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.
“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.”
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”
IN A SITUATION so obviously built for so many involved to experience some form of depression or anxiety, be it mild or severe, one could reasonably assume the venture capitalists handing over money to these bright young things would have trained themselves to see it coming in their founders, and actively intervene. Some, Mr. Tisch argued, do: “The best investors out there get to know the entrepreneurs to the point where they’re there as a friend. It’s a very honest relationship that gets built. The best VCs pay attention to these things,” but, he qualified, “like in every industry, not everyone’s the best.”
“I don’t think [these issues] are getting brushed under the rug, but,” he concluded, “It’s probably something we can all do better in exposing.”
Of course, the first and most rudimentary answers to these problems are as obvious as they are readily available:
“Stay focused on that self that exists outside of work,” Mr. Colonna explained. “Make sure you are dissipating the anxiety through physical exercise, eating right, all the things our mothers taught us.”
Mr. Tisch’s advice was more philosophical: “Understand where you are in the process. Consciously understand that you are rebelling against the easy path,” he suggested.
Chris noted: “Be comfortable having others know about it.” He nodded at Mr. Weinstein: “You have to identify people you can talk with about it.”
Mr. Weinstein agreed that so much of dealing with the emotional rigors of startup life was simply a matter of battling the character traits that helped those like him get there in the first place.
“Depression is so common, especially with people who are Type A,” Mr. Weinstein shook his head. “When you’re wired to execute and accomplish, it’s a challenge that you need to overcome. If you don’t recognize it yourself, or talk to people about it, it’s not going to be fun.”
Earlier that evening, when we first found out it was Mr. Weinstein’s 25th birthday, we couldn’t help but ask him:
It’s Friday night. It’s your birthday. You really going to stay here coding all night, or are you doing anything for it?
“Yeah,” he smirked, “we’ll be fratting our brains out at happy hour.”
As it turns out, Josh spent the rest of the night working.
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