Startup Life

U CAN’T HAZ SADZ: The Hushed Dangers of Startup Depression

"In the startup community, there’s a real stigma to depression. Every time someone comes around and asks ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ you’re always like 'Best day ever, man! Killing it! We’re crushing it!' You have to do that."
sad mac 640x960 U CANT HAZ SADZ: The Hushed Dangers of Startup Depression

The most—or least—of one's worries.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, ON A SUNDAY MORNING, the startup world woke up to that rare stripe of news which quietly sends shockwaves reverberating throughout an entire culture of people: Ilya Zhitomirskiy, 22 years old, had passed away. The cause of death “appears to be a suicide,” noted a San Francisco police officer who spoke with CNN. A forthcoming coroner’s report will make a final determination. Mr. Zhitomirskiy was one of the four co-founders of Diaspora*, once breathlessly hyped in a May 2010 New York Times article as a “cry to arms” against Facebook, in a story that employed a classic tech narrative: four brilliant young men, on the verge of changing the world, subsisting on ramen and pizza.

Y Combinator’s Hacker News link to the item racked up pages of comments, many devoted to shouting down those who wanted to have a discussion about depression in the technology and startup community, noting it as an inappropriate moment for that topic. One user noted that a breaking news thread announcing Mr. Zhitomirskiy’s death was “a terrible place to have a discussion about ‘the stresses of life … related to tech.’”

Another disagreed: “We don’t talk about suicide in society very well let alone within the startup community. Founders find themselves in extremely stressful situations and living lifestyles that exacerbate the effects of this stress.”

This second comment read in contrast to the first, whose final suggestion on the matter was to “have that discussion inside your head” for the time being, and then go talk about it some other time.

IT’S FRIDAY NIGHT at New York City’s startup workspace-cum-mecca General Assembly, and it’s YouAre.TV founder Josh Weinstein’s 25th birthday. A crowded party with a sufficient supply of pizza and beer warms up in the main hall. Mr. Weinstein, however, is found quietly typing at his desk in the South Wing, isolating him from the Startup Weekend New York kickoff raging outside the door.

As we find a place to sit, a few people regard him with quick back-slaps and Happy Birthdays. Another colleague working nearby is surprised to hear of the occasion, quickly offering the same. Along the way, he nods to a nearby colleague, “Chris,” to accompany us as we search out a quiet place to speak; the unannounced third party is joining, Mr. Weinstein explains, because he—another 25 year-old startup founder—has much to say on the topic, the both of them having experienced some stripe of professional failure and the depression that comes with it.

[“Chris” agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity not because he doesn’t want to publicly speak about depression, but because his startup is trying to avoid press in its early stages.]

Mr. Weinstein and Chris sat with Betabeat in a couch-filled cubicle, and immediately begin firing off insight on depression among their contemporaries with the enthusiasm one would expect to be reserved for a particularly fascinating segment of code.

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“I’d be really surprised if you could find a founder who—if you asked them about their emotional state—hasn’t been through depression,” Chris explains. As a computer engineering student working at a startup at a prestigious college, and then as an entrepreneur going it alone after he graduated, he’s experienced in sparring with his own mental health.

“That’s why I asked Chris to come,” Mr. Weinstein explained. “We’ve gone through it at different times. We talked about it; it’s a club. It’s good to have that support network. A lot of people don’t ask for help.”

The World Health Organization cites depression as affecting 121 million people worldwide. The Center for Disease Control estimates one in every ten American adults are suffering from some form of clinical depression. In the 18 to 24-year-old age group, that number goes up to 11.1 percent. To Chris, the startup world is even more susceptible.

“It’s not ‘if,’ it’s ‘when’ it happens,” he sighed. “I’d almost say if they aren’t going through depression, you’re probably not actually pushing hard enough, or taking on enough risk, because that’s just an inherent part of owning something.”

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Comments

  1. Geoff Wright says:

    Happened to me. 22. Was 19. Raised some cash, tried to build a product, failed. Nearly got sued. Not good times.

    (Very happy man these days :) )

  2. Lindsey Kuper says:

    Thanks for the article. It resonates with me.  I’m not a startup founder, but as a beginning academic researcher with a pretty public online presence in a small research community where everyone knows each other, I’ve been thinking about how it’s more socially acceptable to be “unprofessional” publicly (swearing, making eyebrow-raising jokes, vapid celebrity gossip) than it is to be *sad* publicly. 

    Much has been made of how it’s now okay (and even good) for one’s career to mix one’s personal life in with one’s public online presence.  Doing so gives you personality; it helps people remember who you are.  Formerly taboo topics like sex, politics, and religion aren’t entirely out of bounds.  But it still doesn’t seem to be okay to talk about not being okay.

