Founders On Depression

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Last month, I wrote a post asking people working in startups to seek help if they are dealing with depression. It was a personal plea, because I have dealt with depressive episodes since I was a teenager and hate thinking about other people suffering without support.

The scope of my advice is limited, however, because I don’t have the experience of balancing the emotional and physical strains of depression with founding a new company. So I decided to reach out to founders who have coped with depression and ask them to share their experiences and advice with their peers. Because there is still stigma attached to depression and other psychological issues, I decided to make all responses anonymous.

Everyone I corresponded with is in the process of launching a tech company, but they represent a very diverse range of viewpoints, and each has their own way of thinking about depression and dealing with it. Personally, I found what they wrote a very important reminder that there are different ways of coping and that even when things feel hopeless, there are always new possibilities, strategies, and perspectives to pursue.

I’d like to thank these founders for their insight, sense of humor, and advice, and for taking the time to respond to my questions. I would also like to continue writing more about depression and other psychological issues from a tech perspective. If you have a story idea or feedback, please email me at shu@techcrunch.com 

Resources:

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America

The National Alliance of Mental Health’s support hotline

Founder 1:

“I totally re-evaluated what was important to me and realised that work just really isn’t that important.”

Q: Who did you talk to about your depression? How did you approach them? What were their reactions?

A: I haven’t talked to anybody directly about it. Touched the surface with my co-founder but it’s always in quite a joking and light tone…. not like… hey I have this serious problem and it’s really affecting everything I do! We’ve both been through a very hard time building our startup, so we share that experience and talk about those challenges together and how it took over our lives completely – but not as far as sustained depression.

We have an unusual set-up in that I’m based in New Zealand and my co-founder is in New York and all our employees/contractors are spread around the world. So it’s very easy for me to hide it.

Q: How do you balance taking care of yourself and running a startup?

Last year was one of the worst. I was in San Francisco for three months trying to raise money and I’d moved there from New Zealand not knowing anybody. We were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and the way I felt made everything seem impossible, when it likely was all possible. I was also doing a Masters at Auckland University via correspondence which I think probably tipped the balance and I became quite ill with Shingles, which is the worst physical pain I’ve ever felt! Usually you get that when you’re much older, or when your immune system is shot.

After that I decided to make big changes. We stopped trying to raise money around an ambitious idea and instead pulled everything back to the basics, to focus on building our own apps at our own pace. I returned to New Zealand (also because my VISA ran out) and shortly after dropped out of Uni. That was about a year ago, the next six months were still stressful but not nearly as bad. I kept taking work too seriously which I think is central to my problem.2760932440_5bcaffc3c3_o

A close friend of mine passed away early in December last year and I felt so bad because I last saw her on a Friday, and she asked to meet me on the following Monday but I said I was too busy with an app launch to meet. The last time I saw her I chose some stupid app launch because I thought it was so important…. then I never saw her again. I was so sad I didn’t go to work for the rest of the year, officially, and wasn’t part of the launch which went fine without me. So really it wasn’t that important after all.

Work can be cool and it defines many people, but for me it was destroying me and I was missing the best parts of life.

I then totally re-evaluated what was important to me and realised that work just really isn’t that important. People matter the most, and time to stop and see the world. Work can be cool and it defines many people, but for me it was destroying me and I was missing the best parts of life. Practically speaking I then took off every Monday without fail, as a day just for me, to learn about myself without any work things. I stopped caring about problems at work, still dealt with them but with no stress….. because I realised that nothing can be as bad dying, or even close to it….. problems lost their stress which actually makes dealing with them so much easier – a win-win.

Just recently, the last few weeks, I’ve actually felt like coming to work again on a Monday… so I think I had enough of a break to get on my feet and feel like working on fun projects. We’ve started to do quite well and most of the dire financial pressure is also now off… so things are looking up in that respect.

