Sad, Tired, and Alone: My Ongoing Battle With Startup Depression
image by Frederico Spengler
I am currently in the midst of the deepest, darkest, and longest depression I have had in the last 2 years of my life. Possibly ever.
82 weeks ago I started my third startup. Since starting Upverter I’ve felt this depression about a half a dozen times, I guess once a quarter. Its normally just a really, really bad day. Sometimes longer. But the point is, this isn’t the first time I’ve felt like this. And even in my life before Upverter, I’ve been through a couple of pretty depressed periods. Notably during engineering school, and again when I was working full-time at Sandvine.
It goes without saying that it’s pretty terrible, that I’m no expert in depression by any-stretch, and that I have an incredible amount of compassionate respect for those among us that live with depression day-in, day-out.
Pause The World
For me, the sadness normally means I hide. I sleep. I stare at my screen knowing what I need to do, but not doing it. I eat too much or not at all. And I drink. Im at a coffee shop right now writing this - and its the first time I’ve left my room in three days. During school and Sandvine I got fat - like 265lbs fat. It was pretty bad. I was able to lose the weight (80lbs), but it wasn’t easy - it was a lot of support, a lot of friends and family, and a lot of quiet-time introspection.
I was on mood stabilizers once. I can’t remember about a year of my life. It was terrible. I slept all the time. I felt like the volume on everything was turned down. The doctor who prescribed them to me later lost his medical licence for over prescribing. And I don’t really know what that means - should have been on them? I’ll probably never know.
But, for me, in my wickedly biased and completely uninformed opinion, drugs are not the solution to my quarterly startup depression. For me I think its part of the roller-coaster. It’s the lows that justify the highs of that big deal/ sale/ launch/ feature. A cost of doing business. Mellow the lows and you lose the highs too - I just wish that didn’t sound so bi-polar.
It Really Is A Roller-Coaster
The highs are higher, and the lows are lower. If you’re a founder you’ve felt like this before. If you’re about to startup you will feel like this someday. And it’s ok. It’s baked in. You quite simply can’t change the world in a couple of years without doing more than most people do in a lifetime.
Have a cofounder you can talk to. Build a support network of other founders. Send me an email - I’ll buy you a coffee and we can talk it through. You’re gonna feel pretty damn alone, I sure do, but remember you’re not. And there are lots of us willing to help you through it.
This isn’t supposed to be such a ramble. It’s supposed to be me, throwing my lot in with everyone else. Go ahead and add me to the list of startup founders who were brave enough to talk about their startup depression [Jason], [Lance], [Noah]. It was part of their lives as founders, it’s part of my cofounder’s lives, it’s obviously part of mine and I have yet to share my story with a founder who has not gone through some period of sadness.
I’m not going to tell you the same stuff everyone else already has. Their lists are perfect. Read what they had to say, do it, and that should keep you above it longer. Less sad always. But it will probably still happen. I still get depressed like I am now. And in an effort to drag myself up this time, I wanted to talk about the trend for me, what I think is wrong right now, and how I’m going to try and fix it.
Why Does It Happen?
For me I think it’s like a checkpoint. I need to step back. Look at the big picture. Confirm my motivation, find my power, look at the business risk, and make sure my personal happiness is factored in somehow.
My Energy, My Motivation
I worry a lot about the vision and our message. Upverter is a pretty big idea, and not everyone gets it yet. My motivation is tied very tightly to my belief that someday everyone will get it. Maybe not do it, but at least get why it matters; why there is a better world on the other side.
For me the sadness leads to brainstorming, which leads to messaging, which every other time has lead to a better, stronger and clearer message than the time before.
My advice is don’t discount the value in the sadness. It will suck. But if it doesn’t make you quit, it will make you be honest with yourself. Honest about the problems. And honest about what you should be really spending your time on. There is power somewhere in that.
My Voice, My Power
Upverter is made up of an incredibly gifted team. We represent the best of the best at most of what we do. We are solving the hardest problem around. We have the most kick-ass technical guys you can find. We have a genius designer. And a crack marketer (recently hired). We have a belief in the tech and a hierarchy that puts our builders at the top.
But that also makes it pretty hard to be me. Im a passion guy: fast, loose, and scrappy. I have a background in building hard tech, with hard deadlines, made by people who don’t get what they’re asking for. And I’ve become the guy asking for the impossible from people I could not respect more, while knowing it’s impossible. I’m selling tech I understand. Marketing while knowing the voids. And spending my nights building the bits I worry won’t get built. Its unsustainable, and I know it.
For me finding my power, means finding my voice. It means finding the way to drive and guide a team I look up to. It means finding my value-add and accepting I can’t do it all. It means doubling down and accepting the consequences.
My advice: talk about it with your team. You all have value (or you shouldn’t be there).
An Experiment In Risk-Reduction
I hold the somewhat common belief that a startup is an experiment. A big part of the experiment is given time (ie. money) can you reduce risk (ie. become viable). We normally reduce risk by gaining users, and/or revenue. A profitable business is pretty low risk. While an idea is pretty high risk. Early stage investments return big or not at all (ie. high risk). While late stage almost always return, and its an expected amount (ie. low risk).
Part of my sadness means answering the risk question. We have spent more time. And we have spent more money. But are we less risky? And if so, are we enough less risky that the experiment still makes sense? Early on this meant product progress, for a while it meant messaging, and more recently it means users and revenue.
My advice is try not to be surprised by it. Its really easy to watch time fly by, and keep building all the while ignoring the very metrics you are measured on - namely your risk.
What Is Your Happy Time/ Place/ Thing?
Turns out we are all people too. We need time, space, and things that make us happy. These are often the first things to go in a startup, and thats pretty normal. Im not saying you need to spend 6 hours a day chilling out. But you should spend at least one or two. Go for a walk to get coffee. Go to the grocery store to get food. Cook your own food. Watch a movie. Get enough sleep. Or try to take a day a week off.
For me, I bike. I love it. And it’s cold right now, so I can’t - and that sucks. So my mission is to find something else for winter happiness. I’m very sure part of my sadness right now is just how long its been since i got some real honest exercise. Dont underestimate the value of endorphins.
My advice, is the advice one of our investors give me. He said, “Zak, you guys can’t keep going so hard. You need to slow down to 40 hour weeks or you will burn out and die. But, if you slow down now and you don’t figure it out, you’re dead anyways.” He was saying sometime soon, the riskiest part of the business is the amount we work, but only when the risky part is no longer the vision/ users/ revenue. When the sprint becomes a marathon.
It may sound empty, but as quickly as possible try to get to the point where you can spend enough time on you.
I’m feeling a little bit better. Its good to say it all out loud. And my offer was real, this isn’t a zero sum game, and I want to help if I can (firstname.lastname@example.org). Many thanks to Rohan Lyall, and Clint Homuth for proof reading.
Upverter is my 3rd startup. I dropped out of high-school, and then university, both times to run startups. My big vision is that atoms and electrons will someday be as easy to manipulate as bits are today. And I believe sharing, collaboration and accessibility (of both tools and manufacturing) will be the drivers of this vision.
I can’t thank you all enough for your kind words, comments, and emails. It means a lot to me. And the absolute best of luck to all of you who are also out there fighting the startup fight. Much respect. There are more comments in the hackernews thread.