A Startup Chaplain?

by Jeff Labarge

Great accelerators and venture funds like YCombinator and Andreessen Horowitz are designed to solve the common problems of starting a company so the founders can focus on the core new innovation. At the earliest stage, this includes things like forming a corporation, choosing a lawyer, and getting free cloud hosting. In the first few months, founders need help prioritizing what is important, focusing on the right metrics, and preparing how to pitch to investors. Later, founders need help with recruiting, building a sales organization, introductions to large companies, etc. These are challenges that nearly every founder needs help with, and investors are uniquely positioned to provide. Organizations like YC and A16Z can build these support services and share them with hundreds of portfolio companies, giving those companies a huge advantage and higher likelihood to succeed.

However, there is another challenge that many founders face that is largely unserved by anyone: how to deal with the stress, pressure, and damage to relationships that are common for founders. This is a huge problem in our community. Each year we hear about founder suicides. People talk about how being a CEO is the “loneliest job in the world”. When you read Ben Horowitz’s book, The Hard Thing about Hard Things, it almost gives you a stress ulcer just thinking about it. This is a challenge that is nearly universal to startup founders, and yet there are very few resources to help. Conventional wisdom is to talk with other founders who have shared the same experience for emotional support. This is definitely helpful, but not sufficient. Founders have a shared experience to relate to other founders in crisis, but insufficient skills, wisdom, or time to really help.

Other professions with extreme stress provide support to their organization through the position of a chaplain. The military deploys chaplains to the war zone to support soldiers during the most stressful situations. Hospitals have chaplains to talk help both patients and doctors deal with emotional and ethical challenges of death. Many universities have chaplains to help their students deal with the stress of college and a major life transition. Professional sports teams like the Warriors, 49ers, and SF Giants all have chaplains (which happen to be the same guy named Earl Smith). Even the US Senate has chaplains. These are all secular institutions, with employees from diverse religious backgrounds, yet they find enough value in the care and support of the chaplain, that they keep him or her around.

An accelerator or a large investor is analogous to the above organizations. They are a secular organizations with many members who experience a lot of stress and difficult ethical decisions. Perhaps offering chaplain services would substantially help entrepreneurs lead healthier lives, endure hardship better, and be more likely to succeed.

Many people are open to the idea of founders getting spiritual help, but don’t think accelerators or venture funds should get involved. Shouldn’t a local church provide this? I think that a church is largely unable to provide this type of service for 2 reasons:

  1. Shared experience: Anyone who has been through a startup knows that it is a unique experience. Advice from people who have not been through it is received as well intentioned, but less credible. This is why most of the partners at YC and A16Z have cofounded companies in the past. Founders want advice from other founders who have been through it recently.

  2. Likelihood of reaching out for help: In the earliest stages of starting a company, YC famously advises that you should spend 100% of your time talking to users, building product, exercising, and sleeping. Anything outside the YC ecosystem feels like a distraction to be avoided. Therefore, it is unlikely someone would spend time exploring churches and seeking out pastoral services, even in times of crisis. Instead, the common pattern is to “suck it up and get through it” or “be formidable”. Sometimes people do indeed “get through it”, but sometimes the anxiety and depression crushes people. If there was an optional chaplain service to help with this inside the YC ecosystem, someone in crisis would be much more likely to get help.

There is also a financial argument for an accelerator or venture firm to have a chaplain on staff. In the early stages, two of the primary reasons that companies fail are founders giving up too early (burnout) or founder breakups. If a chaplain can help founders with emotional support or dispute resolution, it could meaningfully increase the number of companies that succeed. Enabling a few additional companies to survive to maturity would have a positive ROI. More importantly, it could meaningfully be helpful to founders.

Obviously this is a very controversial idea. Probably the success or failure of this idea depends on the individual selected for this role. He or she needs to be able to walk the fine line of respecting all religions and all the other trappings associated with mixing religion and business. However, I believe the benefits outweigh the risks. Currently, founders don’t have the tools and support to deal with the stress and ethical decisions associated with being a founder. We need an alternative to “eating glass and staring into the abyss”. A “Startup Chaplain” may be a good solution.

The above is my best argument for a formal startup chaplain. However, I myself am not totally convinced. The alternative to an official chaplain is an informally organized group of founders with a shared faith who support each other. It is possible that an unofficial group might be more effective or desirable. I am currently part of a group like this, and it is one of the biggest blessings of my life. If I had to choose between an official chaplain on staff, or my unofficial peer group, I would choose my unofficial peer group. None of us have formal training in crisis management or seminary, but we have deep credibility with each other because we are all still “in the trenches” together.

The goal of this post is not to propose a conclusion. Instead, as Kevin Kelly says, “A good question is one that generates many other good questions”[1]. I think it would be interesting if someone ran the experiment of having a startup chaplain on staff. Meanwhile, informal groups of founders like the one I’m involved with will continue to meet and support each other. Then we can compare notes about the most effective way to support founders during good times and bad.

(Editor's Note:  This is going to be the first of several posts that we'll highlight on chaplaincy.  We have 2 at Bandwidth and aside from talking about "why" we do what we do as leaders, and praying for our employees who are going through hard times, there is so greater impact IMO on the Spiritual health of a company).  I encourage you to check out Corporate Chaplains of America and Marketplace Chaplains to learn more.  This post by our friend Jeff was originally posted on Medium.  I also very much recommend checking out his blog "Becoming Formidable")


[1] Kelly, Kevin (2016–06–07). The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (p. 289). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.”

Thanks to Priscilla du Preez and Unsplash for the Cover Photo