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The burnout reality of building a unicorn and how to make mental health a priority amidst the hustle | Interview with Javier Suarez

Javier Suarez co-founded TravelPerk back in 2015. It quickly became one of Europe’s fastest-growing startups, successfully navigated the immense hit of the pandemic on the travel industry and is now one of Europe’s most recognisable unicorns.

In the process of building the company, Javier was leading a team of hundreds, raising millions in investment and outwardly, seemed to be living the startup dream.

But, the reality was different.

Javier was suffering from burnout. Which became all too apparent when he couldn’t even order a drink at a bar.

After getting the right support, committing to a lengthy process of prioritising his mental health, and stepping down from his role, Javier got back on the entrepreneurial bandwagon. And this time, mental health became the core concern. Together with Sancar Sahin, Javier embarked on a new venture: Oliva.

Oliva, founded in 2020, envisions a world where companies are empowered to care for their teams. in doing so, they can help their people to show up every day feeling their best, and capable of doing their best. The platform combines therapy courses, coaching, dedicated support for management teams and mental fitness classes that are curated by a team of top professionals.

We sat down with Javier to learn more about his story.

Can we first talk about TravelPerk. Can you walk us through the story of founding the company?

It was while working at Booking.com (initially in sales, then for a number of years in innovation) that I first had the idea for TravelPerk. I saw there was a huge demand for business travel services – many people were trying to make bookings with their corporate emails but these systems had been created for personal, not professional, travel. Business travel wasn’t a market that Booking.com was looking to expand into, so I knew that if this idea was to go any further, it wouldn’t be within the company.

I was then due to start a new project with another online travel agency and while waiting a year to fulfil my non-compete obligations, I started building out the business plan for what would become TravelPerk. I told myself that if I got partners and funding for this new business, I would consider walking away from the new job.

I got both – the initial funding came from our own pockets – and that’s how TravelPerk began.

What were the moments you were most proud of? 

We were Europe’s fastest-growing SaaS company in 2018 and the world’s fastest in 2019, employing hundreds of people. I’m proud to have built something from scratch that solved a real problem in the world. And to have started a company that is now a unicorn is a pretty special feeling!

What was your key priority (priorities) as a founder?

As a founder, my key priorities were building a strong culture and ensuring our work continually aligned with our values, building a strong team (through hiring and retaining the right people), and building a platform – from scratch – that fulfilled the vision we had for TravelPerk.

Of course, another big priority was fundraising and ensuring we had enough money in the bank for all of this!

When did you start to notice things were going wrong? That things weren’t okay?

My Booking.com background meant I was used to intense periods of work, but typically there was a chance to reset between projects and experience a small let-up in pressure. This wasn’t the case at TravelPerk.

As a founder of an incredibly quickly scaling company, the hours were long and the pace was relentless: I had just 12 hours of paternity leave when my first child was born. I ran my mental health into the ground. I found it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage the severe anxiety I had developed, whilst also leading hundreds of people and protecting my family life.

What happened to make you realise you were burning out?

One evening, in particular, made me realise the extent of my mental health struggles. I’d gone to a bar for a solo beer, to unwind, but I found myself so paralysed by anxiety that I was unable to bring myself to even order my drink. I was physically unable to order a drink but on Monday morning I knew I’d somehow have to lead a whole-company meeting. It was a terrifying thought.

I realised I was on the verge of a breakdown and completely burned out.

This was my first encounter with poor mental health and I thought it would be easy to find support. I couldn’t have been more disappointed. It took me 5 attempts with different therapists to finally find the one that was right for me. Luckily, I didn’t give up and was able to keep running the company.

I experienced first-hand how hard it was to get the right help and could see why up to 57% of people give up after their first attempt at therapy because they can’t find the right therapist and type of care.

Let’s talk about burnout. How do you define it? How did it manifest for you?

Burnout is commonly described as a state of physical and emotional exhaustion and I think that’s a really clear way of defining it. When I was burnt out, I just felt like I had nothing left to give. I felt empty. There’s no ‘willing yourself out’ of burnout – you’re unable to do the things you would if you were recovered. For me, burnout additionally manifested in feelings of anxiety.

I needed professional support to manage these feelings, create a healthier work-life balance, and focus on reducing the causes of long-term stress wherever possible.

How prevalent do you think it is in the startup space? And why?

I think burnout is very common in the startup space. But, all too often, we wrongly see it as a personal failing, creating an aura of shame which means that we don’t talk about burnout. This isolation is incredibly damaging and can prevent people from seeking and accessing support in the early stages, draining them more and more.

The startup space lends itself to burnout because building a company from the ground up is an intense process and the stakes are often very high. For one, there’s a temptation for founders to conflate their sense of self with their company, meaning that failing would be too painful and personal to feel like an option. Secondly, many founders – myself included – will have put their personal savings into their ventures. This means that you continuously push yourself to avoid risking your personal security – and even your family’s security – and to deliver results.

Then there’s the pace of change. Quickly scaling as a startup is fantastic but it means your to-do list is exponentially growing too. You don’t want to miss out on opportunities, or slow growth, so you’re constantly racing to keep up.

Are we guilty of having created a hustle-above-all-else mentality?

Nothing valuable was built without hard work. But as a society, we can be in danger of glorifying work for work’s sake and we should be mindful of this.

Long hours and an absence of work-life boundaries should be recognised as factors which risk burnout, rather than initiation rites for success in the startup world.

How can founders/startup employees become more in tune with / more aware that they might be starting to burn out?

