I’m super lucky. I get to work with many incredibly brave and insightful people. One of them is Chris Heivly who is now working at Techstars with me and a few others on a new set of products around the concept of startup communities.
May is mental health month. Jenny Lawton, Techstars COO, led off Techstars commitment to engaging with the post Let’s End the Stigma Around Mental Health. Her call to action, before she goes on to talk about her experience with mental health issues, follows:
“May is Mental Health Awareness month and Techstars is driving to end the stigma that surrounds mental health. Let’s open up the conversation around it and what it means to our community and industry.”
Today, Chris went public with his story in the post That Time I Could Not Break My Depression. If you’ve never met Chris, he’s a gregarious, energetic, fully engaged entrepreneur who has had multiple successes. But, he has struggled with depression, as he says in the lead off of his story.
As I read his story, I was incredibly proud of him for being able to talk about it and provide leadership for others. Then I read Lance Powers (founder at Sigmend – Techstars Class 68) post The Vital Role of Community in Mental Health Support where he talks about his bipolar disorder.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be writing a post discussing my Bipolar disorder for my friends, coworkers, and entire community to see, I wouldn’t have believed you. Thanks to the hard work of my local community in Boulder and Denver, I am not only comfortable writing this post, I am proud.”
Lance has two statements that encapsulate what I believe.
On Saturday, Amy and I participated in the annual BCH Foundation Gala which this year was in support of the BCH Foundation Mental Health Endowment. As part of it, we announced a lead gift for the new BCH Della Cava Family Medical Pavilion which will be used primarily for behavioral and mental health issues.
While more is coming on the work Amy and I are doing with BCH, for now, I’m going to end with the simple statement. I am incredibly appreciative and proud for all the insights, support, and bravery of all my colleagues and friends, around the issues of depression and mental health in general. Thank you.
During Boulder Startup Week 2016, Dave Mayer of Technical Integrity moderated a panel on Mental Health and Wellbeing that I was on with Sarah Jane Coffey and Tom Higley. It ended up going 90 minutes and I remember it being powerful for me and the audience. Dave recently put it up on Youtube and wrote a blog post about it. His leadoff in his post sets things up nicely.
“During my relatively short six-year journey through the startup landscape- I’ve been through ugly founder breakups, I’ve lost plenty of money, lost way too much time, and I ended up in the hospital from exhaustion from too many 100 hour weeks. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reality of building new companies. I know of suicides, families being torn apart and of course several cases of debilitating depression.”
If this is a topic that is interesting, relevant, or important to you, I hope you enjoy our rambling session on it at Naropa during BSW 2016. Thanks Dave for organizing and hosting. And thanks to Sarah Jane and Tom for being vulnerable and brave enough to talk publicly about this stuff.
December is a tough time of year for a lot of people. While the holidays are awesome for some, they are really hard for others.
I know a lot of people around me who are anxious, upset, stressed, or some other version of “not in a good place.” Some of it is the holidays, some is the end of the year, some is the outcome of the US election, and some is other things.
This morning I woke up to two good articles on mental health. I’m quoted widely, along with some of my personal story, in the Fortune Magazine article by Laura Entis titled Entrepreneurs Take on Depression. As a bookend, I was told in the article Mental health and relationships ‘key to happiness’ that a new London School of Economics study has determined that “good mental health and having a partner make people happier than doubling their income.”
Yesterday my partners and I had our quarterly offsite. A big part of it is what we now call a “partner check in” where we answer the question “How am I?” This answer can cover any dimension – personal, interpersonal, professional. It can be 1:1 with someone else, it can be with 1:2, or 1:3. It can cover one’s relationship with a spouse, kids, or family. It can be something in our head, heart, body, or soul. It can be very specific – an interaction dynamic with a CEO or founder – or something general, abstract, or even mysterious.
I wore a shirt with my favorite Helen Frankenthaler quote to remind me of our rules around our partner check in (and my approach to life in general.)
