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."

In a phone interview a few days later, angel investor and TechStars managing director David Tisch—who once acted a mentor to Mr. Weinstein—corroborated this theory. “When you as a personality are able to take the risk to start a company, in making that choice, you have to consciously understand that you are rebelling against the easy path,” he explained. “That’s not a foreign concept to the people I work with.”

Mr. Tisch illuminated this with a story he rolls out to young founders on their first day of TechStars that his friend—Thrillist co-founder Ben Lerer—once told in an interview: for the first two years in founding the company, after every important meeting, they’d inevitably take the elevator down to street level, and on the doors closing, jump up and down, laughing hysterically. Or start crying.

“That’s fucking crazy!” Mr. Tisch observed. “In reality, that will screw up anybody. Think about a startup experience like that. Unless you’re emotionally and psychologically tough enough to withstand that roller coaster, you are going to go through [those emotions].”

Jerry Colonna, a venture capitalist turned business and life coach to Silicon Alley royalty, has seen the pressures founders (and particularly young founders) can face. Often. “Every. Single. Day,” Mr. Colonna said in a phone call with Betabeat. “Ten times a day. These pressures are not just unique to this age group, but they are exacerbated in the entrepreneurial community.”

In this tightly knit community, he continued, the factors unique to young entrepreneurship can add up. “When you layer status against the pressure cooker of, say, Broadway between 23rd Street and the Village, that whole corridor”—where General Assembly is, of course, located—”what you end up with is a sort of high school [scenario]. Who are the cool kids? Who aren’t the cool kids? Whose popularity is rising, sinking? You get this incredible pressure on people.”

Mr. Colonna illustrated a scenario that isn’t all too uncommon these days, specific players aside: “Imagine that you’ve just raised a million and a half dollars from Fred Wilson. Exactly. Scared shitless. Oh, and by the way, you’re worried that everybody’s going to find out that you have no fucking clue what you’re going to do.”

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Cody Brown, the 23-year-old co-founder of NYU Local and the recently-launched Scroll, corroborated this point by phone from his apartment in Bushwick. “The fact of the matter is: there are a lot of people in their early 20s being handed thousands of dollars, multimillion dollar checks, and having this self-imposed pressure,” which is in addition to the pressure of trying be a normal, young, 20-something. Like, for example, “trying to find a girlfriend,” he laughed.

He went on to point out a distinct irony for those like him in this specific moment in technology startups: “It’s funny how many help enhance that feeling of stress. Like, foursquare! Oh, god. I really don’t need to know every party that I haven’t been invited to, routinely and beautifully laid out on my phone!”

Even the most cursory of looks reveals young startup founders living lives that are potential incubators for depression. If that’s the case, we offered, then why have many of the people we’ve spoken with felt that the past week is the first time a discussion concerning tech startups and mental health has happened at a significant volume? After all, these are the same scientifically and socially progressive creative types brought together by the mandate to bring the world new and improved ways to hack everything from their workweek to their own bodies, let alone socialize.

Back at General Assembly, Chris sighed: “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”—and here, he vamped a disposition familiar to anyone who has ever had a discussion with a startup founder—”‘Best day ever, man! Killing it! We’re crushing it!’ You have to do that, because your job as founder is, to some extent, to create the Steve-Jobs-Reality-Distortion-Field.”

As conversations about mental health and depression in startups stay at hushed tones, the idea that anybody else is going through a common experience is a difficult prospect to embrace. “There’s no way you can talk about it, because you feel like you’re in this alone. You feel socially vulnerable when in reality,” Mr. Weinstein kicked his feet up on one end of the couch, in what one could have easily been mistaken for a therapy session, continuing, “everyone else is going through the same thing. The pluralistic ignorance is a big problem. You can talk to your friend, and be like, yo, I’m depressed, and they’re like,” and with this, he smiles: “‘Yeah, I’ve been seeing a psychologist for the last year.’ And you’d be like, really? And they’re like… Yeah.’ Nobody talks about it!”

Mr. Brown echoed this sentiment: “Founders don’t want to discuss this,” he explained. “They want to have the public appearance of always being in control, and always being on top of their game.”

A 24-year-old female startup founder was at first reluctant to speak at all, noting over an email that it “makes me nervous as a young company to admit ever wavering.” She finished: “I feel like you might run into other entrepreneurs who might decline [speaking out] for fear it’ll make their investors look twice at them.” We did. She eventually relented, explaining her own experience with the problem over an instant message:

“Sometimes you get run down and depressed because your product is fucking awesome, your team is great, and you can’t stop yourself from working ’round the clock on it because you love it. But, your body rebels against that. Makes you tired unexpectedly, makes small problems inflate. And then you freak out, thinking that one off day is going to set into motion many, many more. So,” she finished. “You keep it inside.”

But, we asked her, wouldn’t it befit all parties involved to make this an open dialogue? Founders could get the help they need and investors could be satisfied with knowing the full condition of their investment. The idea was roundly rejected, one Gchat ping at a time:

“No
I don’t even think it would help
I think I’d get replaced”

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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.