HOW IT ALL WENT DOWN

What We Talk About When We Talk About Startups, Depression, and Michael Arrington’s Blinders

Were we drawing too much from one news story? There was always the possibility that maybe in the startup community, depression wasn’t discussed simply because it didn’t exist, and that the type of people to get into these endeavors were just, maybe, broadly immune to these issues. After one day of reporting the story, we were pretty sure we were on to an issue that was as endemic as it was unspoken for.
sad mac 640x960 What We Talk About When We Talk About Startups, Depression, and Michael Arringtons Blinders

It gets better. Seriously.

One week ago, Betabeat rolled out a story about the dangers of depression among young founders in the startup world: ‘U CAN’T HAZ SADZ: The Hushed Dangers of Startup Depression.’ We’d be lying if we wrote that we didn’t expect some kind of response to the story. That said: We didn’t even remotely expect the scale of the response to the story, in size or intensity.

Over the last week, we’ve seen everything from openly empathetic comments to blisteringly cynical retorts; founders and startup celebrities penning posts about their own experiences with the matter; nitpicks about everything from the cover to individual lines, and then some. It also, on the first day, became one of the most read stories on Betabeat since the blog’s inception.

As such—and without further ado—we thought we’d do a follow-up on the story: crash notes on everything from the reactions the participants received for coming out to speak on the matter, to the lines they felt were missing from the story, and of course, some of the behind-the-scenes editorial notes on how the story came together.

The Reporting

As it’s been mentioned, reaction from the startup community was—for the most part—intensely positive. The piece was written in the wake of 22 year-old Diaspora* founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy’s death, which “[appeared] to be a suicide” according to the San Francisco Police Department. Internally at Betabeat, there was a pronounced initial concern among all four of us over whether or not publishing this kind of piece so close to the event was inherently, nefariously exploitative, a concern that after some discussion we eventually set aside with the confidence we had that this issue was as widespread as it was under-discussed. The logic we followed was simple: Young people, a lot of pressure, a lot of money, and very little experience with failure. How is that not an incubator for depression?

What we didn’t have—and wanted—was empirical evidence to support this idea, or to understand the scale of it. Were we drawing too much from one news story? There was always the possibility that maybe in the startup community, depression wasn’t discussed simply because it didn’t exist, and that the type of people to get into these endeavors were just, maybe, broadly immune to these issues.

After one day of reporting the story, we were pretty sure we were on to an issue that was as endemic as it was unspoken for.

The Reader Reactions

The concern of being exploitative was all but gone by the time the story went to press, and reactions started arriving. Most of them were some stripe of this:

 
The story shot to the top of Hacker News and stayed there for the better part of two days. Plenty of people there and elsewhere relayed similar experiences:

  • “This shit is hard.”
  • “Hard to be positive & sell your startup 100% of the time when it’s impossible to be doing well 100% of the time.”
  • “Happened to me. 22. Was 19. Raised some cash, tried to build a product, failed. Nearly got sued. Not good times.”

 
And quite a bit of praise was also reserved to those who spoke out for the story about their own experiences with depression and startups:

 
It wasn’t all positive. The most common criticism on the story we received came right up front:

 
Even Jerry Colonna—the guru and advisor to many an angel investor, VC, and startup founder we spoke with for the piece noted: “Ignore the silly headline.”

Be it editor or writer, when you come out with a strong headline, you know it’s going to be decisive. And this is exactly what you fear will happen when you fail.

As we wrote on the day the story was published, we did have a conversation about the headline, and we knew it wouldn’t work for some people. The fact is, it wasn’t a matter of wit so much as: How can we sell this rather morose story on people who aren’t inclined to spend 2200 words’ worth of their time on a downer of an issue? That said, we’d also be lying if we didn’t admit we were going for something a little punchy, too. We can’t calculate whether or not it drew more people than it turned away, but if we did it again, we might do a triple-take on it, at least to figure out if there wasn’t anything better out there.

We’ll say this, though: when your newspaper’s senior designer, Scott, is making the rare comment on editorial by asking you if that’s actually the headline you’re going to go with, you might want to listen to him.

The Press: Reactions and Causality

Interestingly enough, most of the traffic for the story came through Twitter, Facebook, and Hacker News. That didn’t surprise us too much. What did surprise us was where the story didn’t appear. One paragraph that was deleted from the published draft was from the introduction, where we noted the rightfully but unusually subdued tones websites like TechCrunch and Silicon Alley Insider took when discussing the death of Ilya Zhitomirskiy (something Betabeat didn’t even initially report as breaking news; not because we didn’t think it was relevant, but because we were concerned—maybe overly—with the touchy issue of exploitation at that point, already).

The story, for what it’s worth, drew up exactly zero links on TechCrunch and Business Insider. All Things D linked it up on the front page. Which brings up something else that didn’t make the story, a moment in an interview with angel investor and TechStars managing director David Tisch, as he decried the lack of culture and personality-driven stories in the tech press at-large:

The human story in tech today is totally, totally erased by the rush to get news out.

