Amy and I wrote a meaningful amount about entrepreneurs and depression in Startup Life. Since we finished the final draft a few weeks ago, I’ve given several talks where depression came up as I’ve woven my own experience with depression into the short (less than 15 minute) version of my story. I’ve received a surprising (to me) number of emails from people thanking me talking about it publicly, along with my discussion of the anxiety disorder (obsessive compulsive disorder) that I’ve struggled with my entire adult life and that was severe during the serious depressive episode I had in my early to mid 20s.
So the idea of depression has been on my mind. It doesn’t surprise me that I feel down and flat as I sit here in the Charlotte, North Carolina airport on my way to Lexington, Kentucky on day 16 of a 19 day trip. I’m tired, strung out, missing home, missing Amy, and running out of extrovert energy. I’ve had a great time with all the people I’ve been with and the events I’ve had around Startup Communities. I’ve had several extraordinary experiences like dinner last night in Toronto with a dozen fantastic entrepreneurs who I hope to have continuous involvement – as a friend and potential investor – in the future. But as I sit here, I’m surrounded by a lot of grey, and it’s not just the clouds outside that are the remnants of the storm.
I’ve reached out to most of my friends in New York to check in on them. They are all doing fine even though a few were hit hard and are now effectively homeless as lower Manhattan gets cleaned up. I picked a spot in the airport far away from the TV – I couldn’t stand the endless news cycle that mixed Sandy with Romney with Obama. I had some extra carbs hoping that would help – it just made me feel sleepy. Yup – I know what this feeling is.
I know many entrepreneurs who deal with different levels of depression. My close friend Jerry Colonna is extraordinarly eloquent about this and how it impacts entrepreneurs. Ben Huh, the CEO of Cheezburger, wrote a powerful post about his struggle with depression titled When Death Feels Like A Good Option. And I’ve had many conversations with other entrepreneurs about my, and their, struggle with depression.
For some reason we’ve embraced failure as an entrepreneurial trait that is ok, but we still struggle with acknowledging and talking about depression. Entrepreneurs function with a wide range of stresses and emotions that often have overwhelming intensity. In many cases, we are afraid of admitting depression, and are often highly functional when we are depressed. But that doesn’t deny the fact that entrepreneurs get depressed. To deny this, is to deny reality, and that’s against my value system.
I just went back and read what we wrote in Startup Life about depression and it made me smile. I’m really proud of the work that Amy and I did on that book – I think it is the best book I’ve been involved in writing (Venture Deals, which I wrote with Jason Mendelson, is a close second) and I’m hopeful that it has a lot of impact and value for entrepreneurs and their partners.
Just writing all of this makes me feel better. Thanks for listening. Time to get on the plane and go to Lexington.
Rajat Bhargava and I have been working together since 1994. We’ve been involved in creating seven companies together (the most recent ones are MobileDay and Yesware) and, while most have been successful, we’ve had a huge number of positive and negative experiences along the way. We’ve mostly had a lot of fun and, when we haven’t, we always made sure we figured out what went wrong.
Minda Zetlin just put up an interview with us on the Inc. Magazine site titled 4 Signs You Should Say ‘No’ to a VC which I thought was excellent. She explores the entrepreneur – VC relationship and suggests four warning signs for an entrepreneur when interacting with a VC.
- The VC isn’t fascinated with your product
- He (or she)’s just not that into you
- You can’t be completely honest
- The VC doesn’t treat you like an equal
The paragraph on “you can’t be completely honest” is a seminal moment in my relationship with Raj. It also was a key point in my work career where, upon reflection, I completely and totally grokked the importance of being honest in the moment, clear about my reasoning, and willing to change my perspective based on new information, rather than feeling stuck in simply delivering a message. The section from the article follows:
“The important thing is to be completely transparent,” Bhargava says. “It’s very, very difficult to be transparent about your business, but it goes a long way toward building that relationship. ‘Here’s what I’m going through; here’s what I’m struggling with; here’s what I need help with.’ You have to know if that will spook the investor or if they’ll want to dig in and help you.”
That ability to be honest was a great asset in Feld and Bhargava’s relationship when they worked together on Interliant, the only one of their ventures that did not survive. After some politicking by a different executive, Feld removed a part of the company’s operations from Bhargava’s oversight. Bhargava took a few days to calm down, but then he explained forthrightly how disappointed he was and why he believed Feld had made the wrong decision. “Being open and directly confronting the issues, you get through it,” Bhargava says now. “I felt hurt, but I think our relationship is that much stronger.”
As for Feld, he recalls returning to his hotel after discussing the matter over dinner and feeling physically ill. “I knew I had completely screwed up,” he says.
