The Deep, Dark, Emotional Challenges of Being a Leader

I got to spend a lot of time with my close friend Rand Fishkin the past few days. The first was at Denver Startup Week, where we did a panel discussion with Ben Huh and Bart Lorang where we discussed the pact between CEO and Board, the pact between Founder and Investor, and how to be transparent and direct.

The next day, Rand led a full day offsite for a number of CEOs in our portfolio.

In between, he wrote an epic blog post titled A Long, Ugly Year of Depression That’s Finally Fading. Go read it now – I’ll wait.

I love Rand – not in that surface “I love you man” kind of way. Ever since I met him and his wife Geraldine, I’ve adored them as a couple and each as individuals. I often develop deep personal relationships with the people I work with which can be challenging when businesses struggle and difficult decisions have to be made. I’ve had a few friendships fail as a result of the pressure, stress, and intensity of working through certain situations, but far more have strengthened as a result. It’s a risk I decided to take a long time ago and I’ll continue to do it, even when I have to cope with my own anxiety, emotional struggles, and even depression, as a result.

We invested in Moz in April 2012. Rand wrote so extensively about it in his post Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future that almost all of the major tech blogs declined to write about it “because all the news was covered in the post.” Whatever.

The first nine months were great – the business grew as planned as I started to get to know everyone and how things worked at Moz. The company was working on a major rebrand (from SEOMoz to Moz) as well as a huge software expansion which was started before I invested. But by mid-year 2013 things were not going as planned. Rand has written extensively about it, but when he and Geraldine visited us in Boulder for a few days around that time both Amy and I thought Rand was depressed.

By the winter time, Rand had decided to hand the CEO roles to his longtime partner and COO Sarah Bird. Shortly after, he acknowledged his depression in his post at the end of 2013 when he wrote Can’t Sleep; Caught in The Loop. Regardless of his struggle, he continued to work incredibly hard, but we started having a different conversation, this time as friends rather than investor / board member and CEO / founder. I was more concerned about Rand’s mental health than his activity at Moz, and our conversations were generally around this. At the same time, Sarah grabbed the CEO reins firmly and has done an outstanding job, which I knew would ultimately be helpful to Rand.

Rand looked better in the past few days than I’ve felt he looked in several years. I was thrilled to see his post come out between our rambling Denver Startup Week discussion and the full day of the CEO offsite.

Most of all, I’m delighted that my friend Rand’s depression is finally starting to fade. Rand – you are amazing – and loved by me and many. Carry that with you all the time.

  • I have a lot of respect for Rand. Being an entrepreneur is not easy. It’s great to hear that he is bouncing back.
    I started to listen to that video, and will finish it tomorrow.

  • Sort of an interesting discussion. Bart said something interesting that started me thinking. He said something to the effect that Techstars had been calling to recruit them. I sort of had this impression that you had to apply and go through this difficult acceptance process. Interesting to hear that they recruited. Care to comment on that interaction and whether Foundry had anything to do with them going after FullContact? Some might interpret that as stacking the deck.

    • Techstars actively recruits lots of startups into the various programs.
      I didn’t know anything about FullContact until after they were in Techstars, although we point many early stage companies at Techstars.

  • This was the best thing I’ve read (and watched) in a while. Thank you for the boldness required to share this stuff. I know the challenge of depression first-hand. Bravo.

  • Rick

    More and more depression. What’s the deal with that? Is it just the personality of entrepreneurs or does the start up game cause it? I think that’s a good question to find the answer to.
    Anyone here have any clues about it?

  • Joshua Schukman

    Brad – your post here is absolutely touching and refreshing. I think sometimes in the midst of startup life, we lose sight of the psychological effects all of this can have. Rand is incredibly fortunate to have a friend like you who would so selflessly support him and write such a post. Thanks for grounding us today.

  • From the annals, for Rand: Gelassenheit

  • Reading the Hard Things About Hard Things and you can understand why a CEO might get depressed. It’s not an easy job at the startup level, or the large corporate level.

  • We need more honesty like this from those in the startup world. Things aren’t always – in fact, mostly not – launch parties and big exits, champagne and caviar. The day-to-day pressures of leading a startup (where almost everyone thinks they can do it better than you) are quite intense, and many entrepreneurs suffer from similar depressions from time to time. Thanks for sharing.

  • zprickett

    Excellent note and amazing open article by Rand. Also to add is how important a strong startup community can be. Hard enough pushing through this by yourself without an outside community to relate to and relax with.