The ‘darker side’ of entrepreneurship can often be ignored
Our perception of entrepreneurs is often associated with the positive side of entrepreneurship: To masterfully take up challenges, create prosperity and be a leader in the community. However, there is a darker side of entrepreneurship that is often ignored: Stress, solitude and distress, especially when the entrepreneur’s project does not go as well as hoped.
As part of our new initiative, the Entrepreneurs’ well-being program, we spoke with one of the people behind the idea, our colleague Michel Bergeron, Chief Strategy Officer. He generously agreed to share an experience that was both very painful and personal—the suicide of his brother, an entrepreneur.
BDC: Could you tell us about what happened to your brother?
My brother was the fourth child in a family of six, of which I am the youngest. Both of our parents were entrepreneurs, so we were close to that reality all our lives. He was a mechanical engineer, but also an entrepreneur at heart. During an assignment in Europe, he discovered an innovative German technology: Highly energy efficient wooden curtain walls (in practical terms, they provide large scale fenestration for office buildings or luxury homes). He founded his company and started to sell and manufacture the product.
Given my experience with entrepreneurship, I helped him with his business plan and financial forecasts. Since he was a good salesperson, he convinced me and one of our brothers to become shareholders in his company. My brother launched his company but it was never easy. Basically, his product was very high end and the market in eastern Canada was small and early stage. He needed to invest in educating the market and develop a more significant sales force to succeed. After three years, when the financial results were not there, my other brother and I suggested it was time to stop.
But my brother was convinced that he would succeed and decided to put all his savings into his business. It became an obsession and we observed that it was taking a toll on his mental health. His determination turned into stubbornness. The month before his suicide was extremely stressful when he suddenly realized that he would not manage to make it on his own. He finally admitted to me that he could not do it any longer, he did not have the energy, and he was ready to sell.
Three weeks later, he was hospitalized and attempted to take his own life. Nevertheless, the doctor allowed him to leave the next day. The following day, my brother died by suicide on Sunday, November 26, 2017. And that's when everything else fell apart.
BDC: You had to take over your brother's company. What was that experience like?
Since I was a shareholder, there were no other alternatives but for me to take care of it. From one day to the next, I had to take over the business, employees and contracts—all done remotely. I began the process of selling the business. Not only did I have to deal with the unexpected challenges of running (and trying to sell) the failing business, but I also had to manage the emotional impact of losing my brother. It was, and still is, a difficult situation for me and my family. In general, families affected by the sudden loss of someone close not only have to manage the emotional shock, but also all the administrative consequences of the death. Everything becomes even more complicated when the deceased also leaves a business.
BDC: Why do you believe that our new initiative is so important?
At my brother's funeral, several entrepreneurs approached me and said, "I'm not far from being where your brother was, and I don't know what to do. A solution has to be found."
Many entrepreneurs suffer from solitude. When things go badly, they often hide it from others. It's not easy to say to their employees and suppliers, "I don't know if I'm going to be able to pay you next week." And it's not something you talk about with customers either. Entrepreneurs sometimes even hide it from their spouses to avoid worrying them. They feel they need to find the solution themselves which becomes incredibly stressful. Anyone who has lived with an entrepreneur whose business is in trouble has probably witnessed the impact firsthand and felt powerless to help.
We need only think of how many businesses close within the first two years to imagine the number of individuals who experience extremely stressful situations.
BDC: Is there something that we should be aware of or an aspect we should pay attention to when dealing with our clients?
I would say listen and be aware that entrepreneurs confronted with serious business difficulties also face challenges to their well being. Take the time to ask them how they are really doing and how they are managing their stress. If you see signs of distress, be empathetic and refer your clients to external resources.
Our colleagues in Special Accounts and Business restructuring are known for being very empathetic—they deal with businesses who are in trouble every day. I would encourage everyone who interacts with our clients to try to build a genuine relationship of trust. When it is there, you realize that the real issues can be discussed. The error frequently made by our clients is to hide bad news from their banker out of fear that their financing will be withdrawn—the very opposite of what they should do. If they talk to us, we can be part of the solution. Sadly, they often come to see us when it is too late.
It’s not appropriate or fair for our employees to become, or act like mental health professionals. We just want everyone to be aware of the dark side of entrepreneurship, and do their best to be there for our clients. This is in the best interests of all parties. And if they see any danger signs, that they can listen attentively and empathetically, and take steps to make their clients aware of resources that can help them.