3 Tips to Help Discouraged Healthcare Startups Navigate the "Trough of Sorrow"

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In our last post about 3 key challenges for health innovators, we touched a bit on the Trough of Sorrow, a.k.a. “The Founder’s Blues.”

The Trough of Sorrow is often attributed to the phase where the initial excitement of launching a startup begins to wane after numerous setbacks. Popular stories like Airbnb, Rent the Runway, and Uber leave us thinking that creating a disruptive innovation should be easy street. However, the reality is that commercializing an innovation is not easy, especially in healthcare.

During this season, the vast majority of innovators face a barrage of obstacles that often leads them to feeling like they’re on a one-way street to failure. They often feel discouraged and demoralized, sometimes struggling with mental health concerns like depression and anxiety. LDNAM-416 blog - Trough of Sorrows 1200 x 628-02 (2)

The difficult part is: these issues often don’t get the attention they deserve.

It’s critical to nurture the psychological tolls of innovation — in the same way it’s critical to manage and execute a strategic commercialization plan.

Let’s discuss some tips for innovators and their teams to help maintain sanity, boost morale, and build a supportive environment that creates an equilibrium between the troughs and the peaks of the innovation process.

Practice Resilient Leadership

In Carol Dweck’s TEDx Talk called “The power of believing you can improve,” she talks about her research that speaks to the inner-workings of how our mindset impacts our motivation — and ultimately our ability to be resilient in the face of challenges.

She discusses the importance of praising effort, perseverance, strategy, and progress instead of focusing on constant “wins.” In her research, she found that this mindset had an incredible impact on children’s performance in school and in life.

“In one study, we taught them that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time, they can get smarter.”

This language — saying “not yet” instead of “fail” — has the same power in our adult lives. So as an innovator building your empire, you can set the stage for resilience by shifting some focus to the process over the results. Ask yourself and your team:

What are we learning? How are we growing? What needs to be improved? Consider every decision an hypothesis, the market as your laboratory, and each result as feedback. You’re going iterate as you collect feedback.

People have this weird belief that when something doesn’t work that it’s failure, it’s bad, and we should crawl under the duvet cover and just start crying. But when we get a no, we’re getting feedback. Feedback is good. Now we can revisit our hypothesis and then go back to the market. We keep trying. We keep trying it again. We keep trying it again.

Obviously, we have a lot more at stake when launching a startup versus grade school. But this shift in mindset can help you and your team persevere when that little voice tells you to quit.

LDNAM-416 blog - Trough of Sorrows 1200 x 628-01 (2)Just apply the wisdom of Thomas Edison, who said: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

Avoid Burnout as Much as Humanly Possible

For many entrepreneurs, it’s hard to tell themselves apart from their work. For some, their innovation is their whole life and the reason they wake up every morning.

This can easily lead to the belief that you will succeed if only you just work a little harder.

So, you’re up in the middle of the night racking your brain for ideas, or stressing over concepts and decisions you’ve already gone over a hundred times. People who overthink a lot of stuff just end up torturing themselves with worry.

While it may seem counterintuitive, this type of overworking is much more harmful than it is beneficial.

There are mountains of research that show how breaks, rest, and relaxation significantly improve performance over time: they boost productivity and creativity, improve mental wellbeing, and allow more time for healthy habits and self-care.

The best part is, it really only takes small steps to help avoid burnout.

You can encourage your employees (and yourself) to take full lunch breaks and step away from the workload. Or, you can work in “sprints” where you and your team focus on tasks for 75 to 90 minutes and take 15-minute breaks in between.

Additionally, listen to your brain and body. When you’re slamming your head against your desk or staring blankly at your computer screen, that’s a good time for a break too!

Prioritize Self-Care and Supportive Relationships

It’s easy to be hard on yourself — to call yourself lazy or unproductive, or flat-out feel guilty when you choose yourself over your innovation or team.

But there’s absolutely no shame in the self-care game.

This ties into the previous burnout point. Sometimes, you need to go beyond taking work breaks and schedule longer periods of time to do what makes you feel good at the soul level.

For some, this is exercising, practicing hobbies, or making home-cooked meals. For others, it’s booking a full spa day or taking a weekend trip to a sight or city nearby. Or, it could even be something as simple as meditating or going for a walk daily.

It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you take time to do it regularly.

And, if you feel yourself struggling with mental health concerns like depression or anxiety, reach out for help. Apart from seeking a medical professional if you need or want one, keep a network of family, friends, colleagues, and other loved ones who genuinely care about how you’re doing.

Surround yourself with people who will remind you that obstacles and no's don’t mean failure, it’s feedback. It just means not yet.

You want a support network filled with people who will  remind you of all the great things you’re doing and the wonderful opportunities that await you. That’s what friends are for, after all.

Success Is in the Details

Many innovators and entrepreneurs fall victim to the “work hard, play hard” cliché that glorifies operating at 110% output at any given moment.

But, it’s critical that we pause to breathe and care for ourselves so that we can last the marathon, not just collapse after the initial sprint.

This is where the seemingly small things shine — things like celebrating the small wins, taking a full lunch break or a small vacation, and spending quality time with people who support you.


To navigate the “Trough of Sorrow,” tune into The Health Innovators Show, a weekly podcast and video show about the leaders, influencers, and early adopters who are shaping healthcare and digital health.