Burnout recovery —Joakim's interview on the Talouselämä podcast
Note: podcast is in Finnish but English transcript is available below 🙂
In October of 2020, I did a podcast interview with the Finnish financial publication Talouselämä, on the topic of burnout, recovery, and entrepreneurship. Since the recording was shared in Finnish, I went and transcribed it in English.
Joakim Achrén, what kind of work advice would you give yourself if you could go back 5 years in time?
I would have a hard time to grab a hold of myself, if going back five years. Maybe I would say that, “This is a long term work this entreprneeurship. This is not playing the lottery. There’s a lot of work to be done, and there’s lots of uncertainty. This is the default state that you will need to go to, to see success”
My guest today is the co-founder of Next Games, Joakim Achrén, who left the company in 2019 after suffering a burnout. Joakim now has a new company called Elite Game Developers, which works to educate and coach early stage founders of gaming founders.
Welcome to the podcast Joakim!
Let’s start with the main topic. You lived the startup life from since 2005. Many of our listeners know about your career, but lets cover the basics. How did you start your career in startups and to eventually found Next Games?
I’d already worked in a day job, as a consultant, but I hadn’t yet started a company. I had this need from a young age to start being an entrepreneur. I knew that I would start a company one day, but it eventually took until my mid-twenties to start my first company, in 2005 when I founded Ironstar Helsinki.
Back then, the games industry was so young. There was no available information in Finland about how to build a startup, let alone a games company. Neogames, a supporting organization for the Finnish games industry had just recently started and I was attending their events. But I didn’t know what I should have been asking, what were the questions that a young entrepreneur like myself should have been asking, to get help.
I’ve heard from others, who’ve approaching help-seeking in a proactive way, have actually gotten a good response. The experienced CEOs will help you. But I didn’t get it, I went through all the learning pains by myself.
I wanted to build something big. I wanted to grow quickly and make a big company. I was pitching a virtual world that would run on mobile phones. And back in 2005, that meant Nokia phones, but there was not a lot of connectivity and phones weren’t yet going online.
We tried to make thee virtual world work for four years. Eventually we pivoted to Facebook games, which got our company to profitability for a short while, until in 2011, Facebook decided to close down all the viral channels. Our numbers started going down, and we eventually decided to close down the company.
After the company went down, I moved on and joined Supercell as an early employee to work on their analytics. At Supercell, I learned a lot about how you could build a company differently. And when you find the game that will work, it can be a really big success with numbers off the chart.
At the end of 2012, I left Supercell and started working on putting together a founding team for Next Games.
Did you know that when you joined Supercell, that you’d eventually want to start another company?
I believe that every startup founder, after they’ve lost a company, will go through a period of seeking their new place in the world. I felt that I didn’t at all know what I wanted to do.
Now, in 2019 when I left Next Games, I’ve had much more clarity on what I wanted to do as I started Elite Game Developers.
In 2011, I was contemplating on the fact that is entrepreneurship really my thing, or should I rather join another company as an employee. But in 12 months, I did realize that being an employee wasn’t something I could ever go back to being.
What were the biggest lessons there from founding a company?
You can’t start a games company without a group a founders. You want to have a team in place who can immediately build a games company. We started Next Games with four co-founders, raised a seed round and in a year, we raised an 8 million dollar round. Supercell had just been sold to Softbank, the market was hot for gaming, it was the first time that investors started betting on mobile games.
Let’s talk a bit about your work life balance. When did you realize your burnout?
I left Next Games in early 2019. I had this mentality that I want to know that things are progressing. When you are an entrepreneur in gaming, you can get lots of setbacks with games that fail to materialize success.
I noticed that since I had such a hard time with meeting the expectations that I was setting for myself and the company, that the burnout was a symptom that started revealing itself in my daily work and life.
So it was your expectations that were causing the burnout?
Yeah exactly. I had these expectations, high expectations that the company will finally do well and there will be lots of success coming our way. For me, being a startup founder is a big part of my identity, I think it’s quite common — that the entrepreneur is the embodiment of the startup.
Then I started “flagellating” myself for the things that weren’t going my way. The burnout was the main symptom.
You were actively fundraising for Next Games, to aggressively grow the company. How did the nature of the work affect you?
The work of a startup entrepreneur isn’t you’re regular 9 to 5 job. But it’s not really a job where you’re pounding the keyboard 150 hours a week.
I believe that a lot of entrepreneurs are working eight hours a day. But the entrepreneur will be thinking about the job 24/7. All the worries, all the aspects of the job are coming to you, back to your mind, wanting to be processed.
But it’s not all bad. You can start tackling lots of challenging tasks and you learn a lot from planning for and meeting all those challenges.
You just need to have control over the work, the freedom to fail, and the tools to do the job. You don’t want to take too much work for yourself, since you can’t handle everything and the balls will start to drop.
Ask yourself: Can you give up for a while, take some distance from the work and take a break? After the recovery, you could go back to the work.
How much does the fundraising process of startups create stress and tension?
