Management & Finance

Foundr Owner on Burnout, Recovery, Priorities

Nathan Chan seemingly had it all. His business, Foundr, is hugely successful, combining media with entrepreneurship training. He interacts with prominent global founders.

Then came burnout.

“I experienced burnout earlier this year for the first time ever,” he told me. “It wasn’t good. It was deep anxiety. I felt terrible. I realized I had just ground myself out.”

A driven owner, Chan reassessed his priorities and his outlook. He shared it all with me in our recent conversation, discussing his experiences, motivations, and more.

The entire audio interview is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: You’re the founder of Foundr.

Nathan Chan: Yes. We’re trying to democratize entrepreneurial education. We do that in two ways. First, we have a comprehensive online school for starting and growing a business. The instructors are folks that have actually done it.

Then there’s the media side of the business, where we interview some of the greatest founders of our generation who share their experiences. It’s a platform we hope will eventually help tens of millions of founders.

We started in 2013 as a print magazine. It’s now digital-only. The online school and everything we’re building there was birthed a couple of years into the journey.

Our site has free and paid content.

Bandholz: You have interviewed Richard Branson and other prominent folks. How do you get access to them?

Chan: We had hedge-fund owner Ray Dalio recently. We had Joe Gebbia, founder of Airbnb. We interview people who have little time. We try to unpack their lessons and experiences.

How did I get Richard Branson within the first four months of launching Foundr? It started with having a magazine. It’s a powerful tool to deliver a message and build authority and branding. That’s why a lot of people wanting to build a personal brand write a book.

So if having a book can build authority, a magazine is a whole new level. And there’s something rare around a front cover with, perhaps, 12 per year. There’s some scarcity.

It comes back, also, to finding people that are looking for press. When Gary V launches a book, for example, he wants coverage.

Bandholz: Do you interview in-person, face to face?

Chan: I like in-person, even for YouTube. We find an in-person interview retains a much higher audience — no matter how you slice up a Zoom video. In-person is more powerful. Plus I’ve seen data to back that up.

I’m the host of the interviews. I live here in Melbourne, Australia. Before Covid, I flew to the States every three to four months when we had an office in New York. It’s difficult to do now, however.

But the future, post-Covid, is all in-person interviews.

Bandholz: You are a busy man. You and I have been trying to schedule this conversation for months.

Chan: Yes, I am busy. I’m trying to change the intensity. I experienced burnout earlier this year for the first time ever. It wasn’t good.

I don’t know if I would call it depression. It was deep anxiety. I felt terrible. I realized I had ground myself out. I did not take a break. So I changed everything. I dialed up my self-care. It starts with more sleep. It took about three months to recover. I was feeling good, until this week.

I’ve started waking up in the middle of the night again. It’s not good, thinking about work all the time. It’s not from this podcast, though. This is the fun stuff!

Bandholz: Talk about your recovery.

Chan: I started burnout in February. I did 10 things to recover. I started going to bed early and making sure I have eight hours of sleep. I still do it now. I meditate every single morning for 10 minutes when I wake up.

I started getting regular massages and going to my therapist. I started doing acupuncture, taking Chinese herbs, doing float tanks. I started a wind-down period when I wasn’t thinking about work. And I spent more time with friends and family.

And the last thing was I took regular breaks. Instead of just working 10 or 12 hours in this chair, I take breaks. I go for walks outside, for example. So, I did those 10 things, and in a few months I felt better than ever. But I’ve slipped back recently.

Bandholz: I’m a big rower. That’s my exercise. But it requires me to wake up at 4:45 a.m. It seems the challenge for all entrepreneurs is finding a balance. The person on the cover of a magazine has done great things in business. But how’s their marriage? How’s their stress? How’s their health? And it’s not a story that gets told. We have only one life. We might as well enjoy the whole thing.

Chan: Agree. It’s easy to get caught up with the obsession of winning and doing more, being more. But I’m not about Lamborghinis or any of that bullshit. I’m about doing work that truly matters, having fun, and helping others. It’s not even about buying the next big thing. I love the work. It’s an obsession that is all-consuming.

Bandholz: At about year three of Beardbrand, we were doing about $3 million in revenue. We weren’t taking any money from the business. We were stressed because our strategy was growth at all costs, including our health. But the company wasn’t growing.

Then we stepped back. We realized that we had a $3 million company with good profits. We had good six-figure jobs that put food on the table, a roof over the head, paid our debts, and allowed us to travel.

We said, “What are we doing? Why are we not enjoying life? We’ve made it.”

Chan: Yes. It’s like the cost of diminishing returns. We can always get a little bit more stuff. But it’s the drive, the competitiveness, the mission that keeps us going.

I interviewed a co-founder of Reddit, Steve Huffman. I said, “You’ve created a website that’s among the most visited in the world. Is it ever enough? Do you ever say, ‘I’ve made it.’?”

He said, “No, it’s never enough.” The Airbnb founder, Joe Gebbia, told me, “It’s never enough.”

It’s easy to lose sight of what’s important. Number one is our health. Health is everything.

I’m so passionate about the work we do at Foundr. It is so much fun compared to where I was 10 years ago. But it’s easy to overdo it.

Bandholz: Changing direction, you’re bringing on some high-level leadership now. Walk me through that process of finding and hiring great talent.

Chan: It depends on where you are in the journey. If it’s early in your business, you can’t afford to bring on seasoned execs. They’re not typically the people you need in a startup, anyway. You need all-rounders at that stage, perhaps young people to coach.

But it eventually gets to a level where you have teams — customer service, marketing, operations, product development. At that point, you need strong leaders who have done it before.

At Foundr, we’re about 55 people, with many teams. We need around four to five senior execs to lead teams of teams. We don’t want too many layers.

For example, we’re looking to bring on a chief revenue officer. One of his or her direct reports will be our head of advertising, who will have media buyers on that team.

So it starts with having a clear view of success, what it looks like, and mapping out a plan.

Then, when we meet candidates, we’re going to be very clear, asking ourselves, “Can this person execute the plan?”

In my experience, the kinds of people we need aren’t looking for jobs. They are at the top 1% of the talent pool. We’ll need to recruit them out of an existing business. For that, we use a recruiter, paying a percentage of the salary. So it’s based on a successful hire.

Bandholz: Where can people reach out to follow and support you?

Chan: Go to Foundr.com. We’re here to help however we can. I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Eric Bandholz

Eric Bandholz

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