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I know this post is going to be a downer but I think there is a lot more to be talked about regarding depression, mental health, and entrepreneurship.
I recently heard a terrifying stat about founder suicides recently. A friend told me that he’d heard of over a dozen suicides from entrepreneurs in the past few years. I didn’t press him for the specific data because I didn’t want to struggle through it, but I personally knew of three so I expected that it would add up to a dozen pretty easily.
Yesterday, I read a post titled The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You? It’s part of a series done by Re/code on the Downtown Las Vegas project. The series started out very positive with an article titled Downtown Las Vegas Is the Great American Techtopia but in the middle of the series Tony Hsieh Stepped Down From Lead Role at Las Vegas Downtown Project, 30% of the staff got laid off, and the articles turned negative with Factorli, an Early Casualty of the Las Vegas Downtown Project.
And yesterday, the suicide article - The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You? - appeared. It’s a rough one that talks about three suicides – Jody Sherman (4/13), Ovik Banerjee (1/14), and Matt Berman (4/14) – all people involved in the Vegas Tech phenomenon.
I’m saddened by the struggles around The Downtown Vegas Project. I’ve long thought, and continue to think, it’s a really interesting experiment.
But I’m really upset by the suicides. Re/code’s article is harsh and questions the Happiness philosophy of Tony Hsieh and whether it is partly responsible for the suicides. Kim Knoll who was apparently interviewed for the article has a solid response to this. But regardless of the root cause, which we can’t possibly know from the article, the fact stands that three entrepreneurs involved recently committed suicide.
First, if you are ever considering committing suicide, immediate reach out to someone and ask for help. Amy and I recommend the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you don’t know where to turn. The 800 number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
When I had my first clinical depression in my mid-20s, Amy and I set up a few rules around things. We specifically talked about suicide and I agreed that if I ever had a suicidal thought, I wouldn’t act on it. Instead, I would immediately stop what I was doing, tell Amy what I was thinking, and we’d discuss it. During this long depression, I only had one suicidal ideation, but it was while we were driving on a highway in Sedona (I was driving). I immediately pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the car, and told Amy what I was thinking. We switched seats – she drove the rest of the way, and then we had a long conversation that night. After the conversation, even though I was still very depressed, I felt immense relief and support. When we got back to our home in Boston after that vacation, I started therapy, which was incredibly helpful.
Our society still has an incredible stigma associated with depression. Anyone who has been depressed knows that it is extremely hard to describe how it feels to someone who hasn’t ever been depressed. My favorite description of depression continues to be from Hyperbole and a Half. I’ve recently started describing it as an emotional pain that is significantly worse than almost all physical pains you could imagine, especially because it seems to go on forever. And sometimes this pain is so severe that it feels like ending it all by committing suicide is the only answer.
While this isn’t unique to entrepreneurs, the intensity of being an entrepreneur, especially when your company is failing, or you are failing at your role, can be overwhelming. I see it all the time and try to be a very empathetic listener whenever I encounter it. I’ve learned a huge amount from my friend Jerry Colonna about how to be helpful and know that I’ll continue to be on a journey around mental health and entrepreneurship.
It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to lose. It’s ok to be depressed.
If you are contemplating suicide, get help. If you have an entrepreneurial friend contemplating suicide, do your best to get them help.
Last night I gave the kickoff talk to the West Michigan Policy Forum. I did my riff on Startup Communities and followed it up with a short Q&A on issues specific to Michigan’s entrepreneurial scene.
Afterwards, Amy and I went for a walk to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to buy a Lighting to HDMI adapter so we could watch Print the Legend on the TV in our hotel room. We succeeded in surviving the 24×7 madhouse that is the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, got the right cable, but were unable to hack our hotel TV which refused to do anything other than respond to a hardwired magic box. So we watched Jaws on TV instead (amazingly, neither of us had ever seen it.)
The juxtaposition of the two experiences (my talk vs. the casual madness of the Apple Store) combined with a line from Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future reminded me of another line that I heard at the UP Global Annual Summit in Las Vegas over the summer. Thiel’s line was about uniforms and how his firm Founders Fund immediately rejects any entrepreneur who dresses in a suit and tie. Instead, his firm believes in the Silicon Valley uniform of jeans and a t-shirt and he gives a visual example of Elon Musk wearing an “Occupy Mars” t-shirt compared to Brian Harrison, the CEO of Solyndra, looking very dapper in his classical suit and tie. I’ll let you guess which entrepreneur created several multi-billion dollar companies and which entrepreneur saw his extremely well funded company go bankrupt.
The line I heard in the context of startup communities was “the collision of the tucked and the untucked.” This referred to the startup community entrepreneurs in untucked t-shirts interacting with the startup community feeders (government, academics, big companies, investors, and service providers) who tend to have their shirt tucked in, even if they aren’t wearing ties.
The magic in growing the startup community is to get the tucked and the untucked to hang out. Your goal should be to generate endless collisions between different perspectives, ideas, peoples, and culture. Rather than segmenting things into the old guard and new guard, mix it up. Get everyone working together.
Don’t let parallel universes evolve – you want one big, messy network continually changing. Make sure you are creating situations for the tucked and untucked to get together, be together, and work together. Have some fun with it, including formally reversing roles at a Sadie Hawkins like event, where the tucked wear t-shirts and the untucked wear suits.
Tonight I’m at a dinner with the Blackstone Foundation and several executives at the Blackstone Group talking about startup communities and entrepreneurial ecosystems. The invite says “business attire” which I expect for many will be “tucked.” I’ll be in my standard uniform – jeans, Toms, and a zany Robert Graham shirt, that will most definitely be untucked. It should be fun.