I can’t speak for others but for myself it was realising what really is important, friends, family and love. Then you can be free to pursue work with a sound emotional footing.

When you’re depressed it feels like there is no hope, while the reverse is true of happiness. When you’re happy you feel like anything is possible if you take the right steps.

Q: Do you have a plan for how to deal with depression if it comes back?

I still get depressed from time-to-time but that’s probably natural for my personality, I’m a very sensitive person. But when it’s in short bursts it’s much easier to talk yourself out of it… to remember that there is hope, and that you can be happy. When it goes on for a long time it’s hard to remember what those good feelings are like, and if you will ever see them again.

I use positive self-talk, I think about what I’ve learned, I think about my friend who passed, and I do practical things like drag myself out of the house on my bicycle. Bike riding is amazing.

Q: Do you think there is more stigma against mental illness in the tech community than the rest of society? How do you deal with it?

I do, if you run a company with shareholders and expectations of success it helps to show you are strong, that you can handle everything. A lot of the projects we work on are collaborations with other digital agencies/developers. If they thought we were melting down as entrepreneurs then perhaps they wouldn’t want to partner or share as much risk with us.

I think once you have the success of someone like Brad Feld you can be public about it. Because he has proven he can be very successful even with depression.

Maybe I could tell everyone and it’d be fine, but at least for now I feel like it would work against our chances.

I’m quite naughty about how I deal with it…. : ) … If I’m feeling really depressed I won’t come into the office around others, I won’t answer the phone and will re-schedule calls / meetings. The reason is I basically cannot function properly, speak well or make sound decisions. Where I’m at now I don’t need to do this because I can talk myself back to happiness. But certainly I have used avoidance in the past.

Founder 2:

“Once you’ve been depressed once, you know that depression is not sadness – it’s just numbness.”

Q: How do you balance taking care of yourself and running a startup?

I think the key word is balance. I went through many years of my life thinking that balance was for losers and that people truly passionate about their work are possessed by it and therefore cannot separate between life and work. That’s bullshit. Before I used to work all the time and because I didn’t have any discipline around it, I was really unproductive and obviously, highly emotional about everything. Now I try to “treat myself” to runs and TV shows and BBQs with friends and books that make my brain twist in ways that work doesn’t. I am now a million times more productive, happier and real.

Q: Do you have a plan for how to deal with depression if it comes back?

The strange thing about depression is that it becomes addictive. It’s a weird reaction but what usually happens with founders is that they often become overwhelmed, right? Once you’ve been depressed once, you know that depression is not sadness – it’s just numbness. It’s the reaction of your mind’s “immune system” to protect you from overwhelming “viruses.” Issue with that is it becomes a habit to seek numbness when your mind is overwhelmed. Numbness is soothing and tolerable. Real life usually isn’t if you’re running a startup and you’re also young and immature like 90% of the founders out there (including myself). So what I do is I try to talk about it openly. When I feel the inner freakout approaching, I call a friend and I tell them everything that is pressing me. I also try to affiliate the freakout with a sensation in my body that I can then address (harder to address mental sensations). And finally, the biggest and most important thing is to embrace that it’s always going to be there, tempting you to fall back in and to embrace it. Not giving yourself a hard time about it is 90% of the cure.

I went through many years of my life thinking that balance was for losers and that people truly passionate about their work are possessed by it and therefore cannot separate between life and work. That’s bullshit.

Q: Do you think there is more stigma against mental illness in the tech community than the rest of society? How do you deal with it?

First of all, not sure I would call depression mental illness. In fact, I am offended by the word. It’s like saying that having a fever when you get a cold is having a muscle illness. I think the majority of people out there are depressed at some point and have no idea because society deems depression as a “mental illness” and therefore as something foreign and strange that only mentally ill people have. Key to addressing this ever growing phenomenon, especially in today’s social networking age that the tech community has helped bring about, is to accept it as a natural consequence of life and address it as such.

