Founder’s Depression Is Bullshit

Founder depression
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I shared a story recently about one of the darkest moments of my career. We’re through it now and better because of it. But, woah… rough times.

Two years ago, we were still in its grip. Our team retreat was just a few weeks away, and I was a wreck.

Sitting at my kitchen table with my head in my hands, all I could think of was “I don’t want to go.”

Groove was not in a good place, and neither was I.

Our product was stagnating, and our efforts to improve it were failing.

Our growth had flatlined, and we had our first “down” month since 2012.

Our team felt overwhelmed and discouraged.

That passion I had always relied on to sustain me through the harder times?

Gone. 

And there I was, fighting back tears at the kitchen table, telling my wife that I didn’t even want to get on a plane to see my team and (hopefully) make it better.

The final months of 2017 were the darkest of my professional life, and also the first time I’d ever entertained the thought of selling the company and walking away from it all.

Things got bad.

It was hard to get up some days. 

And in fact, there were days that I didn’t.

The first time I publicly shared this story, I got an email from a reader:

I appreciated the reader’s kind intentions, but it also made me realize something: “Founder’s depression” is bullshit.

Depression is real. Founder depression is bullshit.

It’s a term that’s tossed around casually in the startup community.

Founders and investors write blog posts about it, nearly all of them offering up a cure.

But all of them miss the point.

Depression is a very real and serious condition that takes hard, deliberate work (and often, professional help) to fix.

Founder’s depression is a lie we tell ourselves—and each other—to make depression seem like an acceptable part of the job:

The proliferation of the term Founder’s depression has done two dangerous things to our community:

1. It has made depression an acceptable, expected part of being a founder.

I’m a founder, so it’s perfectly normal for me to feel this way. 

2. It isolates founders and makes them believe they’re dealing with something unique.

I’m a founder and none of the people around me are founders, so there’s nobody that will understand if I try and talk to them about it.

Since I got that email, I’ve spoken with over a dozen founder friends, and without exception, every single one who has experienced depression during their entrepreneurial journey has chalked it up to “founder’s depression.”

They didn’t talk about it.

They didn’t get help.

They just assumed it was normal.

Let’s drop the ‘founder’ excuse

This post isn’t going to offer a cure for depression.

I’m nowhere near qualified to do that.

This post is a call to drop the bullshit.

Let’s stop calling it founder’s depression and treat it for what it really is: depression.

Of course, founders are likely to feel depressed for many reasons:

  • Your company isn’t performing as well as you’d like…
  • Firing/laying off employees…
  • Poor customer feedback…
  • Failed deals…
  • Cash flow is getting tight…

…and many, many more.

But guess what? 

All of these reasons are proxies for you simply feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders.

And millions of people who have suffered from depression can relate to that, too.

Tim Lott’s fantastic “What does depression feel like?” captures this perfectly:

“You feel acutely alone.”

Tim Lott

Sound familiar?

While it’s debated whether depression is technically a disease, it is a debilitating condition, NOT an acceptable side effect of the founder’s job.

Give it the respect it deserves, because if you don’t, it will eventually wear you down.

3 things to do right now if you’re struggling

Despite what you may have read, the cure for depression can’t be distilled into 3 easy tips.

Meditation, exercise, play, and all of the other suggestions that tend to dominate this conversation in the founder community are all very good habits, and you should do them.

But as a “cure” for serious depression, they’re like throwing darts at Godzilla.

If those haven’t helped you, it’s going to take more.

The three best pieces of advice I can offer are:

1. Get help

Real, professional help. 

For me and for several founders I’ve spoken with, this is the only thing that finally caused a breakthrough. 

There’s still an unfortunate amount of stigma attached to this, both in the world at large and in the founder community, where you’re “supposed” to just be able to grit your teeth and push through anything.

It’s incredible how many founders are downright militant about seeking out and hiring consultants and coaches for every weak link in their business, and yet won’t touch mental health treatment with a ten foot pole.

Your brain is everything to you, and you owe it to yourself—and the people around you—to keep it healthy. 

If you’re in America, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America can help you find a therapist in your area

If you’re not, Google can help.

2. Don’t isolate yourself

Most of the things you think you can’t talk to your team, your friends, and your family about because they “won’t understand”?

You can, and doing so can help both of you. 

Your employees are worried about the same things you are, even if you think you’re hiding it.

Worried that cash is running low?

Concerned about the recent downward trend in signups?

Bummed about a key employee’s recent departure?

So is your team. 

Trying to hide it from them signals that they should hide their concerns from you, too.

Being open about what’s bothering you isn’t just good practice for your mental health; it will help your entire company become a better, more aligned place to work.

3. Don’t accept the label

Forget what founder life is “supposed” to be like. 

People attach all kinds of meaning to the “founder” label. 

Founder life is depression. 

Founder life is 24/7. 

Founder life is not having time for family. 

It’s your life, and you get to decide how to live it.

Moving past founder’s depression

I know that not everyone will agree with this post.

I know it might anger or offend some people.

But I’m not trying to stir the pot for the sake of stirring the pot.

My hope is that this starts a conversation about one of the most dangerous, insidious assumptions in the startup community.

Let’s kill founder’s depression, treat it for what it is and build a stronger, healthier and more open community.

Alex Turnbull
Alex Turnbull Alex is the CEO & Founder of Groove. He loves to help other entrepreneurs build startups by sharing his own experiences from the trenches.