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.”
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:
I don’t even think it would help
I think I’d get replaced”
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