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Innovation Economy

‘Everybody is down’: Pandemic burnout hits Boston startups, despite the boom

The cumulative toll of the last two years is dampening enthusiasm.

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There’s a schism in the world of startups and venture capital right now.

On the surface, everybody is killing it. Last year, new records were set for money flowing into venture capital firms’ bank accounts ($123 billion) ― and subsequently into startups ($329 billion) ― according to the National Venture Capital Association. There has been a parade of initial public offerings and acquisitions. Workers’ salaries are on the rise, and just about nobody is getting fired.

Beneath the surface, though, people are struggling with a dozen kinds of pandemic burnout. Could the waning of the Omicron wave really signal the beginning of the pandemic’s end? When do we reopen the office? How do I manage my kids, my elderly parents, find rapid tests, and cope with general anxiety — while still looking like a confident and polished leader?

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You wouldn’t know about this gap between perception and reality if all you read were company press releases, social media missives, and news stories. So I’ve been asking people who work in tech, biotech, and venture capital to open up about it.

One of the first people I reached out to was Susan Hunt Stevens, chief executive of WeSpire, a Boston company that provides software to help companies get their employees engaged with sustainability and social impact programs. WeSpire raised $13 million in August. But this January, her entire family of four caught COVID.

“You can be killing it at work for macro-economic trend reasons and have this day-to-day painful cognitive overhead to deal with constantly that depends on what business you are in, your personal or family situation, what town you live in, or what school you go to,” Stevens writes via e-mail. “And my hypothesis is people don’t share the struggle much anymore because everyone is struggling with the same thing all over this entire planet.”

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By cognitive overhead, she’s referring to the constant decision-making on a personal — and company — basis. What’s safe at the moment? How do you make the next hire or deal with the latest resignation? What data about the pandemic should you be paying attention to? When is it worth traveling to visit a prospective customer, versus just hopping on a Zoom call?

“Everyone is suffering from the hangover of being on Zoom, looking into the ‘Brady Bunch’ squares, and not having that human connection,” says Steve Kraus, an investor at Bessemer Venture Partners in Cambridge. “That’s the general malaise ― it leads people to want to be back into the office.”

Scheduling and unscheduling are part of the struggle. This month, many people in tech had planned to travel to Las Vegas for the CES ― the consumer electronics showcase ― while denizens of biotech were ready to go to San Francisco for the annual health care conference put on by J.P. Morgan. The former was held, but with far fewer exhibitors and attendees than normal, and the latter went virtual for the second consecutive year. Kraus says that he’d been planning to go to J.P. Morgan with a colleague who’d recently joined the firm, and even after the conference switched to virtual, he still thought they’d go out for some meetings and networking events. But as he started hearing that even the locals weren’t planning to participate, he says, “it was a slow fade off of the calendar.”

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Rana el Kaliouby is chief executive of Affectiva, a company that makes software to analyze human attention and emotion. It was acquired last May by a Swedish company for $73 million, and the two companies had targeted CES as “our big coming-out merger party,” el Kaliouby says. First, they planned to have a big booth. Then, they downsized to a private hotel suite. On Dec. 27, they pulled the plug entirely. It was “a bummer,” she says, “because everybody is working on it, and you build all this momentum and energy.” But the clients it was planning to meet had canceled their trips, so there was little value in going, el Kaliouby says.

She also decided to shut down the company’s office earlier this month. “As a general guideline, we’ve said we will reopen when the positive test rate drops below 10 percent,” she says.

She also canceled some in-person meetings in the days leading up to her son’s squash tournaments, out of fear of getting him sick — or not being able to attend herself.

As a leader, she says, “it is important to be positive, but I totally believe that is not the whole story. It’s also important to be vulnerable and talk about these challenges.”

“Everybody is down,” says Juan Enriquez, managing director at Excel Venture Management in Boston, “because, damn it, why isn’t this over yet?” He says it’s especially hard on people who haven’t figured out how to create a line between their home office and home life. For many, he says, “productivity has gone way up, but the expectation that you’re going to answer an e-mail at 11 p.m. has also gone up.”

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Jessica Nam Kim, chief executive of Ianacare, says that she has been juggling three kids, occasional shifts to virtual school, a live-in octogenarian parent who has had health issues, and an extreme lack of sleep. “People are just burnt out,” she says, but as an entrepreneur, there’s still the pressure to show “that it doesn’t hinder my performance.” Her company, which helps families organize care for elderly or ill relatives, announced a $12 million funding round earlier this month.

Is there an end in sight? Does normalcy return with spring, when the weather improves? One more aspect of the fatigue has been trying to predict whether this is the final chapter. What aspects of the pre-pandemic routine return? What has changed for good?

Michael Gilman, chief executive of Arrakis Therapeutics, says he pines for a few things from the old world, like work trips to fun cities, which offered a chance for bonding with colleagues. He admits to having a bit of cabin fever after he stopped going into the office amid Omicron.

But Gilman, and a few other (male) people I reached out to, both with kids at home and without, said they don’t really feel a sense of daily struggle. Gilman says he had about 40 meetings at the virtual J.P. Morgan conference — far more than he would’ve had at an in-person gathering — and has negotiated important deals on Zoom. His company, which is developing new ways to target diseases using RNA, has doubled in size, to 75 people.

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Gilman makes the case that there are “a couple of enduring gifts of the pandemic. We were forced to endure so much deprivation across so many aspects of our lives, we discovered the things that were important. It’s a gift to know that.”

It was almost 7 p.m. I needed to make dinner and return two more calls. I thanked Gilman for the philosophy and got back to the struggle.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.