Bringing Depression Out of The Shadows In Startups

I’ve been very open about my struggles with depression over the years. A few weeks ago, I participated in a Q&A with Greg Avery at the Denver Business Journal titled Brad Feld Q&A: Bringing depression out of the shadows in startups. It was part of a more extensive series on Depression, entrepreneurs and startups.

Since I’m still getting emails about it, I thought I’d republish the Q&A here.

Q: How common is the issue of depression in the startup world?

A: Very common, although it is rarely discussed. While the line between stress, deep anxiety, and depression often blurs, most entrepreneurs struggle with broad mental health issues at various points in their lives.

Q: How hard was it to acknowledge your struggle to yourself? And how hard was it to explain it to your partners and your peers?

A: Initially it was extremely hard. When I was in my mid-20s, running a successful company and clinically depressed, I was afraid to talk to anyone other than my psychiatrist about it. I was ashamed that I was even seeing a psychiatrist.

I was afraid people wouldn’t take me seriously, or would stop respecting me, if I talked about how bad I was feeling. The only people I talked openly about it with was my business partner, Dave Jilk, and my girlfriend — now wife — Amy Batchelor. They were amazingly supportive, but even then I was deeply ashamed about my weaknesses.

Q: When did you start to be so open about it?

A: After I became depressed for the second time, in my mid-30s — in 2001 just after Sept. 11 through the end of the year. The last three months of 2001 were awful for me after an 18-month stretch from the peak of the Internet bubble — spring 2000 through Sept. 11, 2001. That was a relentless slide downhill on all fronts.

Sept. 11 was the trigger point for this depression. I was in New York City after a red-eye from San Francisco, landing at 6 a.m. on 9/11. I was asleep in my hotel room in midtown [Manhattan] when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. While I was never in harm’s way, I was terrified, exhausted, and emotionally distressed.

Once I got back to Boulder, I didn’t travel for the rest of the year. In 2002, when most of my VC and entrepreneurial colleagues were having a terrible year, I acknowledged how much I had struggled in 2001, although I was still relatively discreet about it.

When I got depressed again at the end of 2012, I was open about it this time as it was happening and throughout the process. I knew at this point how to handle it and that it would pass.

I also knew many, many entrepreneurs also struggled with depression but, like I had been earlier in life, were afraid to discuss it.

Q: How much does the issue of mental health differ in startups from the world at large?

A: In general, I don’t know. But leaders and entrepreneurs are programmed to “never show weakness”, so I expect there’s much more pressure to keep it hidden and suppressed, which if you’ve ever been depressed, can make things much worse.

Q: Looking back, how much has your work, or work style, been a factor in your depression?

A: There are many things about my depressions that I still don’t understand. I have been able to identify trigger points for the various depressions, which include physiological exhaustion, boredom, and major life changes [divorce, dropping out of a Ph.D. program].

Most recently, things started with a 50-mile race I did in April 2012 that I never physiologically recovered from, followed by a near-death bike accident in September 2012, a very intense stretch of work which included writing two books in the midst of everything — “Startup Communities” and “Startup Life” — the death of my dog, and ultimately a kidney stone that required surgery.

At one level, I was exhausted. I was also bored — my work was fine, but I wasn’t learning very much. I’m hugely intrinsically motivated and have always believed that I’m fueled and motivated by learning. In this case, I was teaching a lot, mostly around “Startup Communities”. But I wasn’t spending any time learning. After coming out of the depression, I realized this was a huge part of things and have subsequently redefined my intrinsic motivation as a combination of learning and teaching. Now that I’m 49, I realize this makes a lot more sense.

Q: How well does the startup and VC world handle issues of mental health? What would you change about it?

A: Until a few years ago, we generally sucked at it. The philosophy around leaders and entrepreneurs never showing weakness dominated and we were told never to let ourselves be vulnerable. Fortunately, leaders like [venture capitalist and professional coach] Jerry Colonna have helped many leaders and entrepreneurs understand the power of being vulnerable and we now at least have an open and productive conversation around it.

Q: Can an executive afford to show any vulnerability and still hope to succeed in leading employees and attracting funding?

A: Yes absolutely. It’s all about culture, style, and self-awareness. And, it’s much easier to be yourself, allow yourself some vulnerability, intellectual and emotional honesty on your path to being a great leader.

Q: What would you say to a founder who’s grappling with depression but feeling their success might hinge on not letting it be known?

A: I mostly try to listen, be empathetic, and introduce the person to other peers who have struggled with the same thing. I talk openly about my experiences, but claim them as mine, rather than suggest that there are generic solutions.

When ask directly what to do, I offer opinions, but I don’t lead with them, nor do I expect that I will — or that I can — solve the person’s problem. I can simply be a resource for them.

Q: Have you actually had these conversations?

A: I’ve had these conversations many, many times.

Q: What do you suggest to people who need help?

A: Talk to your mentors, your peers, and your partners. Take the risk of being vulnerable.

Q: Are there resources you’ve discovered that are particularly geared or well-suited to entrepreneurs?

A: Jerry Colonna’s is the best organization in the world for this.

  • jerrycolonna

    As always, thanks for the kind words my friend. More to the point, thanks for the bravery in putting yourself out there. As we’ve often discussed, I think it’s important that folks who have any role as leaders stand up for mental health and well-being by modeling stepping away from the shame and stigma associated with such things as depression. It’s bad enough that people suffer but we really don’t have to make it worse by making such things shameful. A fantastic book on the subject is Terrance Real’s I Just Don’t Want to Talk about it. It’s expressively about men (and I understand that each of our experiences with depression is different) and the ways we have been socialized to not discuss our feelings. This, of course, compounds the feelings.

