« swipe left for tags/categories
swipe right to go back »
I know this post is going to be a downer but I think there is a lot more to be talked about regarding depression, mental health, and entrepreneurship.
I recently heard a terrifying stat about founder suicides recently. A friend told me that he’d heard of over a dozen suicides from entrepreneurs in the past few years. I didn’t press him for the specific data because I didn’t want to struggle through it, but I personally knew of three so I expected that it would add up to a dozen pretty easily.
Yesterday, I read a post titled The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You? It’s part of a series done by Re/code on the Downtown Las Vegas project. The series started out very positive with an article titled Downtown Las Vegas Is the Great American Techtopia but in the middle of the series Tony Hsieh Stepped Down From Lead Role at Las Vegas Downtown Project, 30% of the staff got laid off, and the articles turned negative with Factorli, an Early Casualty of the Las Vegas Downtown Project.
And yesterday, the suicide article - The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You? - appeared. It’s a rough one that talks about three suicides – Jody Sherman (4/13), Ovik Banerjee (1/14), and Matt Berman (4/14) – all people involved in the Vegas Tech phenomenon.
I’m saddened by the struggles around The Downtown Vegas Project. I’ve long thought, and continue to think, it’s a really interesting experiment.
But I’m really upset by the suicides. Re/code’s article is harsh and questions the Happiness philosophy of Tony Hsieh and whether it is partly responsible for the suicides. Kim Knoll who was apparently interviewed for the article has a solid response to this. But regardless of the root cause, which we can’t possibly know from the article, the fact stands that three entrepreneurs involved recently committed suicide.
First, if you are ever considering committing suicide, immediate reach out to someone and ask for help. Amy and I recommend the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you don’t know where to turn. The 800 number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
When I had my first clinical depression in my mid-20s, Amy and I set up a few rules around things. We specifically talked about suicide and I agreed that if I ever had a suicidal thought, I wouldn’t act on it. Instead, I would immediately stop what I was doing, tell Amy what I was thinking, and we’d discuss it. During this long depression, I only had one suicidal ideation, but it was while we were driving on a highway in Sedona (I was driving). I immediately pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the car, and told Amy what I was thinking. We switched seats – she drove the rest of the way, and then we had a long conversation that night. After the conversation, even though I was still very depressed, I felt immense relief and support. When we got back to our home in Boston after that vacation, I started therapy, which was incredibly helpful.
Our society still has an incredible stigma associated with depression. Anyone who has been depressed knows that it is extremely hard to describe how it feels to someone who hasn’t ever been depressed. My favorite description of depression continues to be from Hyperbole and a Half. I’ve recently started describing it as an emotional pain that is significantly worse than almost all physical pains you could imagine, especially because it seems to go on forever. And sometimes this pain is so severe that it feels like ending it all by committing suicide is the only answer.
While this isn’t unique to entrepreneurs, the intensity of being an entrepreneur, especially when your company is failing, or you are failing at your role, can be overwhelming. I see it all the time and try to be a very empathetic listener whenever I encounter it. I’ve learned a huge amount from my friend Jerry Colonna about how to be helpful and know that I’ll continue to be on a journey around mental health and entrepreneurship.
It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to lose. It’s ok to be depressed.
If you are contemplating suicide, get help. If you have an entrepreneurial friend contemplating suicide, do your best to get them help.
Frank Gruber, a long time friend, recently released a book, Startup Mixology: Tech Cocktail’s Guide to Building, Growing, and Celebrating Startup Success.
The book is filled with a bunch of great stuff for any entrepreneur. Each section has a story, actions to take, the harsh reality, and suggestions for how to enjoy the journey. For a sense of the book, take a look at how it is structured and the table of contents.
Frank is going to be in Boulder in a couple of weeks and I’m hosting a book launch party for him. I’ll sit down with Frank for the better part of an hour to talk about our views on how to celebrate the act of entrepreneurship. We’ll then hang out for a while.
The event is on 10/16 at 6:00pm. Pick up a ticket here.