I’m in a good place so I was able to listen more than talk yesterday, which is probably a relief to my partners.
Even though some aspects of 2016 have been awesome, we all have agreed that we are ready to put 2016 in the books and move on to 2017. As we each talked about “How am I?” we recalled a number of traumatic, stressful, and anxiety producing events in the past year. We are all getting older so more health issues are appearing in our extended network of friends, so learning how to deal with them is becoming more important. Modulating the macro, especially post election, has become a more central theme for each of us.
There were a lot of specific things discussed that aren’t appropriate for me to write about, but the discussion reinforced with me how powerful the EQ of each of my partners is and my thankfulness that we have a level of emotional intimacy that we comfortably refer to as both business love and personal love.
For me, it cycles back to relationships. My relationship with my wife Amy grounds and centers me. My relationship with my partners allows me to be myself and spend time in an organization that provides me with continuous love, even against a backdrop of the endless stress, conflict, challenges, and struggle of entrepreneurship. While my extended family, which goes beyond just my parents and my brother (and now includes the spouses and kids of my partners), has its moments (like all families), it’s a source of profound joy for me much of the time.
December used to be very difficult for me. For many years, I fought the transition to the new year, was generally exhausted at the end of the year, and just wanted to hide. I described myself as a “cranky jewish kid who felt left out by Christmas.” At the end of 2012 I slipped into a deep depression that lasted six months. I learned a lot from that experience, and view it as my fundamental transition into middle age.
While I still don’t engage in Christmas, I now treasure the last few weeks of the year, as I reflect on the past year and get ready for the year to come. But, if you are feeling some December blues, or even depression, don’t fight it. Instead, do something for yourself. Be reflective. Let the emotions exist. And be encouraged that, like me, you can get to a better place, but it can take time.
Today’s #GivingThanks post is for my dear friend Jerry Colonna. When I make a list of non-family members and non-partners who I would want to be stranded on a desert island with, Jerry is at the top of the list.
Before I tell a story, if you want to participate in #GivingThanks to Jerry, please make a donation to Naropa University where Jerry is the chair of the board. I was going to try to create some kind of complicated matching donation scheme since I hadn’t made a gift to Naropa yet this year but I decided to just gift them $10,000 (which I just did now through the website) so I encourage you to support at any level if you want to participate in my not-so-complicated match.
I met Jerry in 1995. I was chair of NetGenesis, which was the first angel investment I’d made after selling Feld Technologies (my first company). NetGenesis had raised some money and had created three different products – net.Forms (a web form manager), net.Thread (a web threaded discussion board), and net.Analysis (a weblog analysis tool). While our customer for each product was the same (a webmaster or a company trying to build a website), we were having trouble leading with all three products. Allaire was eating our lunch on .Form, a company called eShare was picking us apart on .Thread, and this new company called WebTrends was torturing us on .Analysis. A year earlier, none of this had existed – now we realized we needed to focus on one product. We chose net.Analysis and went about selling the other two products to different companies.
Jerry had just invested in eShare. Somehow Raj Bhargava (the NetGenesis CEO) had connected with Jim Tito (the eShare CEO) and worked a deal to sell him net.Thread. NetGenesis got some of eShares equity, eShare got the net.Thread product, and I joined the eShare board.
That started a 20+ year relationship between me and Jerry that I comfortably use the word “love” to describe.
Jerry became partners with Fred Wilson and they started Flatiron Partners. We all started working with SoftBank as affiliates (along with Rich Levandov). I eventually co-founded SoftBank Technology Partners (which became Mobius Venture Capital) and SoftBank (the corporation) became a 50% LP in Flatiron with Chase. We made more investments together. As Jerry and Fred’s relationship evolved, so did mine (with each of them) as we had different kinds of professional and personal connections.