    I urge anyone who’s dealing with these feelings to find someone to discuss them with. Best of all is someone who can empathize, relate and not reinforce the shameful, repressive impulses we can all carry.

    As I’ve stated before, my ladder out of the hole I was in–the most recent hole anyway–was Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. Reading his descriptions of his journey through depression made me feel less alone, less uniquely fucked up.

    And at Reboot, while we don’t specifically focus on depression, working with people to know they are not alone is a key mantra. The whole ride of being an entrepreneur is so hard–we simply want to make it easier.

    • Would you recommend these 2 books to someone who hasn’t had to deal with depression?
      Are they preventative too or just prescriptive/self-help?

      • jerrycolonna

        Absolutely yes on Parker’s Let Your Life Speak…it’s about much more than depression. In fact, we use his chapter on leading from within in the bootcamps. Terrance Real’s book is helpful in understand men and our common communications styles.

        • Thanks Jerry. I will get both.

          • Frank Traylor

            William, I have a young friend currently at Stanford with whom I discuss all manner of things, including depression. He suggests “The Depression Cure” describing it as “incredibly powerful” I haven’t read the book but have great respect for my friend’s advice. I’ve bought the book for someone I know. Perhaps the problem and solution is different at various stages of life.

  • Goran Duskic

    It’s great to see someone showing interest in an important but overlooked aspect of startups. Even Captain Pickard had counselor Deanna Troi, but everyday leaders and entrepreneurs “don’t need them”.

    Just the sheer number of nos can put a depressing tone, acompanied with problems that come your way. Plus, it’s really difficult to find someone to talk to who will trully understand what you are going through.

  • That was a great interview.
    Can you elaborate on “Take the risk of being vulnerable.”? I’d like to better understand the power of being vulnerable.

    • I’m on my phone so it’s hard to look up related posts. Do a search on “vulnerability” and “vulnerable” on the blog and see if it turns up anything that answers this and gives examples.

  • You guys are doing crucial work bringing the topic into the light, and reminding many that it can be overcome..

    @jerrycolonna:disqus @bfeld:disqus

    Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
    Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
    That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth;
    And ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
    The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
    So quick bright things come to confusion.

    A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 1

  • I made a comment last week that you are changing the world. I was talking about the university initiative, your books, the transparency you are brining to the industry and your impact on Boulder.

    But as I’ve told you in the first email I’ve ever sent you in February 2014, I have a lot of respect for your openness about depression.

    This issue I also have perspective on as it has affected me indirectly for a substantial portion of my life.

    A close family member has been battling depression on an off and is currently in the hospital for a new episode of severe depression.

    The psychiatrist had planned to conduct an interview in front of an entire class of students as this is an unsual case, but had to cancel as it was inducing too much stress on my family member.

    It must be difficult to talk about, but you’ve had the courage to do it.

    You and Jerry Colonna are definitely changing the conversation around mental health in the Tech sector. Bravo!

    Also, Sept. 11 was just hard. As a Canadian it f#^%ed me right up in the head. I was zombie-ish for quite a while after that. I’ve seen that event affect a lot of people, quite deeply.

    BTW, the Q&A was excellent and to he point. I hope it gets widely distributed so anyone who needs help can be pointed to it, as well as to Jerry’s podcast.

    (My wife is Buddhist, so I can follow some of where Jerry is coming from 🙂

  • jamesoliverjr

    This is why I love you, Brad.

    After running out of cash last summer I had to come home and be the primary care giver of my 18 month-old twins. And try to turn things around at my startup (WeMontage).

    This was one of the most difficult times in my life.

    I was depressed. How much so? I don’t know.

    I do know if wasn’t for my family AND meditation, I don’t think I would have made it. I mean that in the way you think I mean it.

    Thankfully, I turned things around at WeMontage and raised a bit more capital. But the biz is still struggling to find its footing and I have regular bouts of anxiety, which if unchecked, leads to depression (in my experience). I am aware of when I am anxious, which is a great thing.

    Daily meditation usually keeps the anxiety monsters away though.

  • Thanks, Brad – this is super helpful. So appreciate your care and insights for startups and, more importantly, the entrepreneurs behind them. Thank you!

  • Miguel Vacas

    I really like these types of discussions. Like you mentioned, it is barely spoken about in ecosystems and have had entrepreneurs mention they’d like to have “therapy sessions” amongst each other.

    On another note, I don’t personally consider that I suffer of depression, but I do worry that my lack of motivation (due mainly to laboral and personal reasons) and lack of finding mentoring may lead me to that direction. Any advice on where to go or what to do when no clear path seems to be present?

  • Chakameh

    This is truly inspirational. Being open about depression and mental health is a step towards breaking the stigma and makes people feel less alone when battling depression. Thank you for the work you’re doing in this field !

  • I appreciate you and Jerry sharing your stories. I’ve had my own experiences w/depression, and those stories / beliefs we have about ourselves & what we’re building matter and are worth looking at.

    Listening to the Reboot podcast (which I do regularly) one thing I wish happened more is that this was addressed earlier in the entrepreneur’s journey. It feels like too often the emotional side of entrepreneurship is something we do damage control for later at 35 or 45, instead of setting up young entrepreneurs for the work that Jerry models and encourages (and yourself as well). I do my own work in this area, and I think it’s a real eye opener for 22, 23, 25 year olds in startups / tech. Having a framework for the emotional and belief side of building from scratch is critical both for being a whole person and building a company that’s successful long term.

    • Great great post.

  • Mark Glennon

    Thanks for sharing, Brad. You’re a treasure for more than just the tech world.

  • Mike Tristano

    Hi Brad, this is just a great article! Being open about depression can help many people who are suffering from it. And when a successful man could have been sffering from depression, it just shows how powerful the illness is. I’ve been suffering from depression for the better part of my life and I put out a blog in hope it can be helpful to others: