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What I learned about resilience when my cofounder got sick

I needed to be ruthless about taking care of myself, and had to make sure that my employees were doing the same.

What I learned about resilience when my cofounder got sick
[Photo: Luis Melendez/Unsplash]

On December 16, 2016, my friend and cofounder, Laurent Perrin, messaged me asking if I had time to chat. We went outside and started to walk around our San Francisco block. Then came the big news drop: Laurent had just learned that he had testicular cancer, and it had spread to his lungs and abdomen.

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It’s never easy to hear that a close friend is facing a life-threatening illness–but it becomes a lot harder when that friend is your business partner. As Laurent underwent surgery and chemotherapy, I took on the responsibility of keeping the company together, all as I watched him go through this terrifying experience. When I asked Laurent if he wanted to share his story–he told me there was very little he could say. “You sit in a chair all day while poison goes through your veins, and you get sick for several weeks.”

However, he encouraged me to share my point of view. Thankfully, Laurent was declared cancer-free as of 14th November 2017. But as I look back on that period, I realized that the experience taught me three valuable lessons about resilience. Here are the lessons I learned from that challenging period.

1) I needed to prioritize my own health

When Laurent got sick, I was just beginning to grow the leadership team at Front. I was still the head of marketing, sales, product, and operations in addition to being the CEO. We had customers to serve, employees to onboard, opportunities to win, and the team needed me to lead them. At the same time, I wanted to be there for Laurent as he recovered from surgery and underwent chemotherapy–so that too, became a priority for me.

I was extremely grateful that I had the support of my team. My employees made sure that at least one person visited Laurent at the hospital or at home, and our engineering team leads stepped up to take over most of Laurent’s CTO responsibilities while maintaining their regular jobs. The rest of my direct reports picked up many tasks from me so I could do more for Laurent.

Inside, however, I was repressing a lot of anxiety. During this period, my motto was “act fast, reflect later.” This might be a typical mindset for a founder, but it was alarmingly dangerous for my health. The feelings accumulated and began to compromise my ability to lead Front. At one point, it became so debilitating that I had to stop working for two weeks.

Laurent’s doctors declared him cancer-free moments before we were due to pitch Sequoia Capital–which eventually became the lead investor of our Series B. With his renewed health, Laurent realized he wanted to put down roots closer to family, and we decided that he would move back to Paris and open a Front office there.

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I realized then that I needed to make some changes of my own–for the sake of my health and the health of my employees. During Laurent’s illness, I was taking care of the company first and myself second. After Laurent’s recovery, I started meditating daily, exercised regularly, and made sure to log off from work on the weekends to give myself some head space to recharge.

2) There is more to life than building a company

I could have chosen to relax and assumed that the worst was behind us, but Laurent’s illness also reminded me that life is so much more than the company you’re running. Founders tend to forget that and tie their identity to their startup.

Here’s the thing–most startups fail. Sometimes, that’s a sign you need to modify your focus, other times it’s an indication that you’d be better off pursuing something else altogether. Whatever the outcome, you’re doing yourself a big disservice by tying your happiness to your startup’s success. After all, there are a lot of factors that aren’t necessarily in your control.

Laurent’s illness taught me that to give the company my all, I needed to learn when to step back so that it doesn’t suck me whole. After all, building a company is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. If I continued to push myself without taking the time to recharge, Front wouldn’t be sustainable in the long run.

This philosophy applies to your employees too. I learned that as a founder, I needed to set the example, and I needed to introduce initiatives that encouraged my employees to prioritize their health and happiness. After Laurent’s illness, I started to talk about what I do to stay happy whenever I give onboarding presentation to new hires. We started offering a monthly health and wellness reimbursement scheme, and made sure that managers conduct regular check-ins to discuss work-life balance with their direct reports.

3) Building a resilient company starts with supporting your employees

Building a company is like driving through an uneven road; if you let every bump–whether that’s an illness or a bad quarter–slow you down, you’d never get anywhere. There is no doubt that resilience is an attribute that startup founders need to develop.

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But a company can’t rely on the founders’ resilience alone. To succeed in the long term, they need to have resilient employees. In my experience, encouraging employees  to prioritize their health and happiness can go a long way. In our case, that resulted in them banding together when Laurent needed support. Sure, having a fantastic product and a tremendous market opportunity can make your employees excited about getting out of bed in the morning. But when the going gets tough, they are more likely to push through when they know that you have their back.

I hope Front doesn’t have to deal with something like this again, but I know that in business and life, obstacles will come and go. All I can choose to do is rise to the challenge, and that starts with taking care of myself and my employees.


Mathilde Collin is the cofounder and CEO of Front–a collaborative inbox that makes it easy to manage email with your team.

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