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Ask YC: Dealing with post startup depression
72 points by poststartup on March 26, 2008 | hide | past | favorite | 57 comments
Hi, I recently shut down my first startup ever. I am having a really tough time getting over it and starting all over again. A feeling of extreme weakness and failure has taken all over me , clouding my judgement. Any tips on getting back to normalcy would be highly appreciated.

In all seriousness, take a break. It doesn't have to be for a long time, just enough to refresh your mental outlook. Travel a bit, even just to visit a friend in a fun city or somewhere to enjoy the outdoors. Get away from your computer. Be patient. Allow yourself to be human.

I agree. Go somewhere different for a bit, and try to just wipe your brain.

If you're the sort that gets into backpacking, that's what I always tend to use as a mental reset. It's a mix of getting to be challenged by a new set of problems and putting yourself in a social situation where you can reinvent yourself. Leave the laptop at home. :-)

I ran into Adam last year in a $3-a-night hostel in Egypt. He's got some decent tips for nerds wanting to get out for a bit:


I went back to school, studied a year of Philosophy and Business Administration, relaxed unwound enjoyed the sedentary pace of the academia. Worked like a charm.

Good idea. Exercise is another thing to do now that you have some extra time.

Don't run away! I am in your shoes right now. Yes, I had to shut down too. But, it has been the greatest growth I have ever made. Why? because you have to " 'real'ize" that no matter where you go or who you talk to, the depression is in yourself, not out there. If I were you, I'd focus on what to do right now with your feelings, not the next big thing quite yet. You have to live with what depression means to find normalcy, otherwise it will be a background process throughout whatever you may do, thereby hurting you more.

I'd like you to ask yourself one question, what is your definition of success? Remember, if you had a blast doing what you did, then there is no point in regret. Hey, if you had a miserable time doing whatever it is you did, it's great now that you are out of it.

Bottom line: learn to live with yourself, everything else will fall in place.

because you have to realize that no matter where you go or who you talk to, the depression is in yourself, not out there. If I were you, I'd focus on what to do right now with your feelings, not the next big thing quite yet.

Very well said.

This is worth reading: http://shadow.wordpress.com/2006/06/28/297/

the best scorers in basketball have whats called shooters amnesia. They don't think about the shot they just missed. It isnt part of their reality. Focus on the next thing. don't tie your self esteem to your last shot

As Pmarca wrote: attempting to improve your batting average of hits versus misses is a waste of time as you progress through a creative career. Instead you should just focus on more at-bats -- more output.

Link here: http://blog.pmarca.com/2007/08/age-and-the-ent.html

The ratio of success to failure in tech startups ranges from 1:3 to 1:10 depending on who you read. That means pace yourself, you might have to do this a couple of times before you get a home run.

The best way I ever heard it phrased was, "Not everyone gets a home run, but sooner or later you're bound to get hit by a ball and walked."

I wrote about my own experience in recovering from a failed startup. It is sort of like forcing yourself to get up after falling off a bike. It just needs to get done. Hope it helps.


Yeah, but there's no dignity in that, and besides, the run may be taken away anyway.


"I have missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot... and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life."

In my experience, the best athletes have a spooky accurate memory of failure... post-game. They figure out what went wrong, every time it went wrong, even if the overall result was success. So it is not amnesia, it is just a failure to influence their present action.

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." Winston Churchill

Exercise and a break from the computer are both a good idea. I think you have to reflect on what happened but with some emotional distance. Remembering Thurber's observation that "humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility" you should write down your lessons learned once you can laugh about it (at least a little) so that you are not just re-opening wounds. Some amount of lateral drift (reading books, seeing folks you've neglected as your firm was failing, etc..) can also give you perspective on what to do differently next time. I had a painful failure about a decade ago and concluded "I am through with being an entrepreneur." After five years at a big company I realized that I had mis-assessed and that I couldn't help being an entrepreneur. Failing at a startup doesn't mean you should give up being an entrepreneur, but you should get some perspective on how to make "new mistakes" the next time out.

So it is not amnesia, it is just a failure to influence their present action.

This reminds me of my college friend who spent much of his spare time climbing the outsides of campus buildings, smokestacks, et al..

Then one day he claimed to be afraid of heights, which made me laugh. "How can you be afraid of heights when you're constantly taking risks at high altitude?", I asked. His response was something like: "Oh, I'm afraid. But I can ignore that and keep going."

Didn't you consider his behaviour a bit peculiar?

In game, sure.

But post game the coaches and players go back to the tapes and see what they can learn from the game. Then they hit the practice courts.

As an aside, my personal experience is that success can also be cause for depression, feelings of failure and weakness. Growing is hard. Surrendering control, and the (inevitable?) cultural dilution post acquisition is hard. It was my baby. Now it's not.

