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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Two Root Causes of My Recent Depression

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I’ve talked openly about the five month long depressive episode I went through earlier this year.  If you missed it, I encourage you to read my article last month in Inc. Magazine titled Entrepreneurial Life Shouldn’t Be This Way–Should It? Depression is a fact of life for some entrepreneurs.

My depression lifted near the end of May and I’ve been feeling normal for the past few months. On July 1st I wrote a post titled Regroup SuccessfulI changed a lot of tactical things in my life in Q2 – some of them likely helped me get to a place where my depression lifted. And, once I was confident that the depression had lifted (about 45 days ago), I started trying to figure out some of the root causes of my depression.

I’ve told the story of how I ended up depressed a number of times. In the telling of it, I searched for triggers – and found many. My 50 mile run in April 2012 that left me emotional unbalanced for six weeks. A bike accident in early September that really beat me up, and was inches from being much more serious. Six weeks of intense work and travel on the heals of the bike accident that left me physically and emotionally depleted, when what I should have done was cancelled everything and retreated to Boulder to recover. A marathon in mid-October that I had no business running, followed by two more weeks of intense work and travel. The sudden death of our dog Kenai at age 12. A kidney stone that resulted in surgery, followed by a two week vacation mostly in a total post-surgical haze. Complete exhaustion at the end of the year – a physical level of fatigue that I hadn’t yet felt in my life. There are more, but by January I was depressed, even though I didn’t really acknowledge it fully until the end of February.

The triggers, and the tactical changes I made, all impacted me at one level. But once the depression had lifted, I felt like I could dig another level and try to understand the root cause. With the help of Amy and a few friends, I’ve made progress on this and figured out two of the root causes of a depressive episode that snuck up on me after a decade of not struggling with depression.

The first is the 80/20 rule. When running Feld Technologies in my 20s, I remember reading a book about consulting that said a great consultant spent 20% of their time on “overhead” and 80% of their time on substantive work for their clients. I always tried to keep the 80/20 rule in mind – as long as I was only spending 20% of my time on bullshit, nonsense, things I wasn’t interested in, and repetitive stuff that I didn’t really have to do, I was fine. However, this time around, I’d somehow gotten the ratios flipped – I was spending only 20% of my time on the stimulating stuff and 80% of my time on stuff I viewed as unimportant. Much of it fell into the repetitive category, rather than the bullshit category, but nonetheless I was only stimulated by about 20% of the stuff I was doing. This led to a deep boredom that I didn’t realize, because I was so incredibly busy, and tired, from the scope and amount of stuff I was doing. While the 20/80 problem was the start, the real root cause was the boredom, which I simply didn’t realize and wasn’t acknowledging.

The other was a fundamental disconnect between how I was thinking about learning and teaching. I’ve discussed my deep intrinsic motivation which comes from learning. At age 47, I continue to learn a lot, but I also spend a lot of my time teaching. The ratio between the two shifted aggressively at the end of 2012 with the release of my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. I spent a lot of time teaching my theory of startup communities to many people I didn’t previously know in lots of different places. I expected that I’d continue learning a lot about Startup Communities during this period, but I found that I had no time to reflect on anything, as all of my available time was consumed doing my regular work. So – between teaching and working, I had almost no time for learning.

I had an intense insight a few weeks ago when a friend told me that as one gets older, the line between learning and teaching blurs. This is consistent with how I think about mentoring, where the greatest mentor – mentee relationship is a peer relationship, where both the mentor and mentee learn from and teach each other. With this insight, I realized I needed to stop separating learning from teaching in my motivational construct – that they were inextricably linked.

Each of these – the flip in the 80/20 rule that led to a deep boredom combined with the separation of learning and teaching – were both root causes of my recent depression. As I reflect on where I’m at in mid-August, I’m neither bored nor struggling with the learning/teaching dichotomy. Once again, I’m incredibly stimulated by what I’m spending my time on. And I’m both learning and teaching, and not spending any energy separating the two.

While I expect I’ll discover more root causes as I keep chewing on what I just went through in the first half of the year, I’m hopeful that explanation of how I’ve unpacked all of this helps anyone out there struggling with depression, or that is close to someone who is struggling with depression. It’s incredibly hard to get to the root causes when you are depressed, but moments of clarity arise at unexpected times.

