the dark side of entrepreneurship
I lay awake in my bed with my hands trembling and my forehead clammy. I was terrified. It was July and I had been working on my company for eight months, but only two of those months fulltime. One month into my fundraising process, I kept getting turned away. The search was keeping me up at night (sometimes until 5 A.M.). I spent those restless hours scouring my LinkedIn and Facebook, searching and praying desperately for leads. I sent out so many cold calls, cold emails, and cold messages that my mind had grown used to the coldness of rejection. Adding to this mixture of isolation and rejection, I am one of many entrepreneurs who suffer from a mental illness: for me it is depression.
Startup culture is often misunderstood. Many people believe that the road ahead is similar to the storylines featured in The Social Network or Jobs: a glamorous tale of college dropouts saying “Fuck you!” to the world and making a fortune doing something revolutionary. Others hold a more realistic, though still flawed, view that recognizes every venture comes with ups and downs. It is important to remember that no matter how much you think you know about entrepreneurship, there will always a world of lessons you cannot learn in a classroom.
Half of entrepreneurs have at least one mental illness. 30% have multiple. These stats are almost double the rates for average citizens. Between Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, one of them has experienced more than one mental illness. I myself have chronic depression, and many of my entrepreneurial friends have illnesses ranging from ADHD/ADD to bipolar. This is the dark side of entrepreneurship.
I started my company, Touch Tiles, like many of my fellow entrepreneurs; with high hopes for success and a supposedly well mapped out road ahead. Touch Tiles makes completely customizable devices: think Legos iPhones. However, my journey has been laden with mental health struggles and has wandered far off what I believed my original track would be. The fundraising process is where all of this started.
Fundraising was similar to trudging through a blizzard. Just as a schoolgirl getting the attention of all of the schoolboys becomes finicky and judgmental, many investors become preoccupied with signals not indicative of success. Funding was a game of dropping names. Often, the legitimacy of Touch Tiles meant nothing. I sent out hundreds upon hundreds of requests for funding and not only did few answer me, but also the ones who did answer would sometimes times send empty statements about why my company would not be successful. An easy solution would have been to shut them out and be entirely stubborn — but a good entrepreneur needs to be able to pivot with solid constructive criticism. I believe this is probably the most important skill for leading a company: sorting through the barrage of personal beliefs and opinionated emotions for what is actually helpful.
I would leave these meetings or hang-up the phone, where I got turned down, and just say “Fuck you!” and keep on trying to do something revolutionary. At first their disbelief powered me even more because I wanted to prove just how wrong they were. Although as a good little Management student I had to keep track of trends. Despite everyone I wasn’t asking for money telling me this was incredible and every engineer shouting the merits of this project, investors consistently did not buy into the vision. In my mind I had a chalkboard with more and more tallies going on the side of “I am incredibly and unbelievably wrong.” When the tallies built up and my time kept draining down the hourglass, I wondered if I could defuse the bomb in time or if this whole big experiment would blow up in my face.
This is when I really started to get flustered. I would sit on the brown sofa in my living room day after day, sending out emails, and thinking, “At what point is the whole world wrong and I’m right?” The words on my computer started to blur together and would wave across the screen. My knuckles needed to be cracked constantly, I wiggled my toes from sunup to sundown to burn anxious energy, and my stomach could never be filled with snacks. I put on ten pounds in 6 months but when I looked in the mirror I felt like I had put on forty. The confident dropout in me turned into a scared and gullible puppy. People would tell me my company would fail and I could no longer see their biases or the flaws in their points. I was sinking further and further from the top of the ocean and the daylight was disappearing. One day I just lay on the floor in my room sobbing, knowing they were right.
A week later I had an investor on board. Just when I was so close to throwing in the towel, so close to admitting defeat, funding came. After trying to speak with 200 to 300 investors, attending many investor events, and doing everything in my power to get in front of those who mattered, I had about forty serious conversations. Of those, I had about five people say my idea was awful, fifteen say I would not succeed, and about ten people say I was just too early. Of the remaining ten, about five just stopped responding and five offered to invest. Those five offers eventually turned into one actual investment. Entrepreneurship placed stress on my mental wellbeing in a way I had never experienced before.
Fundraising had eroded me, and yet on that particular night, when I was unable to sleep, when my hands trembled, and my forehead sweat in panic, I lay there knowing I had an investor. Why would receiving funding lead to a full-on anxiety attack?
