Editor’s note: David Selinger is CEO and Co-Founder of RichRelevance. He previously co-founded Redfin and led the research and development arm of Amazon.com’s Data Mining and Personalization team. Follow him on Twitter @daveselinger.
The passing of Jody Sherman stirred something deep within my soul. Jody was a friend, but not a close friend. Definitely not close enough to explain the degree to which I felt saddened. I still do not know Jody’s situation sufficiently to draw any conclusions or even analogies, but I have spent the past weeks reflecting on my own dark nights as a startup founder, and want to issue a call to arms to the entire startup community to recognize this challenge, its pervasiveness, and the opportunity it presents before us.
Because this is such a sensitive topic, I want to be very clear: while the events surrounding Jody’s passing are the real and sincere inception of this personal reflection, that is the entirety of the connection. I do not wish to speculate or in any way further examine the reasons for Jody’s decision out of respect for him and his family.
The life of a startup CEO can be lonely. People may know and acknowledge this, but we haven’t taken much time to understand its underpinnings (and thereby its mitigating factors) or its implications. I’ve spent the last month or so searching for the root cause of the torment of my own experience, and after days of rambling thought have arrived at the conclusion: fear.
My fear has two forms: fear of failing (in the future) and fear of discovering (or worse! being discovered) I have already failed, by choosing a path with a dead end; I simply haven’t found out yet.
All of the people with whom I interact daily have a direct dependency relationship on me. And behind this “Masters of the Universe” smile, my bold stride, and my unwavering voice is a little soul that is afraid: “What if I can’t do all of this?”
My co-workers/employees need me: They need to believe in where we’re going and that I am the leader who sees the future in a way that can bring them there. My customers need me: They need to know that our product and services work as promised (they do!) and that I will do everything humanly possible to deliver not only the technology but the business results they desire. My investors need me: They need to have confidence that their investment will have a return. My family needs me: They need to know that our future is financially secure and that I can put food on the table.
Sometimes I’m afraid that I may not be the superhuman who can do all of these things for all these people all the time. In the moments alone in a dark hotel room, in the middle of a four-city week, sometimes I’m not only afraid of the answer, sometimes I’m afraid even to ask. What would these people think if they knew that sometimes I have doubts?
My gut tells me it’s not only me. I see the CEO who’s been to 10 other events with me, she always says “Great” when you ask her “How’s biz?”—right up until the moment the TC article announces she’s shut her doors, or laid off half her staff. Or I see the CEO who’s smiling, signing autographs for his amazing new book, but breaking down in tears one-on-one after everyone’s left, because he just fired his co-founder and best friend of 15 years.
I’ve experienced it deeply myself. In 2010, we grew headcount too far ahead of our revenue, and we had to lay off some of our staff. I was ashamed. But above all, I was afraid that I would lose the confidence of my team, my investors, my family, my co-founders. I didn’t sleep for the 45 days leading up to the lay-off.
Of course, we survived, became stronger, and we even grew (we tripled our 2010 revenue in 2012); but my soul is scarred to this day with the fear of that, the worst day of my career.
With the hope it might help some other folks, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned:
Together these principles have helped me bring my life a sense of balance. From time to time, I may still feel the pangs of isolation from my job, but the perspective that a founder/CEO role should be fundamentally isolating must become a thing of the past. It is a stigma that has taken too much from our community already.
I hope that by sharing a bit of my experience I can advance our all-too-critical dialog to create a healthier model of the startup CEO/founder.