Entrepreneurs’ Psychological Warfare — Addiction, Depression & the Gruesome Side of “Never Giving Up”
Entrepreneurship has become sexy! While entrepreneurship can be fun and rewarding, it’s also can be a grind, wearing and taxing on your mind and body. No one says it’s easy, but very few talk about how fucking hard it really can be. Inc’s piece on “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship” has made it’s way around the internet and others are beginning to share their stories — I am writing this in hopes that my story can help or inspire at least one person.
When I was a kid — it was only the “crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes” who were entrepreneurs. Most of us were taught the key to success was to go to school, get good grades, go to college, get a degree, a job with a big corporation and you’re set. While I’m excited about our society embracing and encouraging entrepreneurship, it is not for everyone — some with an entrepreneurial spirit, yet lacking mental fortitude might be better suited as a #2 in a established organization than as a CEO/founder in the roller coaster ride that is a start-up.
The roller coaster isn’t just a financial one, it can become a mental and emotional one as well and for some can lead to depression and addiction.
Ten years ago this past November I started my first business. I’ve been an entrepreneur from a young age — and had other entrepreneurial ventures in college and as a kid — but it was ten years ago that I walked away from a cushy 6-figure corporate gig to go into business for myself.
If you can remember back to Q4 of 2008, it was far from an optimal economic climate at the time. I was naive and a little arrogant — for example, when I moved to Southern Indiana from Ohio to start the business out of my in-laws’ basement with my family still back in Ohio — we thought we’d sell our house within a month or so. I laughed out loud just now typing that … Google “housing market November 2008” if you’re unclear why.
Needless to say, we didn’t sell quickly so we ended up turning our house into a rental investment property (that’s a whole other post regarding being an out-of-state landlord, challenging tenants, evictions, etc.) Fortunately, we gave up on the idea of the family staying in Ohio until we sold and we all moved into a small 700 square foot 2-bedroom home. We were temporarily broke as we put everything into the business — not just capital, but time. Those first six months were tough, scraping for everything, in the stores from 9A-9P and then administrative work until the early morning hours. Despite the long hours, I was home every night with our family. Two kids and two dogs in a 700 square foot rental home seems crazy, yet as I reflect — it might be my favorite home I’ve ever lived in. Despite being temporarily broke — we had everything we needed and we were happy. We were happy.
The Rush of Building, Grinding & Climbing
As we grew the business from three Verizon stores to ten over the next year, our home grew as well. It was a nice, comfortable, 3-bedroom home with an office in an unfinished basement, and it was perfect. We were living the dream! In less than three years we grew the business into a $10 million dollar enterprise, created jobs for over 50 individuals, appeared on national TV, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, named Franchise Owner of the Year, Entrepreneur of the Year. We were also fortunate to have many incredible “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences — a Super Bowl, Game 6 of the 2011 World Series — so many amazing adventures! Most importantly, our beautiful family was happy and healthy.
But I wanted more…
More stores, bigger business, bigger home.
I was fortunate to get it all, everything I wanted.
And it made me miserable.
Success breeds success, right? The business was generating in excess of $10MM in sales and all ten locations were profitable — grow, grow, grow. We continued to reinvest profits to scale, adding another five locations and growing into more states — from Northeast Ohio to Central Florida. This breakneck growth rate led to numerous sacrifices in our personal lives. Time spent away from my family — all to chase the unnecessary growth. The adrenaline of building is a rush for me that it’s hard to put into words — but I now realize I’m addicted to it.
Our home had now grown to over 5,000 square feet — complete with a few unnecessary bedrooms and bathrooms. We created great memories there too. However, I’ll never forget missing both of my daughters’ birthdays and their school graduations in 2012, because I was on the road for 17 straight days. I went into business for myself to escape Corporate America and to build a better life for my family… if there was a school play at 1PM on a Tuesday, I wanted to be there… but here I was four years out of Corporate America, working more and spending less time with my family than ever before.
My girls were and always will be my “WHY” and this enabled me to justify my crazy work and travel schedule. I was wrong.
Where I previously took pride in living a balanced life, I became lost, I was entirely absorbed with entrepreneurship — the rush of both the highs and the lows. As crazy as this sounds, as my self awareness has improved and I reflect, it was the lows, the challenges and obstacles, and overcoming them that I got the most satisfaction out of. I was fortunate to have been instilled a “never quit” attitude by my amazing mother and to have a “whatever it takes” attitude instilled in me by my high school football coach. Overcoming obstacles when most would have given up became one of my greatest strengths.