Don’t think there is an extra stigma in the tech community. If anything, I think the tech community is conducive to depression because it applauds excess and the lack of life balance. It also applauds depression and the rise from it. I’ve always found that strange. Feels like the rest of SV buys lottery tickets and just sits around in an arena watching us entrepreneurs rise and fall.

Founder 3:

“Part of having depression is that there is a deeply painful isolating quality.”

Q: Who did you talk to about your depression? How did you approach them? What were their reactions?

A: In all honesty, the people I talk to most about my challenge with depression are my parents…my mom in particular. Though that might seem a bit odd, the reality is that my depression started manifesting itself about halfway through high school and as I had always (luckily) enjoyed a fairly understanding relationship with my parents, I found that the best sounding board for my pain and frustrations were indeed my mom and dad.

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Truthfully, my depression began to worsen towards the end of high school when, at the time, there were a few family issues that exacerbated my pain. One might see this as partly ironic because it was at this point that I began to HEAVILY get into music and poetry, two things that I would carry with me and would eventually lead me to the kind of startup I am creating. The deeper I searched for meaning in the words of long dead poets like Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, the more I began to connect in a very cerebral way with what I was listening to and reading.

This had a very profound effect on me…I still carry that same deep identification with the music I discovered today, and it is part of what has driven me so intensely to put together my music-tech startup. I am indeed so connected to the music industry because of that cerebral quality that I say that my company is a music company that just happens to have a tech bent, rather than the other way around. This could seem superfluous on the surface, but it was precisely this deep identification with music and poetry that led to my ability to articulate my pain to my parents (in addition to my close friends at the time). Part of having depression is that there is a deeply painful isolating quality…almost as if it’s better to be alone with your thoughts than to talk about them.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is the initial approach of the people who love you to tell them that you are struggling, and need support and positive encouragement from them.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons that music and poetry (for me) were so important: they gave me the mouthpiece to approach the people who cared about me and let them know that I was in pain and needed support to make it through such a tough time.

Reactions always vary…some people have a “suck it up” attitude while others immediately seek to medicate. For me, I was lucky enough to have people who listened on a deeper level than just wanting to put me on a “magic pill.” They understood that it took an enormous amount of strength to come forward and admit (out loud) that the feelings I was dealing with were more than just having a bad day. And even more so, they seemed to understand that for me, the music and writing (and painting) helped me to express myself let go of these negative feelings in a constructive way.

I believe that if things had gone too far passed that (to the dangerous areas they sometimes do for some people), that the people who I relied upon most would have done whatever they could to help me in the best way they could, whether that meant helping me to find a counselor who was good for me, or whatever the case might have been. In the end, perhaps the greatest challenge is the initial approach of the people who love you to tell them that you are struggling, and need support and positive encouragement from them.

Q: How do you balance taking care of yourself and running a startup?

A: Wow, that’s a pretty good question. I wonder if any entrepreneur actually strikes a “good” balance haha…we keep irregular hours, deal with loads of stress unseen (even to our teams sometimes), and much of established society doesn’t understand what we’re trying to do (if they did, they’d be doing it themselves).

I think for me, part of how I keep the balance of running a startup and caring for myself is understanding what makes me feel better when I’m down and feeling stressed. I actually talk about this with my mom a lot, since she doesn’t like seeing me feeling down (and what parent would?). For some people, they feel the best when they work out, so they go for a run…or some people do something relaxing, like gardening or whatever. For me, I am always happiest when I’m creating, even if it isn’t for my startup at all. I write poetry daily, and paint every few days.

My earliest identification was as a writer, so I’m constantly writing…poetry, stories, essays, journalism, music, etc. Add to that the new love I have for visual art (I have a minor in art history), so when I’m not writing, I’m painting, drawing, or just doodling. I think I recognize that my most cerebral identification is as an artist.