The ticket costs a few dollars and every single one of those dollars goes to Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado. Everyone who attends is getting a copy of the book, which I’m covering.
If you are not in Boulder or can’t make it to this event, grab a copy of Frank’s book here. It’ll be worth your time.
Last night I gave the kickoff talk to the West Michigan Policy Forum. I did my riff on Startup Communities and followed it up with a short Q&A on issues specific to Michigan’s entrepreneurial scene.
Afterwards, Amy and I went for a walk to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to buy a Lighting to HDMI adapter so we could watch Print the Legend on the TV in our hotel room. We succeeded in surviving the 24×7 madhouse that is the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, got the right cable, but were unable to hack our hotel TV which refused to do anything other than respond to a hardwired magic box. So we watched Jaws on TV instead (amazingly, neither of us had ever seen it.)
The juxtaposition of the two experiences (my talk vs. the casual madness of the Apple Store) combined with a line from Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future reminded me of another line that I heard at the UP Global Annual Summit in Las Vegas over the summer. Thiel’s line was about uniforms and how his firm Founders Fund immediately rejects any entrepreneur who dresses in a suit and tie. Instead, his firm believes in the Silicon Valley uniform of jeans and a t-shirt and he gives a visual example of Elon Musk wearing an “Occupy Mars” t-shirt compared to Brian Harrison, the CEO of Solyndra, looking very dapper in his classical suit and tie. I’ll let you guess which entrepreneur created several multi-billion dollar companies and which entrepreneur saw his extremely well funded company go bankrupt.
The line I heard in the context of startup communities was “the collision of the tucked and the untucked.” This referred to the startup community entrepreneurs in untucked t-shirts interacting with the startup community feeders (government, academics, big companies, investors, and service providers) who tend to have their shirt tucked in, even if they aren’t wearing ties.
The magic in growing the startup community is to get the tucked and the untucked to hang out. Your goal should be to generate endless collisions between different perspectives, ideas, peoples, and culture. Rather than segmenting things into the old guard and new guard, mix it up. Get everyone working together.
Don’t let parallel universes evolve – you want one big, messy network continually changing. Make sure you are creating situations for the tucked and untucked to get together, be together, and work together. Have some fun with it, including formally reversing roles at a Sadie Hawkins like event, where the tucked wear t-shirts and the untucked wear suits.
Tonight I’m at a dinner with the Blackstone Foundation and several executives at the Blackstone Group talking about startup communities and entrepreneurial ecosystems. The invite says “business attire” which I expect for many will be “tucked.” I’ll be in my standard uniform – jeans, Toms, and a zany Robert Graham shirt, that will most definitely be untucked. It should be fun.
I spent the day yesterday at the Disney Accelerator meeting with each of the teams and then had dinner with the CEOs and a lead mentor for each company. While I’m proud of all the Techstars programs, some of what I heard yesterday, especially around mentor engagement in the Disney program was remarkable. Our premise when we started doing branded accelerators with large companies was that we’d get deep mentor involvement from execs at the company we are partnering with. In Disney’s case, the access, exposure, and support of the Disney executives as mentors for the 11 companies in the program has been extraordinary.
As I continue my series on the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, which I’m planning to turn into an book called “Give First” that FG Press will publish early next year, I come to Manifesto Item #6: The Best Mentor Relationships Eventually Become Two-Way.
When I reflect on my best mentors, they are very long term relationships where I hope they’ve now gotten as much from me as I’ve gotten from them. I call this “peer mentoring” and – while it can start as an equal relationship, it’s magical when it evolves from a mentor – mentee relationship.
Following are two examples from my own life.