The lows certainly came, as they do for most entrepreneurs. This chart below isn’t new — but one that nearly every entrepreneur can appreciate.
We had four years of profitable growth, and I started to believe I couldn’t fail. I thought our plan looked a lot more like the graph on the left than the right. We had opened over a dozen stores, all of which were profitable, and in their first month of opening. No, I could not fail. You may have heard the phrase “expect the best, plan for the worst” … I stopped planning for the worst. I thought I was infallible.
The Rush of Falling, Solving & Overcoming
I certainly wasn’t infallible and the universe slapped me in the fucking face. It hurt. It hurt bad.
The downward spiral began with one very costly mistake. In hindsight, the mistake itself wasn’t that bad, it was how I reacted to it and how I let the challenge change me. With a dozen profitable stores in the Midwest, I made the mistake of opening a store in Florida — a plane flight away in a high-rent location in Orlando. I didn’t even like the location… it didn’t check many of the required boxes that I desired when selecting a retail location, but it was “best in the market” and I succumbed to the fear of loss. If I didn’t open in that market, Verizon was going to put another dealer in there and I’d miss out. It was a defensive move, in my career, every defensive move I’ve made as a business owner has resulted in failure.
Over the next year, we’d lose over $100,000 on that location on a P&L. If you factor in my time & drain on my resources and others on our team, the fact this location became 80 percent of my headaches and distracted me from the rest of our operation it’s real cost was probably 5–10X what the P&L reflected.
During that same year, unbeknownst to us dealers at the time, there were some changes to the credit qualifications. Customers who previously would have been required a significant security deposit to receive subsidized iPhones were getting approved with no deposit. To say the impact the change in credit qualifications were big, would be a understatement. I’ll never forget opening a commission statement on October 8, 2012 and it being short by over $120,000 due to commission chargebacks, mostly uncontrollable chargebacks. We went from expecting a deposit on October 10th, to our commissions due not even covering the balance on our purchasing account.
While a $120K swing in cash flow may not seem like a big deal for a $10 million business… when we had been reinvesting profits for the sake of growth for the previous four years, it was a devastating blow. Worse, it wasn’t a singular month and would continue on for another six months until corrected. Our highest volume locations were in sub-prime markets. We had a couple of our top locations go from netting $10–20K/mo to losing $10–20K/mo as a result of these chargebacks.
It would be a massive understatement to say the impact of the chargebacks were big. Although the chargebacks would stabilize, we went from hyper growth mode into scramble mode — additionally we had burned through cash reserves, essentially living check to check. I set out on a mission to sell four locations for $750K — in April. I set a goal that I would accomplish this by July…. I even went as far as writing a check to myself and dating it. Although I wouldn’t get the $750K we were seeking, we would agree to a deal for our four lowest performing stores for $520K — the week of closing the buyers re-traded on us at the last minute and as we needed the cash for operations we would ultimately accept $420K to close the deal.
The cash injection saved the business. We turned it around and would soon get back into growth mode. Although you might think that the experience of the Orlando store and the chargeback debacle would have humbled me — it didn’t, I still won. I put my head down and did whatever it took to pull through, to make it happen and succeeded… I now realized that success was more of the roller coaster like the graph on the right above reflected — however, I further proved to myself that I was capable of anything I put my mind to. No matter how dire the situation might seem, I wouldn’t quit and was overly confident in my ability to solve any challenge. I even remember telling myself at the time that 2012 humbled me, as I reflect now, six years later, I realize it made me more arrogant and worse, in coping with the stress of 2012, I developed a bad drinking habit. It wasn’t a habit in the sense I woke up with a fifth of vodka in my hand — drinking did however, became my mechanism to cope with stress. I didn’t deal with the stress, didn’t deal with the struggles, the ups and downs, the pain, the failure… I masked it all by coping with alcohol. As an entrepreneur, a CEO, a leader — I thought I couldn’t show others I had any weaknesses, couldn’t share my struggles, feelings or raw emotions. So instead, I kept the pain bottled up inside, not talking with even my closest friends, family or wife about the mental and emotional struggles.