I remember a moment in what must have been 1999, sitting at Jerry’s desk in NY in a dark office (I never really like office lighting so I work without it on and it had turned into evening in NY.) I was trying to get a deal done and it was a stressful mess. The tension of the Internet bubble bursting hadn’t started yet, but I was already exhausted and negotiating basically all the time with everyone about everything. I hung up the phone and put my head down on Jerry’s desk. I wasn’t crying, but I was probably in a parallel emotional zone. Jerry walked in the room, saw me, and wrapped his whole body around me and just covered me up. It was one of those moments I’ll never forget – total, compete emotional intimacy in the context of support. I’m sure he was feeling the same kind of stress and in the moment we just hugged. And then I cried.
Jerry has a super power – he makes grown men (and women) cry in a business context. But that’s the super power – it’s not a business context, it’s life, and he helps us understand that in powerful, unique, and profound ways.
In 2002 Jerry retired from venture capital and went on his own personal journey for meaning. He was an extremely successful VC but woke up one day hating the work, feeling unfulfilled, and struggling with what became a deep depression. I was fighting my way through my own dark shit then so we didn’t see each other often, but when we did it was extremely helpful to me. There was an immediate sense of comfort, of love, of empathy, and of understanding. It didn’t matter what we talked about – we were just there, together, in the moment.
Today, Jerry runs a CEO coaching company called Reboot. Their mission – front and center on their website – says it all.
“We believe that in work is the possibility of the full realization of human potential. Work does not have to destroy us. Work can be the way we achieve our fullest self. Reboot is a coaching company. We help entrepreneurs and their teams deal with the internal ups and downs of entrepreneurship and support the growth they need to improve their performance and their life.”
I believe that Jerry is the best CEO coach on this particular planet. I’ve seen, and experienced, his magic many times. He’s found his purpose in life, and it’s wonderful to see him practice it every day.
Jerry also moved to Boulder last year. That means I see him a lot more in person that I used to. I still have to make a mental adjustment when Amy and I run into him and Ali on the Pearl Street Mall heading off to different restaurants for dinner, but an enormous smile always crosses my face when it happens.
Jerry – thank you for being you. And for everything you do in this world.
At the end of the day yesterday I gave a talk at the opening of Galvanize Boulder. After, during the Q&A, someone brought up depression and I went on a long ramble about my own struggles over the years, how I’ve grown and developed, how it has impacted me, and what I do today to work on my mental fitness. During another ramble on introvert / extrovert, I told the crowd I was exhausted from the past few weeks and rather than stick around and mingle, I was going to head home to spend a quiet evening with Amy immediately after my session because I needed to recharge.
I got home by 6:30 to a nice bowl of rice and beans that Amy had made. We ate and caught up on the day. While we were talking, she said “Francie Anhut died.” I sat for a moment. I knew Francie had cancer. I didn’t have any words. Francie was one of the first people I met when I moved to Boulder and our paths had crossed many times. We weren’t super close, but we were supportive of many things Francie did and I was always happy whenever we saw each other.
Amy then mentioned two other Boulder people we both knew who had died in the past month of cancer. More silence. We talked about a close friend of Amy’s who is in remission from a major cancer and is doing amazingly well. We talked about how fragile life is and how happy we are to be alive and with each other.
We then filled out our ballots and voted. We mail in our votes in Boulder so we sat for about thirty minutes, went through each issue and person, and voted deliberately. By 8:00, we were both totally exhausted.
“Do you want to read, watch TV, or catch up on email?” I asked.
“I want to go to sleep.”
“Ok – let’s just do a quick scan of email and call it a night.”
As we were sitting in our library in front of our computers, we each half heartedly scanned through our email. This email was marked 7:22pm so it arrived around the time we were working on our ballots and was titled “Another recent suicide & sabbatical.”
“Was thinking about your sabbatical
Today as I am just now coming out of a fog post Denver Startup Week and GAN Rally. I’m realizing the impact and exhaustion I feel this time of the year, after those events. The sabbatical is something I see in this moment as a great idea to integrate in the future post Denver startup week.
Hate to keep sending you this news, but I know you’re someone taking action on mental health and entrepreneurship.