For this too you mourn.

bad analogy i'd say. they may lose some shots but their team mates may score better that day.

At the end of the day, their target is to win the game so it doesn't matter who lost any number of the shots. If they lost the game then the team and all fans are emotionally affected.

The players will get paid at the end of the day. If a startup fails nobody cares and you are certainly not gonna get paid.

Congrats--you got one under your belt. Take a break. Then analyze it, learn from it, and iterate. Figure out why it failed, and avoid that trap the next time. Deliberate Practice makes perfect:


It took me years of brooding in a corporate job to get over my first failed startup. But people aren't kidding when they say it's valuable experience; I've seen enough entrepreneurs who didn't fail soon enough or often enough. Their first big idea happened to stay alive long enough that they lost the fear and thought they were going to go all the way; they weren't sufficiently paranoid and able to think in contingencies. Then, failure came when they already had plenty of people depending on them; they became bitter and never recovered their spirit.

Guy Kawasaki gives experience in startup failure +3 points on his venture capital aptitude test: http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2006/11/the_venture_cap.html

But the economy being what it is, don't wait too long if you want a decent choice of corporate jobs.

As ericb says, congratulations! I would have to seond ericb. First, relax, take some time off. Make a trip, call some of those friends you might have ignored while working on the startup, read a good book.

I have said this before, and I will say it again, in conjunction with some of the other people's advice of some exercise, try some meditation. It helps you relax, and at the same time, allows your mind to both calm down and reflect at the same time. You will feel more confident and composed, and if you keep the practice up it will help you in your next endeavor.

The link above is a good read. Doing something (Deliberately) without measurement essentially means that you are doing it in vain. It has been a philosophy of mine that if you watch (measure or log) something, it will grow in the direction you want it to. Look back at your time with your startup and try and assess where you could have done more, or less (invariably you spend time doing things that you are not good at, which means you spend an exponential amount of time and effort trying to accomplish it). Take notes, makes index cards, whatever works for you. Don't try and do it all at once, rather let it marinate for some time in your head, constantly jotting down anything that comes to mind. Talk to people who were involved or were somehow affected by your startup work. Ask them for advice, sometimes people notice a whole lot more than they give you credit for. For example, I tend to be very agitated and quickly irritated when I am trying to put the finishing touches on anything. The very last details (like lining up elements in the UI to the last pixel) tend to get me antsy. I think they are important, thats why I do it, but on the flip side, I tend to be very good starter and executor, but a poorer finisher. Ironically it was a project mate who mentioned it to me for me to realize it. There are several books on the topic, like "Now Discover your Strengths" that can also give you some insight.

Again, Congratulations! I wish you well.

As he says, congrats! I agree, with many of the comments. Relax, take a deep breath. Think about what went wrong, whether it was a bad product, bad marketing, bad team or no funding and recognize what you learned.

Take that knowledge and try again. If they say that 1 out of ten startups make it past the first 3 years, then you are one more closer to the 1 out of 10. On the flip side if you never reach the one out of ten, it may be time to consider becoming a career politician :D

Chris http://blog.itrealm.net http://www.propertystampede.com

Exercise. Seriously. Endorphines are really good for putting life in perspective.

You said it. Weight training is especially good for this.

Stop thinking that any single project will bring you success. Your goal should be to go through this process as many times as is necessary, from beginning to end.

Even if your first project is a smashing success, the chances are high that you will want to go through the process of starting something new again (and with this process comes the possibility of risking failure -- don't forget this!). There should be no difference with the outcome with any project.

Embrace your failures as they will teach you better and more thoroughly than anybody on a message board!

This is an evolved response, made for the paleolithic era. Your brain thinks your tribe was just conquered by the neighboring tribe, and that your women and livestock have been taken. Evolution thinks you're lucky to be alive, and the best way to preserve that is to lay low for a while and be submissive as possible. The mechanism by which is does this is by temporarily cutting your testoterone level. Your T is low, so you feel low and hopeless and the world seems a bit grey.

That was the smart move 50,000 years ago. Not now. You need to do things that bring the testosteroone back: hard exercise, especially weightlifting. Try to arrange for plenty of small, guaranteed wins in anything you're good at: video games, basketball, trivial pursuit, whatever. Get lots of sunlight! That's an easy one that boosts testosterone. There are probably other things that boost T. Google.

Bravo for asking this question. Great job in doing a startup in the first place. Consider this a hearty slap on the back.

Get some exercise and take care of yourself (probably in ways you neglected while doing the startup). When you can internalize the fact that failure is not a bad thing (as long as you learn from it), it will become easier to deal with.