  3. Mike Tarullo says:

    This is a really relevant thing to report on, props to Foster and to the three founders who spoke out. 

    In an industry where 90+ percent failure rates are the norm, the stresses associated with constantly projecting confidence are substantial.  Even when things ARE going great, there’s still a ton to be worried about.  The most troubling thing is probably the implication that owning up to these insecurities could lead someone to be replaced, or could damage a company – even if that’s not true, just knowing that someone feels that way is damning. 

    I don’t think we can expect people to be totally honest about this kind of stuff, but hopefully this helps entrepreneurs recognize that it’s OK to admit uncertainty and seek help from their friends and advisers without recrimination. 

  4. Humorless says:

    Interesting article, but terrible title. Depression is a serious condition that affects millions of people around the world from all walks of life. Save the stupid memes for other founder stories.

    1. Anonymous says:

      You know: 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?  You can’t increase awareness of an issue by only appealing to those already mired in it. The headline was an attempt to appeal to those other eyes, a little bit. It’s really fulfilling to know that people who’ve dealt with these issues are reading the story, but (as they call it in basketball  the “and one” here is getting people who have neither experience with nor vested stake nor interest in the story to read it. 

      That said, I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit we were going for something a little punchy, too.  I’m sorry to hear that it didn’t work for you, as the intent certainly wasn’t to undermine anyone’s condition. 

      1. Tim says:

        I’d be very interested in who it *did* work for. I’m sorry to say it didn’t really work for me either.

        It seems like in an effort to increase awareness of a very pervasive issue, you’ve alienated those “already mired in it” by putting a deeply patronizing title on an otherwise serious and thoughtful article. 

      2. Anonymous says:

        Not being a fan of the headline (or “hed” as we called it back when I was a wee lad journalist), I’ll say the more important thing is that the story gets read, the topic gets discussed, the skeleton pulled out of the damn closet, and people get a little relief (so we can all get back to doing things we enjoy). And for that, I’m grateful to Foster for writing this piece and the Observer for publishing it.

    2. Anonymous says:

      If someone is interested only in lolcats and other timesinks, what’s the probability that he’d be a founder or a co-founder or even an honest hard-working employee in a startup, whom this article addresses?

      1. You don’t have to be “interested only in lolcats” to get the humor. I’d wager that nearly all founders, co-founders, and even honest hard-working employees in startups know what lolcats are.

  5. Someone says:

    What’s excersize?
    Exercise?

  6. harryh says:

    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 (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.

    Relavent to this discussion is Ben’s post on Managing Your Own Psychology:

    http://bhorowitz.com/2011/04/01/what%E2%80%99s-the-most-difficult-ceo-skill-managing-your-own-psychology/

  7. Cowboy Coder says:

    Not discussed is that much of the depression is aggravated through the frustration of dealing with the hard core  sociopaths in the VC community. (Some but not all, let’s be clear.) Dealing with sociopaths will wear down anyone with the constant manipulation, scheming and working of angles. A startup is often the first time these kids have been intimately exposed to this sort of predatory thinking directed at them.

    1. Christa M. says:

      I was thinking the same — that some VCs, competitors and even allies view entrepreneurship as some evolutionary process, where proving you’re one of the “fittest” determines whether (and to what extent) you succeed.

  8. It’s not all that great for the employees, either. No health plan, high expectations from the people in charge. It doesn’t matter how good you are, there’s always someone better. That weighs on you, because you know the moment you slip, you’re out and they’ll find someone new.

  9. Andrea Rosen says:

    Great article, great topic — but it’s not exclusive to the startup industry. Most people, no matter the industry they work in, don’t reveal struggles with depression or other mental illness to their employers or coworkers and that’s because of society’s perception of depression, one I think you allude to in the headline. A lot of people do just label clinical depression as “the sadz” when in fact it can be a debilitating condition on par with physical ailments.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Andrea – You’re totally correct, and this is one of those pieces that could kind of be applied to any group of people in that it’s chronically underreported which in turn makes it worse. That said, it was timely for this community, and the striking point for me was the angle of: Why are these people – who are so progressive in working to manifest ways to live better, to live in a more efficient, productive, and fulfilling manner – so obviously averse to talking about such a problem they’re so obviously primed to run into? My counterpoint: Speaking with people in media about depression, there’s little hesitation. They’re an openly insane group of people, and possibly better for it. Which is (from my vantage point, especially before I started reporting this out) kind of incredible when you compare which of the two groups you’d guess to be better equipped to handle this kind of thing. 