It was easy to develop a bad drinking habit, in fact, it was almost expected as an entrepreneur and business man. Every dinner meeting, every conference, drinking was the norm and remains a social norm. It doesn’t seem like a bad habit if you have a Bloody Mary or a few beers while on a layover in the airport after a long week, it may not seem like a bad habit to have a couple glasses of wine or few beers during a business dinner… what’s wrong with having a night cap or two at home to take the edge off and help relax? Doing any one of those things individually once in a while is not wrong. But when you travel about 50 percent of the time and attend meetings and conferences day in and day out, well, that occasional social drinking quickly turns into a bad daily drinking habit. And when you never turn your business brain off, those “night caps” become a part of the daily routine. It’s easy to justify in a society that glorifies alcohol. Constantly having alcohol in my system had tremendous impact on my body and mind that I didn’t understand at the time. I wasn’t aware of the residual effect of alcohol even when I wasn’t drinking.
After getting the business back in growth mode, I founded a start-up in 2013, and we’d merged our wireless business with a smaller franchise operator and grew that collective enterprise into a $25MM operation. Ultimately, in 2014, I once again walked away from this successful enterprise and financial stability to go all-in on a start-up. I was addicted to the rush, the challenge, the risk and I didn’t think I could fail.
Part of my buy-out including an ongoing consulting deal — a deal that would pay me enough to cover family expenses, benefits and not have to pull a salary from the start-up. A few months later, I would send the most expensive email of my life. I let my emotions get the best of me and instead of picking up the phone or getting a face to face meeting to resolve differences, I fired off an angry email which would result in the buyers not honoring the terms of my buyout. This resulted in an expensive legal battle and although we would settle, the drain it took on my personal time and attention, the distraction from the new start-up and mental and emotional stress was 10X that of the lost income.
Note: You might have heard that when you want to send an angry email, type it, sleep on it, wake up, re-read it and then delete it. Let me tell you, that’s good advice.
The next few years would be the most challenging, most stressful years of my life thus far. The highs were the highest and the lows the lowest. The bad drinking problem I had developed was aiding a deep depression. The depression had little to do with the business — but instead as a result of damaged relationships and the drinking. I didn’t realize the impact alcohol can have on your mental state — even when you’re not drunk. I didn’t realize that having a night cap or two every night would effect my sleep, my energy and my mental state the following day. It was a viscous downward spiral. Although I’m grateful for this journey as coming through it has helped me become a much better version of myself today, the pain it caused others is one of my few regrets in life. I didn’t see it while it was happening, I was consumed with the business and refused to deal with or address any stressors head on — but instead cope and mask them with alcohol.
In 2016, we secured a round of funding from a strategic partner — a $30 billion company and key player in our industry, my ideal strategic investment partner. That investment and agreement we struck would result in our organization launching an unprecedented pilot program with a leading OEM and one of the largest wireless companies in the US.
It was once again, everything I thought I wanted. We were a funded start-up, executing on my vision, we were disrupting an industry. The highest of highs.
Then less than a year later, one of those aforementioned organizations decided to put the program on hold for reasons unrelated to us. It didn’t matter that we were executing on our end — without the immediate opportunity to scale the program — our investor changed course. Our investment deal was that of a convertible note, debt due to be converted into equity in the summer of 2016 and trigger an additional $4.5M round of funding. Needless to say, the note wasn’t converted and the round never came. The lowest of lows.
After months on the road of additional fund raising efforts, I would eventually give up on on the dream that I had of turning my start-up into a household brand. Although we’d merge our stores with the largest player in our space and I was fortunate to secure an executive role with the industry leader — at the age of 36, I had given up for the first time in my life. Instead of rolling with the punches and realizing that very few start-ups will ever become a Coca-Cola or Apple — I felt like a failure. I became more depressed and would fall into the worst mental, emotional and physical shape of my life.
Losing the Rush, the Vision, the Entrepreneurial Spirit
I became out of shape, overweight and just overall miserable. I pulled away and stopped talking to my friends, I destroyed relationships and wasn’t present for my family. I was just existing and going through the motions.
Depression, mental illness and addiction isn’t uncommon in entrepreneurs, some studies show that entrepreneurs experience depression at double that of the general public and addiction rates are triple the rate in entrepreneurs compared to others. (The Dark Side of Entrepreneurship)
Entrepreneurs, doctors and dentists have the highest suicide rates of any profession. I’ve never had thoughts of suicide. In fact, I never used to understand how or why extremely successful people who appeared to have it all would take their own lives. I now get it; I have felt trapped as Forbes describes in this article — Entrepreneurs & Suicide Risk.
The Rush of Rising from a Fall, Transforming & Rebuilding — Wiser & Stronger
In January of this year, I began focusing on my physical health. However, I continued to cope with stress with booze and was still sleeping like shit, had no energy and overall wasn’t happy or healthy.
Then, I stopped drinking.
