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“As my agency started blowing up—I started burning out. Here’s what happened.”

Written By
Nausheen Eusuf
With thanks To
Gabe Kwakyi | Career & Leadership Development Coach, The Musing Mind

Growing up in suburban Detroit, Gabe Kwakyi always struggled with where he belonged. He was 3 when his parents divorced, so he spent his childhood shuttling back and forth between two homes. As he went through middle and high school, he also questioned his identity. With a Ghanaian father and a white American mother, he found himself floating between cultures, seeking acceptance and belonging.

After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in marketing, Gabe was delighted to land a job at Microsoft, as part of the Bing advertising account management team. He found the job exciting and stimulating, and he loved working alongside colleagues who were intelligent, passionate, and creative.

More importantly, he found a new identity:

“At Microsoft, I finally felt like I was starting to belong. I was a high performer and got really positive feedback. The more work I did, the more I felt appreciated and validated. I started to lean into work as part of my identity.”

Gabe spent the next three years learning and growing professionally. But he also had an entrepreneurial spirit, partly derived from his dad, and he yearned to start his own business.

“Microsoft was awesome, but I was creating within the system that had already been set up and built. I was craving to create something from scratch.”

Gabe eventually teamed up with a good friend and decided to start a project of his own.

“I wanted to build something from scratch”

Gabe had learned a lot about search advertising at Microsoft, and he parlayed that knowledge into a successful agency specialising in app store optimisation. He wrote hundreds of blog posts on mobile marketing, co-authored a book, and even started a conference.

Gabe’s agency soon took off. Founded in 2015, Incipia grew to 21 people and $2M in annual revenue within a few years. Their clients included companies like Coinbase, Walmart, Peloton, Canva, and Duolingo.

“There was so much passion and enthusiasm at the company in the first few years. It’s like we were pouring jet fuel into it every day. We got a lot of inbound interest and inquiries, and we scaled very quickly. It was a rapid, hockey-stick growth curve, and it just felt great.”

Being creative and curious came naturally to Gabe, so he loved being a CEO and founder. At whiteboarding sessions, his energy and enthusiasm would fire up the team. The culture at Incipia was filled with appreciation, passion, and fun.

“Everyone at every level felt they had a hand in building something great. It was an incredible feeling.”

But as thrilling as it was, in retrospect Gabe recognises that he was partly driven to perform because he craved validation.

“Growing the company gave me a sense of purpose. And this hyper-performer part of myself was driving me to work harder and harder.”

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“Working with clients like Coinbase was exciting and stimulating. There was so much validation from customers and from the industry.”

Gabe’s professional success was also an escape from something far more personal and tragic.

“It tore me up”

Three weeks after he launched Incipia, Gabe’s mother passed away. She’d survived cancer and been in remission for 7 years. But suddenly, the cancer was back and it had spread.

In the weeks leading up to her death, Gabe could see that she was in pain. But there was nothing he could do. He remembers the terrible feeling of grief and helplessness as she went into hospice care. 

“It hurt to see her suffer and not be able to take that pain away. It really tore me up.”

After she passed away, Gabe felt he had to “set that aside and be strong.” After all, he’d just started a new company. He reasoned that building a successful business would be a way to honour his mother and do justice to her memory. Throwing himself into his work also provided an escape from the grief.

“I took a couple days off and just came right back to work. I continued leaning into this place where I had validation because I felt good and I felt worthy. I wanted to be a success on her behalf.”

Instead of taking the time to process the grief, Gabe began focusing more and more on work as an outlet. The excitement and validation kept him going.

He avoided talking about his mother. But on New Year’s Eve that year, a close friend finally got him to open up. Initially he tried to brush it aside, but his friend persisted.

“At one point, the floodgates opened and I sobbed. I wept uncontrollably for three hours in the basement of this house. It felt like a cathartic release, like all the emotions that had been bottled up came rushing out.”

Afterwards, Gabe remembers thinking, “Okay, I’m good now. I’ve grieved. Now I can focus on my work again.”

But the success of the business would soon take a toll as well.

“I felt trapped being the CEO”

Gabe recalls the turning point when building and growing the company went from being fun and exciting to a serious responsibility—and almost a burden.

They’d grown to about a dozen employees, and had just landed Walmart as a client. Suddenly, there was a lot more at stake. People were relying on Incipia for their job and their wellbeing, and any mistakes would have a serious impact. Gabe and his cofounder began to feel the pressure. By now, he was working most evenings and weekends, rarely taking a day off.

“In the agency world if you slow down or start to flatline, you’ll lose your clients to your competitors. So the to-do list was never-ending. I couldn’t slow down or stop.”

Gabe also found it hard to delegate or let things go.

“The company meant so much to me that I developed a controlling streak. I’d think: let me just take over this task. And this one. And the next one. It all meant so much to me that I couldn’t let it go.”

But the more his work consumed him, the more Gabe started to feel tired and depleted. His creativity and productivity began to decline.

Gabe finally burned out in summer 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic was in full swing, and had added another layer of stress. On top of that, two of their largest clients told them they’d be ending their contracts. He couldn’t slow down because he felt the business depended on him. But he’d also reached a point where he simply didn’t care anymore.

“I remember thinking that if all our clients fired us and the whole team quit, I’d actually be relieved. I felt trapped being the CEO and cofounder of the company. I started questioning everything. What if I didn’t sign in tomorrow, or didn’t open Slack again?”

Gabe no longer had the energy or desire to keep the company going. He didn’t feel like seeing friends or doing the things he used to enjoy. Just getting through each day was a struggle.

Gabe and his cofounder finally sat down to talk. It turned out they both needed a break. After some long conversations and exploring various options, they decided it would be best to wind the company down.

Letting go

After winding the company down over several months—so people could find new roles and their customers could find a new agency—Gabe ended up taking six months off to recover.

During the first month, he kept wanting to start new projects—volunteering, consulting, trading stocks—because he still craved stimulation and validation. But what he really needed was to let go and allow himself to grieve and allow his body to recover from burning out.

“I’d always been running—to escape the pain and stress in my life through work. But when I finally let go, I felt so much better.”

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“I needed to process the grief that had been sitting there for years, and also mourn the loss of my mother and the company that had meant so much to me.”

Gabe went to Hawaii for a month and spent time surfing, hiking, and being in nature. He explored mindfulness, yoga, and meditation.

“Work is such an easy way to escape, but you never really escape from things. They’re all a part of you—the parts you reject or push down or repress. Eventually, when there’s a space for them to come back, they will.”

Today, Gabe is a coach who helps people navigate life and career struggles, including burnout. He’s okay with not being productive all the time, and tries to bring mindful awareness to longstanding habits and patterns rather than being pulled along unconsciously. He’s taking the time to explore his own values, as opposed to those instilled by family and society.

“I wish my mother and I had more time to talk about deeper topics and have heart-to-hearts. But she’d be happy that I’m working on myself now—and not trying to work myself to death on her behalf.”

Gabe has these takeaways for others experiencing burnout or tough times at work:

1. Your health is more important than work. Learn the signs of burnout, and listen to your body. The risks of ignoring it are serious. 

2. You don’t need to face prolonged work stress alone. A good team will want to help you when you are struggling—not blame you. Ask for help when you’re overwhelmed—the more you collaborate rather than control, the stronger your team will grow.

3. Even when you’re flying high, you can’t prevent bad things from happening to you. But you can build resilience with self-care routines, meaningful pursuits outside of work, strong relationships, and exploring yourself via therapy, coaching, journaling, and mindfulness.

Oliva therapist photograph

by Oliva therapist