Finally, be proud of the fact that you ventured out and took some risks. Life isn't meant to be spent hiding from potential failures.

depends on what you consider "normalcy".

i'd consider trying to get a corporate job. being bossed around, having structure and timelines, and not innovating much will fill your brain with ideas and have you itching for a startup in no time.

edited to add: i'd also consider trying to find a job in another field if you have the skill set or the means to potentially take a lower-paying job. taking a break from the tech sector could definitely re-energize you.

Even though it didnt make me rich, I consider my first startup to be successful because I took it from idea to revenue.

There is a hellacious amount of luck in startups. The best startup guys generally admit that it was luck/market that was responsible for a huge part of their success. Tremendous brains and a ton of effort is a big part of it, too.

The founder of Del.icio.us was at a YC dinner last night and talked about all of the miserable failures he had before Del.icio.us. Ev Williams had Pyra Labs' product before Blogger and Odeo before Twitter.

Failure abounds. Drink it in, learn from it and dive into your next one.

Or, if it makes you miserable, get a real job and some fun hobbies-- no shame in that!

I failed at two startups before my current one, which is close to launch. After each failure I took a break, feeling weak and like failure just like you are. But time heals all wounds. Before too much time had passed (a couple years) the excitement (and finances) had returned, and I jumped back in the game. I feel much, much stronger for the experience of those 2 failed startups. I don't regret them one bit. Sooner or later you'll probably feel grateful and happy for the experience you had, failure or no. Why not start now?

>> (and finances)

I've always wondered -- how does one recover from the financial setback of the initial failure? In good times, this may be easier if one either has savings or can quickly find a job to fall back on. But in times where jobs may be more scarce, how does one get through this?

Also, do the subsequent funding rounds get easier or harder? Do subsequent startup funds lean more towards VC or angel sources, assuming that one cannot save as much for the next rounds for a self-bootstrap?

I completely understand that the emotional roller-coaster must be difficult to overcome after the first setback, with a similar toll for a spouse/partner and family. How do people also overcome the financial setbacks?

I've been there. Just remember that the best indicator of future success in business is having tried before--even if you failed. In the valley, it's a truism that VCs don't mind seeing a couple of failed companies in your past, as long as it's clear that you learned something from them. There's even some evidence that the same investors that gave you money last time (and you lost) are actually more likely to invest in your new company than someone they've just met who has no record of failure. Weird, huh? Failure is practically a virtue in high risk business like tech startups.

Take some time off, work on something else that's a little less stressful (I did part-time contract work for a couple of companies that I enjoyed working with--contract work pays well, and gives you lots of time off to relax), play some video games, talk to girls/boys, learn a new language or to play a musical instrument, read good books, enjoy time with your family/pets/friends.

In six months, or a year, you'll feel rested and ready to dig in again. It'll actually come sooner if you have an idea that you really love. That is what happened for me, though I had some downtime before finally giving up on my previous business where I'd stopped selling the products that I'd always sold and started slowly evolving the business into something else--but I was accepting no new clients, so the workload was quite low.

Oh hell no! The last time I posted something inspirational here, somebody sent it to the Seattle Tech Startups mailing list, and in a couple hours it went from "inspirational Roosevelt quote" to "Teddy killed Indians" to "well Jefferson owned slaves" to "early philosophers were child molesters" to "why don't you go quote Hitler then" to "I'm glad my ancestors didn't kill any Indians" to "I looked up your family name on Wikipedia and your ancestors murdered Indians too".

Sorry to hear that things didn't work out.

The thoughts from others on taking some time off, getting into a different head-space are very good. Getting some exercise, seeing some shows, travel, eating some decent food, all good ideas if you have the cash for them.

If I spend too many days in front of the computer, I start to go stir crazy. I've had to force myself to stop and pick up some genre fiction and history books that I used to enjoy reading recently.

Think about it this way : You got about 10-20% of the total and about (70-80% of the grunt) work done for your next startup. :)

You have your servers, source code repository, development environment, bug/feature tracking stuff and all that ready. Heck, you might even have got the logging in, authentication, monitoring and all that done as well.

I would go so far as to say : Everyone should do a dummy startup just to get all the above straightened out. :)

THE ROAD TO WISDOM? Well, it's plain and simple to express. Err and err and err again, but less and less and less. — Piet Hein.

If you look at anyone successful, the reason you know about them is rarely their first endeavor. Everyone can start and and shut down a start up, but people that continue that cycle are those that succeed.

While it is hard to give a personalized advice on coping with a depression, you still can benefit from the failure. As others said - learn from it.