How’s That No Travel Thing Working For You?

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I stopped travelling mid-May (I arrived home in Boulder from San Francisco on 5/17). I’ve decided not to travel at all for the rest of 2013, except for three personal trips (my parents 50th anniversary, Amy’s birthday, and my birthday.) After travelling 50% – 75% of the time for the last 20 years, I needed a break.

It has been awesomely mindblowingly great to not travel.

I’ve had three other periods of extended no-travel in the last 20 years. I stopped travelling for three months after 9/11. Two summers ago Amy and I spent 60 days together in Europe (half in France / half in Tuscany) just living (no travel). Last summer we spent 90 days at our house in Keystone. It’s clear I had a taste of this, but nothing like where I am right now.

Even though it has only been seven weeks, when I look forward to the rest of 2013 I feel huge amounts of open space and time in front of me. I know this has helped me come out of the depression, which I just wrote about in an article in Inc. Magazine, that I struggled with for the first part of this year.

But it’s more profound than that. In a few short months, I’ve changed my work pattern a lot. I feel so much more rested and alert. When I’m doing something, I’m in the moment. The companies I’m an investor in are all over the place, but I feel like they are actually getting more of my attention because I’m not being torn in a zillion different directions.

I don’t feel like I’m constantly trying to jam in the “work” around all the friction time – in airports, in taxis and cars being driven to things, before I head out to yet another dinner on the road, or late in my hotel before I go to sleep. My environment is familiar and comfortable and things just flow.

I’m mastering video conferencing – I’ve now got every configuration a human could need. I figured out three big things that solve for 99% of the strangeness of it.

  1. Make your video conference full screen – don’t have ANYTHING else going on your computer other than what is in the meeting.
  2. Use a BIG monitor – seeing heads that are normal size makes a huge difference.
  3. Make sure your audio and video are on channels with enough bandwidth. Shift to a conference call for audio while keeping video up if you are having performance issues.

I’ve also started using my Mezzanine video conferencing system extensively – it’s just incredible. More on that in a separate post.

I love Boulder and I’m finding myself running a lot again. It’s hard to run as much as I’d like when I’m on the road – early morning meetings, fatigue, and being in random places gets in the way. But here, I just put on my shoes and head out the door for one of my favorite trails. With or without Brooks the wonder dog.

On that note, I think I’ll go for a run right now.

Your Words Should Match Your Actions

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Over the past few months I’ve watched several powerful and successful VCs and entrepreneurs damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions. I think this is especially true in the context of a long term relationship.

This is a deeply held value of mine and of my partners at Foundry Group. I occasionally screw up and when I do I own it, apologize, and learn from it. But it stuns and amazes me when others assert strong style / values / culture and then consistently have their actions not line up with their words.

Here are a few VC examples:

VC asserts he’s “founder friendly”: This is currently in vogue across many VC firms. Very experienced VCs are talking about how they are focused entirely on supporting the entrepreneur. But then, when something goes wrong, they act randomly and capriciously. Or they simply disengage without warning. Or they try to retrade an earlier deal just because they think they can. Or they threaten to veto a deal unless they get something more than they are entitled to.

VC asserts certain followup behavior with every entrepreneur they meet with: In the vein of “we are holding ourselves to a high level of interaction”, the VC suggests a certain behavior pattern in their deal evaluation process or interaction with entrepreneurs. They do this sometimes, but are inconsistent.

VC suggests that the deal is firm and will happen: Then, two weeks into “due diligence” which, based on the previous evaluation, should be a proforma exercise, abruptly pull out of the deal because “some of my partners aren’t supportive.”

This, of course, isn’t limited to VC behavior. I see it all the time with entrepreneurs. For example:

Entrepreneur suggests he’s “radically transparent”: Nice, and popular, but do you tell your employees exactly how many months of cash you have left? Or do you keep the fact that you and your partner are having a major conflict from your investors? Or how about that your business isn’t doing very well and you are working every backchannel you know to try to have an acquihire happen for you that will have a negative impact on your investors.

Entrepreneur asserts he isn’t shopping the deal: And then he does. It’s ok to shop a deal, just don’t assert you aren’t!