Len Fassler is one of the most amazing people I’ve had the honor of knowing. Len and his partner Jerry Poch bought my first company in 1993. I still remember the first time I met Len, sitting in a restaurant in downtown Boston, wondering to myself “who is this guy and what does he want?” After Len and Jerry bought my company, the two of them took me under their wing and exposed me to doing deals. In addition to having my company acquired, I worked with them on the diligence team for a number of other acquisitions. They were both incredibly patient with me since I knew nothing about M&A or investments, and when I started making angel investments a few months after my company was acquired, they followed on, invested with me, and invited me into some of the companies they were investing in. After I left AmeriData, my relationship with each of them blossomed, but in different ways. Jerry and I made some VC investments together, but Len and I started several companies together. One of them – Interliant (where we were co-chairman) – was a huge success for a while, reaching a peak market cap of about $3 billion on NASDAQ. The company was decimated by the collapse of the Internet bubble and ultimately went bankrupt. Len and I spent thousands of hours together during this time and the amount I learned from working side by side with him can’t be quantified or categorized. We continued to work on other stuff together after Interliant, and enjoyed some successes that were sweet and satisfying after the ending pain of the Interliant experience.
If someone said I was a vessel for perpetuating and evolving Len’s business approach and personal philosophy to people throughout time and space, I’d accept that.
At the same time, I’ve heard Len say many times that’s he’s learned a huge amount from working with me. I know I am the key reason he no longer wears a tie at work, but the dance and intermingling of our experiences, personal philosophies, joys (highs), miseries (lows), and shared time has shaped both of us. Len’s 82 and I’m 48, so he’s definitely the mentor and I’m the mentee in the relationship. But after over 20 years of working together, we have a deep, intimate, peer relationship.
Charlie Feld is my dad’s brother / my uncle. I referred to him as Uncle Charlie the other day in my post From Punch Cards to Implants. He introduced me to my first company when I was 11 and allowed me to tag along with him for many years into my mid-20s. I sat in executive meetings at DEC and Lotus that I had no business being a part of, learned about EIS’s when I was a teenager, got early access to Compaq portables that hadn’t been released yet, and generally got exposed to how IT and MIS worked in large companies. Charlie started his own company, The Feld Group, in 1992, when my company (Feld Technologies) was five years old. Suddenly, Charlie and I were having peer discussions about our respective consulting businesses. After I sold my company and started investing in companies in 1994, Charlie and I talked regularly about the Internet, which was just emerging as something that large companies should pay attention to. At the same time, Charlie exposed me to what he was doing to re-architect and modernize enormously complex and disastrous legacy systems at places like Delta and Burlington Northern. In addition to helping me understand a number of fundamental things about technology at scale, I got exposed to the complexity of very large organizations, both from the top down and outside in.
In 2000, I invested via Mobius Venture Capital in The Feld Group and joined the board. This took our relationship to a new level. While I was now investor / partner / board member, the intellectual and emotional intimacy of our relationship increased. The Feld Group grew rapidly during this time period until it was acquired in 2004 by EDS. While aspects of my universe during this time were excruciating due to the bursting of the Internet bubble, my experience with Charlie and The Feld Group was grounding and enlightening as it gave me a window into the success and importances of enterprise IT while all the startups around me were melting down.
As with my relationship with Len, I feel that my relationship with Charlie is a peer relationship today. While he’s 25 years older than me, we learn from each other in every interaction. We continue to work closely together – Charlie’s newest book “The Calloway Way” is being published by FG Press and we are going to do some book events together to help both executives and entrepreneurs understand the magic of Wayne Calloway and his management approach.
Each of these relationships are long term ones – Len and I since 1993 and Charlie and I since I was born in 1965. I treasure every moment I have with each of them. Sure – we have conflict, disagreements, and disappointments, but they have been profound in shaping my development as a business person and a human. As mentors, they gave first in every sense of the word. And I hope they feel like I’ve given back at least as much.
Jason and I are once again doing the Venture Deals online class as part of the Kauffman Fellows Academy. The course begins on Monday (9/29/14) so sign up now if you are interested.
This will be the third time we are doing this course. We are having a lot of fun with it and love the dynamics of working with the Kauffman Fellows Academy. The feedback has been generally excellent and we’ve tried to take into consideration all the suggestions we’ve heard about what we can do better.
We’ll be actively involved with hangouts during the course as well as on the message boards. If you are interested in really understanding how venture deals and startup financings work, please join us for the course.