As much as I’d like to say that I identify most as a tech wiz, the reality is that I’m not one, and I don’t. I’m an artist who happens to be in the tech industry, and that’s actually something I’m pretty proud of…I think it just makes for a fun conversation when I sit down with a real tech person, and we see the world completely differently, but in complimentary ways. It’s pretty cool. With regard to running the startup, I get up every day and know that this is what I want to do. I eat, sleep and breathe it. And if one day I didn’t, then I would find something else.

I think the best entrepreneurs are the people who do what they do and disrupt the industries that they do out of sheer love of the community they’re in. I come from a music and artistic background and just figured out a way to parlay that into working in the tech industry. But if you had told me five years ago I’d be in the tech sphere I would never have believed it…I’m here and doing what I do because I love the independent musicians that I work with, and just wanted to find a way to help them even more than I was with my radio show and my music blog.

Just as much as I anticipate having a Rolodex (does anyone have those anymore haha?) filled with investors’ emails and programmer numbers, I will still always take just as much time to talk directly to the artists who have been my good friends for years now.

Q: Do you have a plan for how to deal with depression if it comes back?

I think my plan for dealing with depression if it comes back is very simple: do whatever it takes to never let it cripple me the way it did in high school. That may seem overly simplified but it’s the truth. If my writing and painting doesn’t work the way it does now to help me feel less stressed and more productive, then I will seek out the help of someone who can help me see the world in a more positive way. This may be a counselor, or a family member. I know that the people I love–my friends, my family, my girlfriend–always want to see me at the best I can be, and would always do whatever it takes to help me feel that way. To me, it’s very simple: do what it takes to find happiness. You end up asking yourself one question: am I going to roll over and die? No. Then that just leaves the option of figuring out how you will help yourself to see life in a more positive, opportunity-filled way.

Q: Do you think there is more stigma against mental illness in the tech community than the rest of society? How do you deal with it?

A: Well, as I myself am new to the tech industry, I’m not sure I could really answer that in any definitive way. The reality is that even though I’m in the tech industry now, I’m still an artist…I’m not a programmer, so I don’t see the world the way a programmer would. In my industry (the art/music industry), it’s a little ironic…sometimes being tortured is more romantic somehow and leads to greater, more powerful creations in the forms of songs, artworks, or writings. I’m not really sure if the tech industry has the same romanticized idea of the “tortured artist” the same way that the music industry does.

I think that if the tech industry has any more stigma attached to depressed than the rest of society, then perhaps I am not wary of it only because I am such a newcomer. However, if I experienced such a stigma, I would respond the same way I always do…by painting a canvas, writing a poem, and starting a company. Creating is how I defend myself against the stigma…it’s a way that I prove to myself and everyone else that I’m not broken. “Look what I’ve created,” I can say, “I’ve written 15 collections of poetry, painted dozens of canvases, and run a company every day, who are you to judge me?” In a way, perhaps that’s something that the art/music industry can lend to the tech industry…the true “screw you, I’m an artist” attitude that sets us apart from the people who judge us.

Think how great and empowering it could be for a programmer or someone else in the tech industry struggling with depression to be able to say, “screw you, look at what I’ve created. I’m a technical artist, and this is my masterpiece. And tomorrow I will create a new masterpiece.” It’s less of an ego thing, I think, than being proud of your creation (and your ability to create), even if sometimes you’re a little intense or self-critical. I think the tech industry could learn a lot from the music or art industry because of how people see themselves. They’re creating for themselves, and if someone happens to like it, then that’s great. Though I’m not a coder myself, I like to think that coders do it for the sheer love of coding. It’s how they communicate with the world–how they create–and all of us in the tech industry should be cognizant that we are all artists, in one way or another.

Founder 4:

“A CEO shouldn’t bury their head into the sand and ignore the problem.”

Q: Who did you talk to about your depression? How did you approach them? What were their reactions?