Entrepreneur inflates his relationship with another entrepreneur or VC: It’s fine to be connected on LinkedIn or say you worked at the same company in the past, but don’t say you are best friends if you haven’t interacted with the other person in over a year.

I could keep going. It’s similar to what Amy and I wrote about in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur when we talk about your words having to match your actions. When I tell Amy that she is the most important thing in my life, and then am 30 minutes late to dinner because “I’ve just got to get something done” my words aren’t matching up with my actions. Or, when we are together, the phone rings, and I automatically answer it rather than asking if it’s ok for me to take the call. Or, when she gets hurt if I don’t drop everything I’m doing and go help her out.

Words matter. And having them match your actions matters matters even more.

Living the Startup Life

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I loved this video review of Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. I watched it this morning and smiled a huge smile.

Thanks  Cynthia Morris for taking the time to do this. And, as the sun shines in my world again, I’m happy that others are spreading the love around.

Regroup Successful

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My theme for Q2 was “regroup.”  I wrote about this in my post When The Sun Comes Out in early May as I was starting to feel my depression lifting. It’s officially gone at this point – I feel normal, and have for at least a month (probably six weeks.) That’s long enough to declare this depressive episode over.

The feedback I’ve gotten from talking openly about my depression has been incredible. I’m deeply appreciative of everyone who engaged me, offered me support, help, suggestions, empathy, or just said “thanks for sharing.” While I didn’t have any urgency about feeling better, I was optimistic that I would based on the arc of my previous two major depressive episodes (the first for two years in my mid-20s, the second for three months in my mid-30s). This one – at age 47 – lasted about six months which is so much less than two years…

My goal in Q3 was simply to “regroup.” I’ve talked about some of the specific tactics that I tried. Many people have asked me what they were. Here’s a quick list.

  • Stopped drinking alcohol
  • Stopped drinking coffee
  • Stopped travelling
  • Stopped waking up at 5am – just slept until I woke up
  • Went to bed consistently at 10pm
  • Running when I felt like it
  • Scheduled a lot less things
  • Took a digital sabbath – no email or phone from Friday night until Sunday morning
  • Started floating in an isolation tank once a week
  • Didn’t fight how I felt
  • Shared openly with friends / spend more time with friends, especially with men
  • Checked in with Amy every day – worked hard to communicate my emotions

From a work perspective, I focused on the things that mattered and tried to eliminate all the other stuff. I prioritized my Foundry Group partners, the companies we are investors in, and Techstars. Rather than looking at a lot of new stuff, I shut it all down and made sure I had time for all the existing stuff. I put more effort into videoconferencing and face to face interactions locally since I wasn’t travelling. And I tried not to schedule anything before 11am.

As Q2 comes to an end, I feel that I have successfully regrouped. I’ve added back in a few things that I want to do, including drinking coffee and getting up at 5am. I’m still not drinking, but I’m being more disciplined about my running. And I believe that digital sabbath will be a part of my rhythm for the rest of my life, although I’m letting myself answer the phone when it rings and occasionally sending an email or a text throughout the day when I need to communicate something to someone.

I was originally thinking about a theme for Q3 like “ship.” I’ve got a several work related things that I believe I’ll get closure on in Q3. I have several writing things in process that I’d like to finish.  I’m still not travelling – nothing until Amy’s birthday in September. So, I originally thought I’d focus on something like “ship” as the broad theme for the next three months.

Yesterday I spent two and a half hours with my dear friend Jerry Colonna. We just hung out and talked. And eventually started talking about the idea of a Q3 theme around “ship.” After a while this sounded wrong – first to him – then to me. He challenged me with what I was actually trying to do. Ultimately it was to give myself more focus, and more structure, to spend time on the things I wanted to spend time on, and stop spending time, or filter out, the things I didn’t want to spend time on.

“Ship” seems like the wrong way to think about that. Instead, we came up with “be happier.” I’m going to try to use the phrase “be happier” as I decide what to spend time on, as in “will spending time on this cause me to be happier?” The simple theme – to be happier – which has all kinds of implications and second order effects on how I spend my time.

Instead of focusing on applying this theme only Q3, I’m going to apply this theme for however long I feel like it. And just thinking of it that way makes me happier.

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