First Hand — Richard Fagbolagun on managing anxiety and rebuilding confidence when the going gets tough
When Richard Fagbolagun, Alexander Fefegha and Akil Benjamin launched creative technology studio Comuzi seven years ago, things at first went swimmingly. The trio, who now work for clients like Asos, BBC, Waltham Forest Council and Samsung KX, were picking up enough projects for Richard to quit his night shifts at Tesco and put his heart and soul into the business. But when a major client ended its contract, things soon spiralled south – and that included Richard’s mental health. He felt like he’d taken a huge leap, only to fall flat on his face. Here, Richard shares the story of what went wrong, how he built his confidence back up and took control of his anxiety, after what seemed like a massive blow.
Comuzi’s website, whose work includes project spanning future-facing technologies, from design research and interaction design to ideation workshops
The backstory: starting a studio
In early 2017, Comuzi was doing well. Over the prior 18 months, we’d piloted a healthcare platform used internationally and commended by the Department of Health, led a design workshop with the NHS innovation team and were taking gradual steps to commercialise our design studio practice.
I’d left my part-time night job at Tesco as I thought “this was it” – I thought Comuzi would blow up and I wouldn’t have to hold down any side hustles to make money. This dream I’d sold myself lasted for a number of months, with savings and Comuzi work paying my bills.
A spanner in the works
My ignorance was revealed when our main client abruptly terminated our long-term contract – our main source of revenue – over compounded issues. In hindsight, if it happened now, I’d have suggested we review our failings, build a stronger brand and continue. But this event hit me really hard.
I’m not sure whether it was youthfulness, naivety or a lack of mental resilience, but I felt like I had sacrificed everything and it had gone tits up. I stopped being present, and my productivity became so bad that my co-founders Akil and Alex forced me to take a break.
“I felt like I had sacrificed everything and it had gone tits up. I stopped being present and my productivity became so bad that my co-founders forced me to take a break.”
What I’d change, looking back
If I could go back in time and relive that period, I would make sure that better communication between both parties was facilitated, for example using platforms such as Slack and Asana, and that there was consistent project check-ins with our client.
Talking through project concerns and contingencies would have given us the chance to address ongoing issues and mistakes, some of which we weren’t even aware of until all was said and done. Additionally, I’d have focused on stringent project management and continuous documentation to evidence our day-to-day work, practices we take really seriously today.
There was also an element of stupidly putting all our eggs in one basket. In this sense, giving our all to this one project when, as a team, we could have split up, decreasing the organisational risk if something was to go wrong. What we did was the equivalent of viewing a potential property vs many, or putting all of one’s savings into a single investment scheme.
The value of time off
During my hiatus, I got a part-time job, finished an open university qualification and became more disciplined. Most importantly, it forced me to work on my emotional intelligence, self-awareness and self-care to avoid burnout.
I also discovered that I had moderate anxiety. It had affected me immensely, but I had no idea that a tight chest, crazy heart rate, sweating, having an uneasy stomach feeling and being afraid for nothing in ordinary life situations was a mental health disorder, until I had that space to really analyse myself.
The Comuzi team, from left: Akil, Alex, Richard
Returning to work
I got back to running operations at Comuzi in January 2019. The team (Alex and Akil) had already won projects that were starting in the new year, so it was the perfect time to resume duties as the third musketeer. I got off to a progressive start, implementing financial, operational and legal processes required for growth but my anxiety stopped me from really flourishing publicly. I couldn’t fathom talking in meetings, presenting work to potential clients, networking or even taking on side opportunities without having an anxiety attack.
Long story short, something had to be done. I started meditating and exercising regularly, in addition to attending four one-hour therapy sessions costing £50 per session. I say this not only to be transparent, but to highlight that it was tremendously worth the cost. Therapy helped me to understand my anxiety from a scientific perspective, unpack where it might have originated from and work towards alleviating the associated symptoms (shout out to my therapist she’s an OG!)
“Therapy helped me to understand my anxiety from a scientific perspective, unpack where it might have originated from and [alleviate] the symptoms.”
A major learning
Dealing with anxiety increased my awareness and need for self-care, so I continued to meditate, exercise and sometimes do nothing, as hard as that is! On a really positive note, taking these steps has led to immense personal progress, including being able to contribute in client meetings, network more, build relationships and contribute on panels – a feat I never thought I’d be able to achieve.
As entrepreneurs, artists or creators in a hyper-capitalistic society, we can feel like we’ve got to operate at 300mph to achieve something as opportunities come and go fast. It’s like running for the tube, even though there’s another one in two minutes. In the grand scheme of things, those extra minutes are no big deal (unless you’re late!) and I’m beginning to unlearn the need to be continuously working.
I can’t say what works for any one else specifically, but hopefully there’s some insight here into how we can be great while staying grounded.