  10. Patiram48 says:

    Thank you for making this human condition relevant in nonthreatening terms. Depression gets worst when one feels alone and as “damaged goods.” There has to be a constructive way to deal with a side effect of pushing oneself to the limit, which is inherent in the human condition.

  11. Marcos Hung says:

    I am really sorry to hear this, but it helps if entrepreneurs learned from this experience:
    Infatuation or Love? Beware of Success Illusions http://blog.dediced.com/?p=216

  12. When you walk into the office, people read your face to see what kind of day it’s going to be. You can’t really talk to your employees about  your fears. Or your wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/husband; not really. You certainly can’t talk to your board about it. I announced to my board that I was suffering burnout and needed to take a serious break or get a full replacement, and wow, bad reaction there. A year later I slammed into a brick wall. 

    Create founders groups. Meet every few weeks, or monthly, and talk about this stuff. Keep it confidential. Listen. 

  13. Joe Clark says:

    I applaud Mr. KAMER for approaching a serious topic with due seriousness, an indication he may finally begin to use his journalistic powers for good.

  14. Arbirage says:

     Suicide does not limited to technopreneur. It depend on social situation of a country http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2011/11/24/asia/9969358&sec=asiaSuicide can happen to employee ========================I remember reading a book “The Whiz Kids” It stated Francis Jack Reith, head of Ford Motor of France and later in charge of Mercury Turnpike Cruiser and heavily involved in the Edsel at Ford Mptor. After fail of above project in Ford Motor. Francis Reith left Ford Motor to run the Crosley Division of Avco, and committed suicide a few years later on his birthday on 3 July 1960.Suiside can happen to Venture Capitalist! ==============================Another book written by Jim Clark, founder and chairman of “Netscape” that was later replaced by Internet Explorer after Microsoft enter the market. A prominent venture capitalist Glenn Mueller of the Mayfield Fund committed suicide after Jim Clark refused to let Glenn Mueller and Mayfield to invest in Netscape. Jim Clark refused due to his previous bad experience with Glenn Mueller in Silicon Graphic (SGI), a company Jim co-founded prior Jim co-founded Netscape. Jim Clark have to leave SGI like Steve Jobs leaving Apple. Both force to leave company they co-founded. This is like a reverge to Jim. But in actual fact, Jim feel sorry about the incident and let Glenn’s partners in Mayfield to have a stake in Netscape!Thus, suicide can happen to anyone but not only technopreneur.

    1. Ahern2609 says:

      How dare you comment on Glenn Mueller’s suicide.  You know nothing about it.  To say that Jim Clark’s refusal to let him invest caused him to take his life?  Bullshit and you should keep your speculation to yourself.  

    2. Ahern2609 says:

      How dare you comment on Glenn Mueller’s suicide.  You know nothing about it.  To say that Jim Clark’s refusal to let him invest caused him to take his life?  Bullshit and you should keep your speculation to yourself.  

  15. Anonymous says:

    Working in a startup will involve greater highs and lows than in most corporate positions because you tend to have a wider range of responsibilities.  If you are paid, it’s often at a 20% to 50% discount for the first few years (100% discount if you’re an unpaid founder, etc.) without benefits (not just health insurance and 401K matching, charitable donation matching, etc. but life insurance, travel and accident insurance, etc.).  Travel without insurance, never mind without advanced status (air, auto rental, hotel, etc.) that corporate travelers get.  But for many of us, the positives are like a wind that blow away those clouds – wider range of responsibilities (encompassing those of people many levels above you in the corporate world), seeing the impact of your opinions (rather than dilution with those from the other bricks in the wall), dealing with key customers directly rather than through their minions, and watching your enterprise move forward.  Like the weather, the positives and negatives will come and go.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Working in a startup will involve greater highs and lows than in most corporate positions because you tend to have a wider range of responsibilities.  If you are paid, it’s often at a 20% to 50% discount for the first few years (100% discount if you’re an unpaid founder, etc.) without benefits (not just health insurance and 401K matching, charitable donation matching, etc. but life insurance, travel and accident insurance, etc.).  Travel without insurance, never mind without advanced status (air, auto rental, hotel, etc.) that corporate travelers get.  But for many of us, the positives are like a wind that blow away those clouds – wider range of responsibilities (encompassing those of people many levels above you in the corporate world), seeing the impact of your opinions (rather than dilution with those from the other bricks in the wall), dealing with key customers directly rather than through their minions, and watching your enterprise move forward.  Like the weather, the positives and negatives will come and go.

  17. thomasknoll says:

    Foster, I really appreciate you pulling this conversation together. Over the past few months it feels like this topic is beginning to crack open a bit so that people can add their own “me too” story.

    I also appreciate hearing more and more investors asking their portfolio founders where they are getting their emotional/mental health coaching from.