I just heard of a husband and wife team who took their lives next week. He was an integral part of the entrepreneurial community here in Colorado.
From Greg Barry: local in Boulder. I am in total shock. A friend and business partner, Kevin Johansen, along with his wife, Karen, took his life last week. I still can’t believe it’s true, even though his son and sister have posted about it online. I’ve known Kevin for 20 years, and we spoke every 3-6 months, if not every day, when we were working together.”
It was longer so I finished reading it. I started silently crying. I turned to Amy and said “I don’t think you know him, but Kevin Johansen and his wife Karen committed suicide recently. He was an entrepreneur in town.”
Amy’s whole being slumped in her chair. I could see her deflate. I realized that I had no capacity to process this given how tired I was, the conversation we had throughout the evening, the act of voting in what is easily the most angry, hostile, and disturbing election cycle I’ve experienced, and the notion that I was still absorbing that Francie and two other people I knew had died.
I don’t really remember getting in bed. I mechanically brushed my teeth but I think that was it. When I woke up this morning, the first thing I thought of was Kevin Johansen.
His family is doing a Johansen Memoriam Fund via GoFundMe to support funeral expenses. I just went and made a gift as a contribution from the Boulder startup community. If you’ve benefit from the local startup community, which Kevin and Karen gave so much of themselves to, please make any size contribution.
Most importantly, spend at least a minute today taking a deep breath and realizing life is fragile and precious.
After a 30 day hard reset (also known as sabbatical) I felt like this was an important re-entry topic as I fling myself back into the fray.
Several years ago I got tired of the phrase “Work Life Balance” (and its various permutations – Work/Life Balance and Work-Life Balance.) When Amy and I wrote Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur we wrestled a lot with this notion, and the phrase. At the time we didn’t have a better way to phrase it, so “Work Life Balance” persisted throughout the book as we tried to describe and discuss the endless challenges of a partnership as a couple in the context of an entrepreneurial life.
During a talk a year or so ago, I used the word “harmony” instead of “balance.” Within moments I realized that I’d solved a phrasing that had been vexing me for years. We don’t strive for work life balance, as the two never are in balance. Instead, we strive for work life harmony. I’m not very musical, but I know when something sounds in harmony, or harmonious, and suddenly I had a new phrase – “work life harmony” – which now is the way I think of the delicate dance of an entrepreneurial couple (and many other couples), along with many individuals.
Recently, I was having the same problem with the phrase “mental health.” I was being interviewed about depression and talking about how I thought about therapy. I’m a huge fan of therapy, having spent five years in my 20’s with a Harvard-trained, old school psychiatrist and more recently with a Harvard-trained psychologist since my depressive episode in 2013. While they have been very different experiences, they have each been profound for me.
I characterize my therapy sessions a “spending an hour a week on Planet Brad.” I pay the person to listen to me talk about whatever I want to discuss. He (both my therapists have been male) guides me through a deeper exploration of whatever I bring up in various ways. He connects things together over time, bringing up deeper insights. He is patient, doesn’t judge me, is a completely safe place to discuss and explore anything, and customizes what he talks about to what is going on with me in the moment. I ended this section of the interview by saying that my therapist played an analogous role in my life as my long time running coach, but for my mental fitness rather than my physical fitness.
And there it was. I loved the phrase “mental fitness.” Every time I say the phrase “mental health”, I feel like I’m fighting a stigma, explaining something that is probably uncomfortable to many on the receiving end, generating biases, and struggling to explain that working on your mental health is a good thing, not a bad thing.
In contrast, mental fitness is positive, uplifting, and has no stigma associated with it. While I’m sure the phrase “mental health”, like “work life balance”, will regularly sneak into my writing and talking, I’m going to try hard to use “mental fitness” as my default, just like “work life harmony” has become my default. If you look carefully, you’ll even notice that the category on this blog, previously called “Mental Health”, is now called “Mental Fitness.”