I’m not a big city guy, so one of my favorite things to do when I find myself in a big city is get up early, before the city wakes up, and go for a run. There’s something about the silence echoing throughout a vast developed physical space such as LA that calms me down and builds up some reserves for me for the day.
I was in LA all day yesterday – starting with a Fireside Chat organized by David C Murphy. It was a full room of entrepreneurs and what I hope was a stimulating and useful conversation for them. I got in an Uber and traveled across town to Nix Hydra, a company run by two remarkable young women that we recently invested in. I got in another Uber and returned to Santa Monica where I attended the Innovators Collective Dinner, hung out with some old friends, and met a few new ones. Today I’m at the Disney Accelerator and tomorrow I’m at Oblong.
At dinner, I sat with my long time friend Matt McCall. Matt and I were on the FeedBurner board together and he’s got a powerful connection between LA and Chicago – another city with an incredibly thriving startup community. Matt’s part of Pritzker Group Venture Capital which has offices in Chicago and LA as a result of where JB Pritzker and Tony Pritzker call home (Chicago and LA respectively). While they invest nationally, they have deep roots in both cities and are key players in the respective startup communities, along with the cities at large.
As I was talking to Matt, it rolled around in my head that there are a lot of similarities in the growth of both the Chicago and LA startup communities. Our engagement with each is similar – we have Techstars programs in each (Techstars Chicago and Disney Accelerator), we’ve made investments in each over the years, and they are each cities that I have personal affinity for and have spent a lot of time in, even though I’m not a big city kid.
I came back to an email in my inbox from Troy Henikoff, the Managing Director of Techstars Chicago, which closed the loop on this thought for me. Troy has been a key part of the development of the Chicago startup community and we’ve been good friends from the moment he first reached out to me about developing an accelerator in Chicago.
Troy reminded me about the Chicago Venture Summit, which is coming up on 10/14 and 10/15. The lineup looks incredible and includes keynotes from folks like Travis Kalanick (Uber), Padmasree Warrior (Cisco Chief Technology & Strategy Officer), Ted Leonsis (Revolution Partners and previous AOL CEO), and Peter Thiel. Not surprising, JB Pritzker is one of the leaders of the event. In the note that Troy sent me, there are confirmed attendees from VC firms such as Founders Fund, DFJ, NEA, GE Ventures, Motorola Ventures, Accel, Revolution, First Round Capital and Andreessen Horowitz. Yes, it’s a serious event worth attending if you can.
Since I started thinking about Startup Communities in 2010, a few years before I wrote the book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, I believed the discussion about entrepreneurship would spread far and wide. If we could have the amazing things going on in Boulder that we were experiencing at the time, there was no reason every major city in the world couldn’t have a vibrant startup community. It’s a joy to see this developing fast, and in a powerful and sustainable way, in cities like Chicago and LA. Sure, there’s always been significant entrepreneurial activities in both cities, but the essence of the startup community in both places feels different – and more powerful – this time around.
UP Global just released a great new white paper titled Fostering a Startup and Innovation Ecosystem. As you might know, I’m on the board of UP Global and think they are doing amazing things for startup communities around the world.
Our friends at Google for Entrepreneurs helped with this and I’m doing a hangout with Mary Grove (Director, Google for Entrepreneurs) and Marc Nager (UP Global CEO) on Tuesday September 23rd, 2014 11am PDT for 40 minutes.
Join us as we discuss thriving startup communities and creating alignment and not just density in your community.
Enjoy the white paper and join us for the hangout.
As Boulder Startup Week 2014 comes to an end, I have been reflecting on the power of startup communities today.
When I wrote Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, I made some assertions about how to build startup communities and what the impact of them would be on society. As I sit here at the end of a week pondering everything that is going on in the world around startup communities, I believe I have vastly underestimated their potential impact. And this makes me feel very happy.
Startup Week is a great example of an activity and event that I talk about in my Boulder Thesis. It was also another creation from Boulder, just like Startup Weekend, Techstars, and the Boulder Thesis. Andrew Hyde, the founder of Startup Weekend, was also the founder of Startup Week. After a hiatus of a few years, Andrew came back to run Boulder Startup Week. But he is also about to do something magical with Startup Week – look for more on that soon. And, if you enjoyed Boulder Startup Week, go check out Fort Collins Startup Week which is happening from 5/20 – 5/25 and looks awesome.
This reflection led me to think about how to wire up the largest startup community in the world. Geography is one boundary, but the Internet allows us to create a global startup community that is a network of startup communities. UP Global, which I’m on the board of, is doing just that.
You might know UP Global by the names of the two organizations that combined to form it – Startup Weekend and Startup America Partnership. This combination happened about a year ago and the progress in the last year has been remarkable.
I encourage you to take a look at the UP Global 2013 Impact Report. It’s 28 slides and when I looked at it early today it blew my mind. Here are a few key metrics:
- 310,000 alumni and volunteers
- 4,500 mentors
- 132,000 businesses
- 87,000 developers
- 39,000 designers
- 501 cities
- 126 countries
Go look at the UP Global 2013 Impact Report. It’s insanely wonderful how many people and startup communities this organization has touched.
The network is getting incredibly strong and powerful. I believe that networks are now more important in our society than hierarchies. Sure – we’ll have hierarchies forever, but I’m going to spend as much of my time as possible in the network. And for everyone who is part of the network of people engaging in startup communities, thanks for all your efforts on this mission!