Spoke to a counsellor from a young person’s charity. I approached them confidentially via a text message. They were very supportive and understanding. I didn’t know I had some mild depression until I went to see them. I believe I have been “cured” since – nowadays if I have a bad day, it tends to only last a bad day.

Q: How do you balance taking care of yourself and running a startup?

I try to exercise at least three to four times a week. If I hit a low, or am feeling stressed, I go for a run. I also try to talk to a good friend every day, someone who makes me feel good.

I also watch motivational videos on a daily basis – like those of ET the Hiphop Preacher and Greg Plitt (America’s No. 1 Male Model)

Q: Do you have a plan for how to deal with depression if it comes back?

I would probably tell my counselor. Also ensure I keep active and continue eating well. I also let my advisor know if I’m having a shit time; he’s really supportive. It’s important to surround yourself with empathetic people.

Also sleep. Sleep is very important for letting your brain sort its shit out!

Quite often, the most successful and famous people have failed repeatedly until they had a breakthrough.

Q: Do you think there is more stigma against mental illness in the tech community than the rest of society? How do you deal with it?

Not necessarily tech, more like in the investment community. They’re all about being risk averse. I recall reading about one VC complaining he wasn’t qualified to do psychological assessments.

Not everyone can have the perfect silver spoon life which many of these VCs would have come from, so I feel they may struggle to understand someone who has to battle some inner demons or external problems. Think about it – if you’re an investor – and you have to choose between two startups, one CEO has a history of depression, the other doesn’t… They wouldn’t want to invest in someone who will be at risk of suicide. Sadly it does happen – like the Bitcoin CEO Autumn Radtke.

4101188476_8b3832f725_bOne thing I would say though: I think people have more mental problems than they realise. The stronger, smarter of us will admit there’s something wrong and seek help for it and deal with it promptly. That is one quality a CEO should have; they shouldn’t bury their head into the sand and ignore the problem. If they do that with their personal life, will they do that with their business too?

I think the future is bright for me and for [my startup], and it fails, well, there will always be other startups! Sure that’s a nonchalant, possibly naive way to look at failure (if it happens), but just because your business is over, it doesn’t mean life is. And that is something every founder and CEO should remember. Quite often, the most successful and famous people have failed repeatedly until they had a breakthrough.

Founder 5:

“I’m better at running a startup than taking care of myself”

Q: How did you know you were depressed and not just stressed out?

A: I would be stressed if we had a deadline to launch our next release or about to go to an investor meeting. I would be depressed if I messed up an investor meeting, or was running out of cash, or numbers are not growing. Things that I could not do anything to change the result or make better, I would be depressed and when I was depressed I didn’t feel like doing anything.

Q: Who did you talk to about your depression? How did you approach them? What were their reactions?

A: I sometimes talked about it to my girlfriend and she always gave me a hug. It helped a lot. It made me feel like there is someone there for me no matter what.

Q: How do you balance taking care of yourself and running a startup?

A: I’m better at running a startup than taking care of myself but I do more exercise now. It helps to ease the stress.

Q: Do you have a plan for how to deal with depression if it comes back?

A: I treat it like playing a video game, every challenge in life I see it as a chapter in the game.

Q: Do you think there is more stigma against mental illness in the tech community than usual? How do you deal with it?

I treat it like playing a video game, every challenge in life I see it as a chapter in the game.

A: Yes I think so. I was in hardware industry before I launched a startup. The pace was a lot slower. Those technical books I read are nearly the same as from 40 years ago. In tech industry everything is like flying. A lot of information and technology to catch up on everyday. I feel like I can never take a rest.

Founder 6:

“Our medium is 24/7 and we are, in a way, always ‘on.'”

Q: How did you know you were depressed and not just stressed out?