Fundraising is a lot about selling a model to the investors which works for them. Your pitching this formula that minimizes the risks for the investors and you need to talk about stuff that resonates for them. That’s a lot what successful fundraising can be.
The pitch will then turn into investor expectations. The investor’s role can shift towards being the people who will later on decide if the company will get additional funding or not. The dynamic is not optimal, as the entrepreneur needs to build the business in a way that allows for more funding to come in if needed.
Why did you eventually feel that the work started to create these kind of worries for you?
The worries came from the expectations. The big exit that everyone was hoping for. The whole idea of why the fundraising ever took place was that there would be a big exit coming. But it’s often a ten of fifteen-year project before an exit can happen. And, the company can fail at any moment.
Company building is always a long journey, that’s what the expectation should be. And I didn’t understand this during my years at Next Games.
To survive the startup game, you need to take the approach that it’s not going to be easy. There will be lots of ups and downs. And that that is normal.
You have now started a smaller company which isn’t a VC backed growth startup. If you found your role inside Next Games too overwhelming, why didn’t you just change roles inside Next Games?
That’s an excellent question. I thought about this same question a while ago. For me, it’s important to be an entrepreneur. If I’d take on a role where I’d be less overwhelmed, it wouldn’t feel like what being an entrepreneur would, and should be like.
How did you experience your burnout? What were the symptoms for you?
I remember the first times. Later on, I of course realized that it was burnout, but it took years to manifest and that I would eventually admit that I was suffering from a burnout.
I don’t often get sick. I’ve had a fever only once in the last five years. But over the years, maybe once a month, I would start “getting sick”. It felt like now I was getting the flu and I needed to lie down.
But the symptoms would not turn into an actual flu, where the symptoms would go away in a few days of recovering. I took a few days off from work and it helped a lot. But then, once I got back to work, it didn’t take more than a few weeks or a month to notice that the symptoms would come back.
I did start to admit to myself that I was suffering from work-related stress. I went to talk to a psychiatrist and got good advice from the visits. The things that came up from those visits were:
If startup life is so stressful for me, should I look for other ways to be involved in startups?
Could I send less time on the topics that worry me too much?
After the visits, I still was getting stressed out, was worrying, and getting the flu symptoms from time to time. I couldn’t let go of my work — I was just chugging along.
In 2018-2019, I had the culmination of my startup burnout. I couldn’t work anymore, I took two weeks of from work, but it wasn’t helping at all.
That was the final straw: I’m going to start talking about my burnout, I won’t stay silent anymore. But I also realized that I couldn’t continue working as a startup founder. My mind and body had made the decision that I would leave the company that I’d founded in 2013.
Was the decision to leave easy for you?
In hindsight, it was the right decision to leave. At the time of making the decision to leave, I had lots of doubts on how the team would take it. But everyone was so supportive at Next Games on the decision that I had made. I hadn’t talk to anybody about my issues and burnout, and there was immediate support when I came out and talked about my burnout.
Have you felt a FOMO after leaving Next Games?
Not really, as I’ve now started to work with a dozen or so gaming companies, either as an advisor or as an angel investor. So I’ve really gotten back to working with startups, and it feels like there’s enough work there to not feel the FOMO effect.
I believe that the FOMO effect that people feel with startups is quite short-term oriented. You are observing what’s going on around you, the gaming industry has been growing like crazy for the past decade, and there is this illusion of these quick wins.
It’s more healthy to think about the long-term. There’s going to be dozens and dozens of opportunities that will come up, and you don’t need to feel so jumpy about getting in and making a quick buck.
I’m taking a long-term approach. We are now at the beginning of the 2020s, and I’m going to wait till 2030 to look back and see how things went. Of course I will adjust, learn and unlearn along the way, but I will bet on things going well in the long-term, if I bet on the long-term.
Startups are a quick paced and there’s lots of ups and downs. Do you think that the worry and the dangers of startups are the reasons why startups get sold so early to bigger companies?
I think it does create a feeling that you’d want to sell early. Things could change and you start thinking that “Hey, if we don’t sell now, we might never get a second chance to do an exit.”
I would personally want to see more companies staying independent for longer. We should have more companies that don’t immediately get bought by bigger ones at the first sign of success. I would ask the founders, “You can take this offer, or you could try and go for a 10X bigger offer in a few years.”
We’ve seen companies take secondaries, where the founders and early employees get to sell parts of their stock in an investment round, where they keep their independence but also get some of the worries of possibly losing it all, getting removed from their shoulders as they sell some of their shares. Supercell and Small Giant Games did secondaries before they eventually sold for a bigger valuation.
That’s the big bet that I’d want to see here is companies staying independent for longer and then doing an IPO. I think it’s so much about what your peers are doing — we don’t really have a legacy of public gaming companies in Finland. So, if you have an offer on the table for a $800m acquisition, do you want to pass that offer and try to 10X that? It’s a really hard situation, for any Finnish founder to think about this.
What would you change in the prevailing startup culture? Or in the leadership culture?