The first step is educating yourself and your company about the signs of burnout and getting a better understanding of how it manifests – while remembering that burnout may look different in different people.

It’s also important to recognise the factors that contribute to burnout, especially in the workplace. By gaining a thorough understanding of what burnout looks like and how it’s caused, you can become more aware of whether these signs and factors are present in your own life, and take steps to address or even prevent burnout before it takes hold.

Additionally, take the time to give yourself regular mental health reviews and be honest about how you’re feeling. Would you say you are struggling every month? Have certain tasks become more difficult, or do you find yourself in a constant state of stress? It’s crucial not to ignore these signs and hope things will get better without any action.

Tell us about Oliva. What was founding the company like? Any differences from TravelPerk? Did you do things differently / have a different feeling about it?

It was my experiences trying to seek mental health support, after burning out, that led me to co-found Oliva.

I knew I wanted support – I didn’t realise how hard it was to get it. Trying to find a therapist involved endless googling, guesswork and trials with different therapists (seven in total) before I finally got the help that worked for me.

Through this process, my eyes were opened to how broken the mental health care system is and how people who need support are struggling to access it.

I began interviewing hundreds of therapists to try and understand why this was the case and to identify the challenges they themselves were facing. A common problem emerged: therapists are highly trained in mental health care – but not in the business of running a private practice.

Around this time, I was introduced to Sançar by a colleague who knew we’d both had similar experiences with burnout. What we also had in common was the desire to use those experiences to make it easier for others to navigate mental health support and improve access to therapy.

When co-founding Oliva, I knew I had to approach my work differently from how I did at TravelPerk. I made a conscious effort to maintain my personal wellbeing routine, and I try to see the company as my ‘companion’, rather than a reflection of ‘myself’, my identity or my worth. Maintaining this healthier approach is also massively helped by having a co-founder whose values align with my own.

What is the company’s mission?

Oliva’s overall aim is to get people the mental healthcare they need – and to ensure that the support they receive is timely and tailored in line with individual needs.

When Sançar and I first started talking about improving access to mental healthcare, it soon became apparent that the fastest way to do this (and overcome barriers to access such as cost) was to help people through their employers.

We also realised that by building up a network of highly-skilled therapists and matching them with employees, based on individual needs, we could take the stress out of support-searching for end users; whilst also reducing the administrative burden on therapists to empower mental health professionals to focus on caregiving itself.

That’s not all. Our platform is a place where workers can access effective coaching or enrol in mental fitness classes to maintain their overall wellbeing, and where managers can find dedicated support.

Tell us how Oliva has grown so far – picking up big clients like Marshmallow? What is the long-term plan?

Since launching Oliva in 2020, we’re now active in over 30 countries around the world, supporting thousands of employees in navigating everything from anxiety and depression to PTSD. It’s been amazing to work with companies like Marshmallow, Learnerbly, Leapsome, Sifted and others – who have been looking to better support their employees but haven’t found the right tools until now.

The long-term plan is to give access to proper mental health care to as many people as possible. That means talking to more companies and establishing ourselves as their go-to provider of mental health support.

In the shorter term, we’re focussing on expanding the languages, manager training, group formats and self-guided learning available through Oliva, so employees have genuinely helpful, trusted solutions for every type of need.

How can employers make sure their employees’ mental health is supported?

For many people, work consumes the majority of our waking hours and worries about work can easily carry into the rest of our day. As such, work will have a huge impact on an individual’s mental health and employers should recognise this.

But recognition should be accompanied by action.

Employers must start by creating a safe environment where everyone feels comfortable and able to ask for help. Once that is established, companies should look at their overall workforce wellbeing by analysing their work structures and patterns to see how these may be compounding stress.

Are your employees enabled to take adequate rest? Do they feel they can speak up about a problem or voice when they’re struggling? What is the management style? How is mental health talked about in your workplace? All these factors create a workplace culture that can either nurture employees’ mental health or foster burnout and, to ensure the former, each factor must be addressed.

Truly committed employers will go one step further and give employees the tools they need to better manage their mental health. This includes providing employees with access to mental healthcare resources, and helping fund access to mental health professionals for those who need additional support.

It’s naive to think that employers don’t have a duty of care towards their employees. Whether companies like to acknowledge it or not, employees are humans and their wellbeing directly correlates to their work performance. And ignoring mental health at work costs much more than supporting employees in living healthy lives, both at work and at home.

Do you think attitudes towards mental health are changing?

I do think attitudes towards mental health are changing – as a society, we’re becoming better at talking about mental health and mental health conditions. Covid helped accelerate online therapy adoption at scale and reduce stigma, as more and more people started asking for help, and there has never been more awareness in the media.

However, resourcing isn’t keeping up with awareness, and services are hugely outstripped by demand. Plus, the stigma around mental health conditions isn’t equally reduced across the board. There’s still a lot of stigma around more severe mental health conditions and we need to ensure we’re giving these the same acceptance.

What more can we do as a society to be aware of burnout and mental health?

Making mental health a core part of workplace training and support creates a world where psychological safety is a given at any job and people can be open about their experiences and seek the support they need.

Managers need to lead by example – in hierarchical structures, those in power must be proactive in instigating change.

Patricia Allen
Patricia Allen
is the Head of Content at EU-Startups. With a background in politics, Patricia has a real passion for how shared ideas across communities and cultures can bring new initiatives and innovations for the future. She spends her time bringing you the latest news and updates of startups across Europe, and curating our social media.

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