In April, I made a decision to change. A decision to get healthy physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and get back to a balanced life.
I’ve changed in many areas of my life, but I can without a doubt say that the decision to eliminate alcohol from my life has had the most profound positive impact of any singular decision I’ve ever made.
As I type this today, I haven’t had a drink in nearly 9 months and I’ve never felt better. My sleep went from shit to incredible, my energy levels are the highest they’ve ever been and I’m in the best physical shape of my life. More importantly, my mental state has restored to that of a confident leader and I’m more self aware today than ever before.
Sobriety has become my super power — it’s not just about not drinking, it’s a lifestyle, a mindset shift and hard to explain to someone who has not experienced it.
I’m extremely grateful for the journey and for everything I’ve experienced over the past decade, even the lowest of lows. These experiences have forged me into the man I am today and more so have inspired me to become the man I’m becoming.
I’m no longer cope or relax with alcohol — the buzz of building a healthy life and becoming a better human is a far greater high for me.
Despite the rollercoaster and having given up on the dream I had for my last venture, despite accepting a W2 position for the first time since 2008 — when someone asks me what I do, without hesitation, my answer is and always will be, “I’m an entrepreneur.”
A sober entrepreneur.
It’s who I am, it’s in my blood, and what I’m wired for. I love my current “job”, and am grateful for an amazing employer who has embraced my entrepreneurial spirt. My current venture, job or career doesn’t define me though… nor does the success or failure of a venture, job or career. I love it, every aspect of it, I’m grateful for the journey and I now realize that I am living my dream and have been for over a decade… not just during the highs.
If you’re considering becoming an entrepreneur, I’d encourage you to think twice. I didn’t become an entrepreneur, it’s who I am and who I’ve always been. I do believe you can become an entrepreneur through training and mentorship, yet for many people, it’s not something you become, rather something you are, or aren’t. Please understand it’s not easy, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. Although the rewards, both monetary and otherwise, can be incredible, the sacrifices are great and the struggles are real. The sacrifices I made and and my drinking habit ultimately cost me some of the most important relationships of my life — but I’m extremely grateful for where the process brought me and I’m enjoying the journey, every day.
The Rush of Becoming a Change Catalyst
The Hustle calls depression among entrepreneurs an epidemic that no one is talking about — citing one-third of entrepreneurs battle with depression. No one wants to talk about drinking in business being a problem… I’m here to tell you that people do want to talk about it. Many, many entrepreneurs experience similar struggles, and, just as I did, internalize it and don’t want to share in fear of being perceived as weak. Since I announced my sobriety, dozens of friends, associates and other highly-respected entrepreneurs have reached out to me and shared privately that they are, or have, battled bad drinking habits, addiction and/or mental illness. Many of my friends and associates have drastically reduced their alcohol consumption and several have also chosen to eliminate alcohol from their lives, but not make it public. It’s hard… it makes you vulnerable.
The next time you’re out at a dinner meeting or a networking event, tell someone you don’t drink and watch the response you get. “You don’t drink? Why not?!” It’s the only drug on the planet that society expects us to justify why we don’t use it. Could you imagine telling someone you don’t smoke cigarettes and them responding “You don’t smoke cigs? Why not?!”
Alcohol kills as many people as tobacco worldwide (per some studies) and it’s getting worse! The USA Today published this piece last month “Worse than opioids: Alcohol deaths soar among the middle aged and women”
“From 2007 to 2017, the number of deaths attributable to alcohol increased 35 percent, according to a new analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
One alarming statistic: Deaths among women rose 85 percent.”
“Culturally, we’ve made it acceptable to drink but not to go out and shoot up heroin,” Miller says. “A lot of people will read this and say ‘What’s the problem?’"
The majority realize the health risks associated with smoking tobacco, or shooting up heroin, unfortunately, a lot of people, my prior self included, don’t fully understand the heath risks and potential negative physical and mental side effects of alcohol.
Let’s change that.
It’s okay to drink, I’m certainly not a prohibitionist. More importantly, it’s also okay not to drink; it’s a sign of strength, not weakness. It’s okay to talk about your struggles, if you’re an entrepreneur and say you don’t have struggles… you’re fucking lying. Be real, talk to your friends, your family, another entrepreneur, a therapist. If you’re struggling mentally, it’s okay to get help.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to listen and share what worked for me with anyone who is on an entrepreneurial roller coaster or would like to make a change in their life — drop me a DM on Instagram or Twitter (@ChrisJourdan)
“If we make consistent effort, based on proper education, we can change the world” — Dalai Lama