A: Depression was something that I only realised I have had for many years. It showed itself during puberty but I simply consigned it to out of control hormones. When I was 16, 17, 18 and still feeling deeply depressed I blamed external factors such as school or my social life. It wasn’t until I spoke to friends of mine who also suffer from depression about what I was feeling they advised me to see a psychiatrist. After a brief conversation with him he diagnosed me. The stress of my startup was less of a factor in diagnosing my depression. It was as if something clicked in my head and all of the excuses that I had made for why I felt so crappy fell by the wayside and I could finally see the light.

Q: Who did you talk to about your depression? How did you approach them? What were their reactions?

When I told my family about it they were shocked. Their jovial son and sibling, who had always made a point of rambunctiously telling jokes and making the entire family laugh, was depressed? Inconceivable. However they also felt as if the wool had been lifted from their eyes. They saw the cracks of the facade that I had put over my face and realised that the apathy was not just laziness, the desire for solitude was not just anti-social behaviour but rather a part of who I am.

Q: How do you balance taking care of yourself and running a startup?

Firstly I’m on meds. These are, quite simply, what help me get through the day. Without them I would be crawling into a heap in my bed and crying my eyes out. Secondly I make sure not to work from home. When I initially began my social media marketing business I worked from home. Actually, I worked from bed. There would be days and days in which I wouldn’t shower, would eat only a few small things (usually chocolate covered or something that could be delivered) and would only leave my room if I had somewhere that I had to actually go. After a few months of this I realised how truly self-destructive it was.

I eventually rented a desk at a tech hub, walked to work to help boost my exercise and began to cook and eat healthily. This had a huge impact on my well-being. Not only was I able to separate my work and home life but I had somewhere to go to work and was able to be around people. Probably the most important thing I can say is that you need to have that threshold at the door that says: “this is my home…work stops now”.

Realistically those of us who are start-ups and work in social media have to understand that reality does not work that way. Our medium is 24/7 and we are, in a way, always ‘on’. I’m sitting here half a world away from my desk in Sydney and am answering work emails and setting up client meetings. It’s more difficult for us to have that work/personal boundary but we do need to strive to not allow our work to consume us. If we do then we can easily slip into a downward spire that is a truly destructive episode.

Probably the most important thing I can say is that you need to have that threshold at the door that says: “this is my home…work stops now”.

Q: Do you have a plan for how to deal with depression if it comes back?
A: Weekend in Vegas with coke and hookers! My depression comes to me more often than not. It’s a part of me, a part of my brain chemistry and a reality of who I am. Sometimes I just feel a little bit ‘down’ and can simply work through the episode before coming out fine. Other times I can feel that it’s going to be a particularly bad one and I will literally excuse myself from life for a while. You’ve just got to ride them out and convince yourself that no matter what your thoughts are telling you they’re not true. Curling up into a ball on your bed can sometimes be the best thing for you…as long as you’re strong enough to know that this too shall pass.

Q: What about stigma? Do you think there is more stigma against depression in the tech community than in society in general? How do you deal with that?

As I’m in a client facing business I feel that the stigma is there no matter what area I personally work in. Depression is one of the things that we are understanding about more and more each day however in many cases we reject our ever changing view of it. I think that for men it is particular difficult because we have to ascribe to a ‘macho’ culture. The tech community, in my opinion, has a great deal of problems that require quite a bit of self-reflection (our poor treatment of women is one of our most egregious crimes) but general understanding of depression and mental disorders in society at large is lacking. There is an incredible stigma against depressives in society that can only be combated with education.

I’m answering these questions anonymously for the very fact that there is a stigma. I risk my livelihood if it comes out that I am a depressive because of the discrimination that we face. With Google everything is now at everyone’s fingertips. If I out myself as a depressive then that is tied to me for life. It means that potential clients could see that and decide not to enter into a business relationship with me because they thing that I just lie in bed all day, that I won’t be able to properly handle their campaigns or that I’m a pill-popping junkie. These stigmas are not going to go away any time soon and so for now it’s best that I just stay quiet about it.

 

Images via Flickr users baerbel, kjcs, akiotakemoto, erwss

USER János Csongor Kerekes