I worried so much about funding that it became the entirety of what I was doing. Yet once I had the money, this problem was just swapped for another. I realized all of my work, research, and education in entrepreneurship left me nowhere closer to having a “successful company.” There was a long road to becoming a unicorn (billion dollar company) and I couldn’t say exactly where that road was going. Early on, it was hard for me to draw a clear line between my life and my company. We were both on this road to somewhere and became almost synonymous: if it died I died. I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. Some days I would go to bed without having completed anything because I had to wait for people’s replies or shipments to arrive. Waiting was the hardest part because I sat there thinking, “I have nothing to show for myself. I am going to fail.” This immense pressure to get stuff done made me think about how I was a failure until I succeeded. Damn. That one always made me feel awful. It was hard to think about taking a walk, hanging out with friends, or going to a movie when “I am a failure” was echoing in my head.
Understand exactly what you are getting into when launching a start-up. I thought I did. I have been writing an entrepreneurship textbook with one of the top entrepreneurship professors in the nation, have taken MBA level entrepreneurship courses, and worked on and with numerous companies, and yet my first real venture knocked me to my knees. If you aspire to be an entrepreneur, you need to understand the sheer gravity of these enormous lows.
As anyone undergoing this kind of pressure and depression should do, I reached out help. I was surprised at the results I received. I have had therapists tell me to not be an entrepreneur and choose something less stressful, I have had friends straight tell me “I do not know what I am supposed to say to you,” and I have had family tell me doing some push-ups and exercise will make it all better. At what point can society give up the pretenses they have of mental illness and find a legitimate support plan?
I found a total a lack of awareness and understanding in society. A few years before my company launched, when I was still trying to be diagnosed for my depression many of my friends would tell me “You just need to make your own happiness.” Even to this day mass amounts of people ask “There are so many people worse off than you, how could you be depressed?” Being depressed is not being sad, you cannot just be not depressed. Doing push-ups will not solve mental illness and giving up your passion is perhaps even detrimental to this state. Come to terms with the fact that just as you can be short or tall artistic or mathematical, you can have mental illness.
Mental illness, whether chronic or situational, is not something to be ashamed of and is not something that should limit you or your opportunities. In order to destroy this prejudice we need to treat mental illness in the same fashion we treat regular illness. You go rock climbing with the knowledge you could fall and break a bone. You start a company with the knowledge you could develop depression. And in both circumstances you should be open about the problem and seek help.
The problem is that “help” for mental illness is a bit more abstract because of the variance in symptoms. I have been prescribed four different medications for my depression over my lifetime; all of which “should” have worked. Of the four one plummeted my mood even more, one kept me at a constant state of depression, and the last two in conjunction actually work. What I have learned is that doctors have no idea how the brain works and researchers do not place as much priority on the matter because curing cancer is seen as more pressing than curing depression.
Medication aside, I always found my best outlets were with people undergoing similar conditions and circumstance, and I try to be that same person for my struggling friends. The first step towards solving this epidemic is just coming to terms with the problem and being there for others who suffer. Entrepreneurs are more likely to see both chronic and situational cases of mental illness because of the crazy nature of the industry. As someone who knows both the dark side of entrepreneurship and the dark side of mental illness, I want to urge you and society as a whole to take the first step towards solving mental illness. If you or someone you know is having issues, please reach out to me or someone you trust so we can all talk about it. Additionally, if you have any ideas for creating a support network among entrepreneurs facing either chronic or situational mental illness, please talk to me because this is a cause I very much want to help jumpstart and support. The people in this industry drive the addition of value to society and face enormous mental costs because of it, stand with me in helping overcome this cost for the many entrepreneurs who have not solved their mental illnesses just yet.
I will leave you on this last note. At one point in my life, I cut and had suicidal thoughts. But that is very much in my past. I worked with doctors to find a solution and am now very much stable. Along my entrepreneurial journey I have thought that I was crazy, had made the worst mistake of my life, and would fail enormously. But I am still here.
It has been a crazy journey so far, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. The only reason I am still standing here is because of my love for what I am doing and how much I believe in the value behind Touch Tiles. If you have that passion too you will move mountains to overcome this dark side of entrepreneurship, but if you ever need help shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. Everybody needs help.