I think there should be more transparency and creating a safe environment for for everyone to feel safe about talking about stress, burnout, and other issues. The CEO needs to be able to talk, and anybody else needs to be able to talk.
This needs to start from day one, and knowing that you can’t neglect the wellbeing of the people in the company.
In the startups that I’m involved in, who are all in such any early stage of their journey, that they are spending every waking hour, searching for evidence on traction, so that they could raise the next round of financing. But you need to balance your time between the traction seeking, and taking care of you company culture.
It must be up to the founding team?
Exactly. Startups get founded with the values of “Hey, we’re not going to do things like the big companies are doing things. We’ll do them well and make a much better culture than the big ones.” But what does that mean? What will you actually do then?
Things don’t usually go as planned. What is the safety net for the CEO, for the team, regarding wellbeing when hard times come along in a startup? I think it’s number one foundation for any great company, to have a great company culture. That’s the way we create the big, successful gaming companies.
You talk about the COVID crisis and how investors are helping their companies. Should investors put effort into the wellbeing of their founders?
Absolutely. The investors are the biggest support for any venture backed startup, but they’re also the people who might not back the founder, when things get really tough and money is running out.
The bridge financing that investors can provide, are often the enablers for a pivot to happen. The investors can back the founder once again, to show “mercy” for the founder and back them once again.
Many investors have now, with COVID creating issues, noticed that a lot of “indestructible” companies can actually start suffering.
What’s great about the gaming VC sector is that we have now a few local VCs who deal exclusively in gaming studios. Those are Sisu Game Ventures and Play Ventures. The partners in these funds are ex-entrepreneurs, so the approach to helping their portfolio companies comes from understanding and experience of what it’s like to run a statup.
When you left Next Games, what were the best ways for you to recover from your burnout?
Personally, I felt that the best way for me to unwind was to get off of my devices, delete Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn from my phone. Even though Facebook wasn’t a place where I’d spend time working, it would still consume my attention in ways that felt exhausting.
I started practicing meditation and it took at least 6 months to learn the benefits and create a habit around meditation. I also started spending more time with family, being present with the family in all sorts of activities.
I said to myself that I need to have more things in my life besides the startups, and that my work can’t define who I am. I wanted to figure out what I could really want outside of work.
I read a lot of books on finding yourself, developing deep thinking capabilities, how to love myself. I got fascinated by the Stoic practices, lots of ancient books that are more valid today than ever. I really liked all the books that Ryan Holiday has written, where he focuses on bringing stoicism into the 21st century through examples.
I started to figure out that I could leave my ambitions of being a startup founder behind. I realized that I don’t need to build the next Supercell to feel fulfilled in my life.
Let’s talk about meditation. It’s really popular with entrepreneurs, it’s like this wellbeing hacking. How did you figure out meditation?
I was listening to a lot of podcasts when I was leaving Next Games, and many US based startup founders were mentioning in podcast interviews that they had a meditation practice that really got them trough any kinds of mental whirlwinds and struggles in their startups.
Like, people would do 20 minutes of meditation per day, and then they could do thirty different things that needed to be taken care of during the day. I was thinking that I’m not in such a crazy work situation as some of these people, so what if I would try to meditate?
First, it felt that I had too much things to process in my mind, that the 20 minutes didn’t make a difference. I closed my eyes but nothing happened. Once I’d put a few months into the daily practice of meditation, I started seeing results. After 20 minutes of meditation, sitting silently, eyes closed, would give my mind clarity and focus. All the noise was gone.
A sharp mind is the greatest thing about meditation. People talk a lot about the benefits of meditation, and I think it helped me to focus and to silence the voices in my head about all the billion things that I could do, should do, or I’m missing out on doing.
Do you think that people can really recover from a burnout?
I think that anybody can do that. It just means that you need to disassemble all the prior beliefs and systems that you have in your head. It could be things like: What is work for you? What is happiness for you? What is success? What is enough?
For me, what really helps is to approach work as a long-term game. Let things compound for ten years. I need to be fine with no progress this week, or maybe no progress for a month. The progress will eventually come if you just show up and do the work. The work isn’t the evil that causes a burnout, it’s expectations on short-term wins, not on long-term gains.
Let’s talk about your new company, Elite Game Developers. What’s it about?
The company produces online content for founders, for gaming entrepreneurs on all sorts of company founding topics. How you’d structure a team, how you split equity between the founders and staff. How do you bring investors onboard, what is an ok process for fundraising. There really isn’t any gaming startup schools out there, so I decided to start one, since I have all the relevant experience.
I’m now starting an angel investor network, where anyone from the industry could come in and back the early stage gaming studios. Lots of interesting work happening.
Thanks Joakim for this interview! Do you have any final words to the people out there in startups who might be suffering for fatigue or burnout?
Think about what is the source of the fatigue. And plan for other kinds of work where you could get the benefits and fulfillments of the work of an entrepreneur. If you want to be an entrepreneur, try to find a new angle to approach entrepreneurship.
Thanks again Joakim for coming on the show!
Thanks Maija for the opportunity to share my story and thoughts.