I count Raj as one of my closest friends and trust him with my life. He’s had an enormous influence on how I behave as an investor and how I interact with entrepreneurs. Raj – thanks man – I look forward to many more years working together.
I had two similar experiences last week where I heard from employees of two different companies that I’m on the board of. In each case, a senior exec said something like “I heard the board wants us to do blah.”
I was in each board meeting and the board most definitely did not say “we want the company to do blah.” Rather, in each case there was a discussion about the topic in question. In one of the cases consensus was reached quickly; in the other there was a robust discussion since two of the board members disagreed and the CEO wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Ultimately in that case as well there was consensus.
In each case I asked the executive what he’d heard back from the CEO. I got two versions of “the board had a discussion, there was a lot of disagreement, but the board wanted us to do blah.” I then asked, as non-politically as I could, “Do you think CEO wants to do that?” In both cases, the answer was “I’m not sure, but he knows the board wants that.”
I think this is a brutal communication mistake on the part of each of the CEOs. I’ve seen this many times over the past sixteen years since I stopped being a CEO and started being a board member. In each case the CEO is abdicating some responsibility for the decision. In the worst situation, the CEO is blaming the board for a decision and ultimately setting up a very negative context if the decision is an incorrect one – as in “see – I didn’t want to do this but the board did – so it’s not my fault.”
I’ve come to believe that the only real operating decision that a board makes is to fire the CEO. Sure, the board – and individual board members – are often involved in many operational decisions, but the ultimate decision is (and should be) the CEO’s. If the CEO is not in a position to be the ultimate decision maker, he shouldn’t be the CEO. And if board members don’t trust the CEO to make the decision, they should take one of two actions available to them – leave the board or replace the CEO.
In one of the cases, I asked the executive “if I told you the CEO was strongly in favor of the decision, would that impact you.” The response was a simple one: “yes – I’d be much more motivated to make sure we did it right.” I smiled and reinforced that the CEO was in fact supportive, which I think was a relief (and motivator) to this particular executive.
In my leadership experience, people really value when a leader takes responsibility for a decision, even if it turns out to be an incorrect one. CEO’s – don’t be the guy who says “the board made me do it.”
I had several conversations with entrepreneurs this week who were struggling with a specific issue that had plagued them for a while. In each case these are strong, capable entrepreneurs who I’ve known for a long time. As with all entrepreneurs (and humans), they have strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots. In each case, I felt like self-doubt had crept into their brains around the specific weakness they were struggling with.
On the way to the airport, I had call with another entrepreneur that I work with. Same tenor – something that he’s struggled with for a while was causing him to lose confidence. We talked most of the way to the airport and by the end of the conversation, it was clear that, while this is an issue that has been a struggle for a while, it’s one that this person has actually done a good job on, but just has never crushed it. The frustration – over a period of time – started to morph into self doubt.
When I realized this, I gave him some specific suggestions, using the frame of reference of “inquiry.” This is how I deal with my own self doubt. Whenever I find myself struggling with something that I think is important, I go on an inquiry to learn as much as I can about the issue, figure out what I’m struggling with, figure out a solution that works for me, and then implement it. I’ve done this numerous times in my life – sometimes the inquiries are short (24 hours); other times they last a decade or more.
When I thought about what might be generating this self doubt in otherwise successful, smart, and intellectually / emotionally strong people, I realized that the context that we are in is often a driver. Suddenly lots of companies are having what appears to be success and rapid growth. If you are an entrepreneur and you are not running one of these, even if you are experienced and successful, it’s easily to start to doubt yourself. This is especially true when you find yourself in a bumpy spot in your business.
Perspective matters a lot at these moments. I’ve had a lot of successes and failures. Whenever I fail at something, I just get up, try to learn something from it, and try again. But I don’t benchmark myself against others – I don’t care where I am on any particular list, I don’t care what other people are saying, I don’t care what is written about me (good or bad). I just try to learn from each experience and get better. And, when I realize that I’m doubting my ability to do something, I double down on the notion of figuring it out and use an inquiry to get me there.
Andre Durand brings 18 years of software industry executive leadership experience to his role as founder and CEO at Ping Identity. Durand co-founded Digital ID World, the identity industry conference (acquired by IDG in 2007). Prior to Ping Identity, Durand founded Jabber, Inc., an instant messaging and presence management software provider (acquired by Cisco in 2009). While at Jabber, Durand incubated the Jabber Software Foundation, a non-profit established to facilitate growth of the Jabber Open Source project. Prior to Jabber, Inc., Durand was founder and CEO of Durand Communications, a bulletin board software provider (acquired by Webb Interactive in 1998). Durand holds BA degrees in Biology and Economics from the University of California.