. We decided it was best for me and us to leave.

Some weight has lifted immediately when I acted on the decision. However, burnout recovery is counted in months (sometimes years), not days. I haven’t been working for over three months, and only now I’m beginning to feel like myself—with more energy, creativity, and optimism for what’s ahead. If you’re experiencing burnout, give yourself time and grace. It can be a slow process, but it does get better.

I’m now embarking on the last step of recovery: finding something new. If you’re hiring senior designers and design leaders remotely or in Narrm, let’s talk.