Specifically, if you are doing something that you have a little experience with (like, say, starting a business), it is generally a good idea NOT to assume it will work out. Better yet, treat as a wild card experiment with a great risk of failure. Approach it as something that you are trying out and using to learn what works and what does not. Very few people can succeed on unfamiliar grounds and it is almost always a matter of luck. Far more people succeed through trial and error. So learn from the mistakes and try again.

Play. This may sound like completely ludicrous, but it is what helped me. I loved the startup I was with. Amazing people, neat technology and an overall spectacular environment. The only defect was that the customers weren't there. So I left and right afterwards, I felt horrible. Eventually, I found myself also in a cloudy dysfunctional haze. So I decided to 'play.' For me that meant going back to school to learn random things that interested me (from linguistics, to art, music, architecture, Greek mythology, puzzles, maps, ornithology, hang gliding, etc.). While things didn't get better right away, they did improve significantly over time.

Take heart; this too shall pass.

Learn and grow from the experience. Having to close up shop is like breaking up with your girlfriend. Get over her, but also learn from the things you did wrong. Give it some time, take a sabbatical.

Don't go burying your head in a carton of Breyer's though.

You failed. Own it. It happened. Who are you worried will find out? The people who love you already know who you are and they don't care; they still love you. The people who don't love you probably don't matter.

I agree about exercise and a change of pace in your lifestyle (backpacking, academia, even a day job). The important thing though is to realize this isn't even near the worst thing that could have happened. You can still try again. Only this time, you have more information and are better prepared to deal with adversity. This sort of thing is hard for everybody.

I look forward to reading your new startup beta announcement soon.

I tend to recall Kipling's poem If, crucially:

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same;"


Read about Hershey and Edison :)

Taking a break is a really good idea. Not a long one, but something that makes you clear your head, focus on your body and your health, and starting missing creating cool stuff. If your mind's constantly occupied with day-to-day concerns, you can be overwhelmed and it's hard to regain focus.

If you can afford it, change your scenery a bit and go hiking or get away to a beach for a week, 'til you get bored of it.

What is your goal in making a startup? If you can get a continual sense of reward from accomplishing these things, that'll keep you going :)

Hey, just relax and take a break for a week. Visit your favorite vacation spot and meditate for an hour everyday! This will grant mental strength and will improve your concentration. Look for a place where you can go for a swim and enjoy good food. You need to sleep well and keep yourself physically active. Doing this, I am sure you'll return back to normalcy, and then you can analyze your failure with an open mind and a positive attitude.

You are in mourning. Emotionally it is similar to experiencing a death or divorce. Give yourself a little time to mourn in whatever way is good for you: have a good cry, get really drunk, beat the shit out of a wall, whatever. Failure sucks, now get over it. Your company's failure was not your failure. Learn from it, you are not invincible, now move on.

To use the old cliche: what doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

Take time to reflect, Figure out what gaps you need to fill and then launch another startup. Remember, you only have to get it right once!

Take a break. Go for a jog. One technique which has worked form me is looking at a brand new problem and coding for it.

I would also recommend reading: * blog.pmarca.com * Founders At Work * Startup by Jerry Kaplan (old tome but a good read) * Bhagvad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture which talks about work, victory, defeat (I can lend you a copy)

Microsoft toiled away in obscureness for over half a decade before landing the IBM DOS deal. Having perspective and realistic goals is helpful, there are a lot of good books on this topic (Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure, Founders at Work).

What problem did you try to solve with your startup?

Take a break.

Then, whenever you're ready, come back here and talk about it. That's what we're here for. Even though you're only 2 hours old here, you're already a veteran. Share your lessons with us and take what you need. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised how you'll feel then.

Accept failure and work in small bits. Focus on a very small part of your life and make sure you excel at it: ribbon and cherry on top with a blue medal for tying your shoes. Take each day one step at a time. It's not easy but you don't have to swallow it all at once.

I found this book to be a rich source on how to get value out of this kind of painful experience.


Allow yourself to be human and realise that everyone fails. Get back on the pony and accept it for what it was: A learning experience, as is everything in life.

This might not help, but now that you've failed you can take comfort in the fact that most startups do fail.

drink heavily for three weeks while watching lots of TV. At end of third week go to the gym, get on a treadmill and think about what your next business will be. Come up with idea, get off treadmill and run with it.

It's not how you failed; it's how you get up. Keep pressing on

any blog entries or anything describing what you did and what led to your shut down?

I hope to avoid learning this kind of thing the hard way...

I have been there, and you will only get better from here on. Let go of the emotions. Put the thoughts on hold.

Stay away from your machine. Go somewhere for a couple of weeks. Exercise. Eat well. Sleep well. Drink a bit of wine even. Have sex. Be human.

No guilt.

No regrets.

You'll be fine.

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