Stress Management in Startups: an interpretation through Maslow’s theory

By Teri Legaki

Success in the startup world is related to determination, persistence and trust. The typical new startupper endures greater stress because they have a demanding journey in order to achieve their goals. Deciding to start a business can be fun and empowering; however it can also suck the life right out of you. Stress is a fact life for all entrepreneurs and if not tried to be dealt effectively, it can destroy your well-being. Paul Graham stated that a startup is ‘an emotional roller-coaster’, as ‘in a startup, things seem great one moment and hopeless the next. And by next, I mean a couple hours later. The emotional ups and downs were the biggest surprise for me. One day, we’d think of ourselves as the next Google and dream of buying islands; the next, we’d be pondering how to let our loved ones know of our utter failure; and on and on’ (Graham, 2012).

Unfortunately, as the majority of startups focus on productivity, there just isn’t enough attention on stress management within entrepreneurs. Startup founders are encouraged to rely on the long-term success of their new ventures while ignoring short-term pain. ‘In the startup world, you’re already running at full speed. It’s nearly impossible to stop and deal with anything outside of your business.’ (White, 2015).They work, drink more coffee, they sleep less and then work again. They are focusing on the health of their company and not theirs, hoping that it will all be worth it soon. “In a startup, the swing between highs and lows are pretty wild,” says Adora Cheung, cofounder of Homejoy(Inverso, 2013).

Maslow’s classic theory on the hierarchy of needscan be used to identify how stress is affecting entrepreneurs’ capability to fulfill these needs.  This theory also helps us understand human motivation. His pyramid is grounded first with physiological needs such as food, shelter and sleep, then followed by safety needs that include financial and job security. It is important to mention that Maslow proposed that in order to achieve mid-level needs like love belonging and self-esteem, first must be met thephysiological and safety needs, which are considered as basics.


Starting from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, as Maslow’s theory suggests:

Physiological needs

It is widely seen that startuppers sacrifice many times their basic needs in order to chase their dreams. They give the comfort of their home, from a home cooked meal to a goodnight sleep for their developing business.Graham (2012) mentions, ‘I didn’t realize I would spend almost every waking moment either working or thinking about our startup. You enter a whole different way of life when it’s your company vs. working for someone else’s company.’ As entrepreneurs are in an unknown path, endure high levels of stress and push themselves up to their breaking point.


Here entrepreneurship goes against Maslow as, the first thing startup founders do is throw away their financial security. Being self-actualized and in attempt to realize their dreams, they sometimes quit a well-paid job, or even mortgage their houses. Before even considering about high-level motivations, they don’t demand security. Instead, they bet on risky startup ventures, because they are willing to make it to success.


Less and less time that can lead to isolation, find most entrepreneurs for their personal life, entering the startup world. When there is a goal to be met and the needs of the business take over, less time is dedicated to family and friends. When they are driving to give birth to their new company, at least in the beginning, they tend to cut off from everything from drinks with friends, to family dinners, as the needs of the business take over.


Many times among humans a choice made is not liked and supported by everyone. In our days, in a non-stable economy, an entrepreneur’s judgmemt and ambitions will be highly questioned by many people from family to friends. Basically as uncertainty prevails in startups, ‘entrepreneurs push self-doubt away as they drive towards their goals’ (White, 2015).


Breaking the Maslow’s hierarchy, startuppers actually start with self-actualization. They are creating something from scratch on their own, and with every pitch to an investor, an addition to what they offer, or even a sale to a customer they are fulfilling their dreams and achieving their goals. Their struggles are part of their joy.

Maslow stated that only the ones who have met all of the four previous needs could reach self- actualization. However, as you have possibly figured out by now, startuppers have flipped upside-down Maslow’s pyramid. I personally don’t believe that he knew any entrepreneurs, because if he did, he would never have expressed his theory.

Startupper’s hierarchy of needs:


It’s easy to lose your emotional balance by being a startupper. Many overnights, many hours working…Emotional health and stability is surely a topic that every entrepreneur must consider. The startup journey isn’t an easy one; for many entrepreneurs can be their own ‘Odyssey’. So at the end of each day, every founder must be grateful, remember how much has actually been achieved and as Graham(2012) suggested..‘just don’t die’.




Graham, P.(2009, October). What startups are really like. Retrieved from


Inverso, E.(2013, December). How founders cut down on startup stress. Forbes. Retrieved from


Ross, J. (2014, October). 6 Smart Ways to Reduce Startup Stress.Entrepreneur. Retrieved from

Rusin, J. (2015, October). 3 ways to manage the stress of working at a startup. Fortune. Retrieved from

White, P. & White, P. (2015, November). Entrepreneurs Turn the Classic Theory of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on its Head. Entrepreneur. Retrieved from


Young Entrepreneur Council.(2015, August).Stress Management for Startup Founders: 2 Important Tools for Coping. [Web log Post]. Retrieved from


Diamantaki, K. (2016).  MA in digital communication and Social media.Digital media and CMC.  Lesson 5 [PowerPoint presentation] s theory.




One thought on “Stress Management in Startups: an interpretation through Maslow’s theory

  1. Stress management is an extremely important consideration for entrepreneurs as burn out is common and can lead to reduced productivity. Some people can cope extremely well with stress, thriving on the adrenalin and using the pressure as a motivating tool. For others, it’s important to find ways to reduce stress so that it doesn’t become counterproductive.

    Love and belonging are undoubtedly extremely important needs and it comes as no surprise that they rest right in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in either direction of the pyramid. One way of attaining these needs is through strong support systems, one of the most effective ways to handle stress. A strong support system can be achieved from both inside the startup as well as from the outside.

    Strong communication between employees and co-founders can make a huge difference and is easily achieved by implementing effective communication tools that will result in both business success and personal well-being.

    Your smartphone is extremely useful in this context, allowing you immediate access to your support system via a myriad of capabilities. Video and web conferencing are excellent communication tools that permit face-to-face conversations and meetings regardless of geography and offer a sense of connectivity and collaboration with key individuals when you need it the most. On line chat tools are another alternative with many options available such as Skype or GoogleTalk. Social networking sites can function like a community and offer users great forms of interaction.

    Smart internal communication therefore will achieve value-added collaboration and productivity and result in superior business performance furnishing your startup with that all important competitive advantage. Its purposes are two-fold and interrelated: a great way to vent, one of the best stress busters around and a great way to instantly and effectively communicate with your team in order to quickly iron out problems and hitches that are creating the stress in the first place.

    The end result is increased productivity directly leading to reduced stress levels, and with more time on your hands to enjoy life with friends, family and loved ones, your support system is complete and your need for love and belonging is successfully met.


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