YouAre.TV founder Josh Weinstein, who spoke with Betabeat about his own experiences with the issue, noted the effect a largely complimentary press might have on young founders:

“There are very few overnight successes. The problem is survivor bias. Those [successful startups] are the ones you see on TechCrunch.”

Another insight that didn’t make the original story—one we were especially sad to see go, but knew it’d come back here—was about the effect the tech press has on founders and depression. Big surprise: It’s palpable. From Jerry Colonna:

What about the media?

There’s a negative implication with the media, where there’s a fascination with this kind of culture. The United States lionizes entrepreneurs in a way in which a lot of other societies don’t.

Certainly, we’re guilty of it, the lionizing and the obsession.

Yeah it’s the Observer, Betabeat, but it’s the media in general. Look at what happened with Steve Jobs: he became the best CEO who ever walked the face of the earth, nevermind the fact that he left a trail of broken bones behind him

There’s that, too.

The Fallout

Making the rounds since the article appeared was another large piece about how volatile startup culture can be, specifically, Zynga’s, as they move to take their IPO on the road. Former employees noted how relentless both the work and the treatment of their colleagues could be.

Ousted TechCrunch founder, venture capitalist, and pirate UnCrunched publisher—or whatever he is now—Michael Arrington wrote a post vaguely alluding to the week’s recent discussions about the emotional toll working at a startup can take. To summarize, in his words:

Expect more articles soon about the woes of being asked to work hard at a startup. People are working so hard, they’re crying themselves to sleep!

Early Netscape engineer Jamie Zawinski—whose writing from years ago Arrington used to make his own point—struck back at Arrington:

He’s trying to make the point that the only path to success in the software industry is to work insane hours, sleep under your desk, and give up your one and only youth, and if you don’t do that, you’re a pussy. He’s using my words to try and back up that thesis. I hate this, because it’s not true, and it’s disingenuous.

Arrington returned fire , because, of course, how could he not? To briefly editorialize: Michael Arrington, you’re being an obtuse idiot, as either you’re tapped into what the discussion is ostensibly about as opposed to what it actually concerns—not the extent of the work, but a medical condition that can develop and metastasize into something more dangerous because of it—or you don’t believe depression can exist, which puts you in the same categorical camp of crazy as Tom Cruise.

Of all places, I CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGUR blog network founder Ben Huh posted about his own experiences with depression and founding a startup. It was surprisingly and admirably candid:

I spent a week in my room with the lights off and cut off from the world, thinking of the best way to exit this failure. Death was a good option — and it got better by the day.

Heading Out

There’s one other criticism the story received that we wanted to save for our final word on the matter, which was less a criticism of the narrative than a disagreement with the premise.

From Foursquare engineering brain Harry Heymann:

I dunno, when people ask me how I’m doing I routinely tell them “God, it’s killing me.” I think the rigors of a leadership position at a startup (or really any position at all) are a pretty common topic of discussion these days. Pretty much everyone understands that working at a successful startup is likely to have a strong negative impact on your life, health, relationships, and overal mental state. I’ve also had quite a few discussions on the importance of combatting this and methods to do so.

We’d disagree that everyone understands it in a coherent way, but we’ll concede that not enough emphasis was placed on the way many of the founders we spoke with extolled the virtues and rewards of dealing with all the rigors that come with startup life, something Josh Weinstein and his friend “Chris”—another 25 year-old founder who had dealt with depression—made especially clear: in the end, it was worth it, with the notation that there are better ways to deal with it than most people do. That said, Mr. Weinstein also mentioned the ways in which he and other founders deal with it. More that didn’t make the original cut, from Josh Weinstein:

Whenever people ask me how I’m doing, I give them a very honest answer. If we’re not doing well? “We’re not doing well.” It’s not good for the reality distortion field, but I guess you could say my reality distortion field is just reality. And general optimism. One of my mantras is that hope springs eternal. If you keep going, it’ll work out.

I’m very open. Most people aren’t. What Chris was saying is that founders can’t be.

Where in society is it socially acceptable to talk about it your issues except for ‘Blank’ Anonymous? [Some of us] have Founder Therapy. It’s like Founders Anonymous. You talk about stuff you’ve gone through. If you’re open about it, and you tell someone that you’re going through a tough time, you’ll hear back: “Yeah, I’ve gone through a tough time, too. This is what I did to get through it.”

Harry? Point taken. As for other founders, as many in story explained—as well as many of those discussing it agreed—the most dangerous facet of this problem is also the most easily solvable: It’s not talked about enough. Before we wrote this story, we were pretty convinced it was a discussion worth having. On the way out, it’s now become pretty evident that talking about depression as endemic to young startup founders is less a matter of measurable value than it is necessity. Surely, there will be those—like, for example, your Michael Arringtons—who’d rather not hear it.

And of course: It’s a shitty reality to deal with. But, of course, most of the ones worth dealing with generally are.

fkamer@observer.com | @weareyourfek

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