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Suffering From Depression? Don't Do That Start-up (jacquesmattheij.com)
77 points by Nickste 1522 days ago | hide | past | web | 93 comments | favorite

> For some reason start-ups are a magnet for people that suffer from depression.

I posit: it's hard to hold a steady job while suffering from untreated depression. (Or ADD. Or social anxiety. Or any number of other things.)

Between your (inevitably short) periods of employment, you tinker. Tinkering leads to projects, projects become startups, and--if you're good at what you do--before you know it, you're under a ton of stress.

I don't know what the solution is, but just telling people who have mental illnesses not to start start-ups isn't it. Frequently, a startup is their option of last resort--since the working world has already failed them.

That, exactly that. There can be nothing wrong with you, and you're just a bit outside the norm when it comes to your emotions. Yet you're miserable beyond relief in any number of jobs, so you start to look for alternatives.

Telling somebody who is not your 0815 always positive standup startup posterboy/girl "dude, you better not do that, you'll just hurt yourself, listen to me." Is like saying: "Dude, you just can't try to find happyness, give up now, trust me, I've no clue what I'm advising you to do because I've got no clue what your problem is."

> Frequently, a startup is their option of last resort--since the working world has already failed them.

That's an excellent observation and I had not taken this into account. This may be one of the reasons why start-ups are so attractive to people with issues in some area, it affords them the freedom to write their own ticket.

The problem with that is that start-ups aren't really a solution for the problem, it will most likely just end up making things (much) worse. Treatment is.

Life-style level businesses might be a good choice, you get to write your own ticket and yet don't have to deal with extreme stress (normally speaking, of course even then this could happen, you can't rule it out, you probably can't rule it out in any situation but doing a sink-or-swim start-up pretty much guarantees it).

You know that the line between a startup and a life-style business is pretty much non existent of course. Oh, and before we go into that "it's all immense stress, don't do it" thing, ever noticed how a ton of startups/founders are very fond of balancing this to be a lifestyle choice?

Anyhow, stress/failure isn't the only contributing factor to a balanced mental life. Even somebody with a more varied emotional makeup can deal with stress and failure. There are a host of other factors that have to work as well, and sorry, holding a job for some people just doesn't deliver them.

There is a huge difference between a life-style business and a start-up. Though the one could grow into the other the chances of that happening are fairly remote.

Most life-style businesses have built in limits to scale, most start-ups consider not scaling up and out a failure of sorts. As soon as compound growth is involved you're out of lifestyle business levels.

A typical life-style business is < 5 people, is in business-to-business, has a limited number of customers and does not aim to change that.

A typical start-up is one that is started by < 5 people, aims to achieve significant growth and is basically never going to be satisfied with the amount of reach they've got.

Start-ups will take outside investors, life-style businesses will not.

That's one of several definitions of a startup, and it's not the only one, or even an accurate one.

- There are any number of companies that started without outside investors.

- There are any number of startups that take outside investment but never scale.

- There are lifestyle businesses that turned out to scale at some point or another.

- To interpret compounding only in terms of taking investment and throwing away your life is a very narrow minded point of view.

That's the HN general use of the word start-up as per PG's definition. I agree there are others but it helps if we all use the terms the same way.

See here:


Sure, I don't disagree with Startup == Growth. I disagree that it means anything but (such as outside investment, winning the startup/facebook lottery, compounding, putting insane life crushing hours, etc.)

There's a reason PG formulated it thus simply. It would be odd if for instance in the case of Viaweb (a startup without outside funding) PG would disqualify himself from having done a startup, but then went on to define startups...

If we're gonna go there, lifestyle businesses solve real customer needs, usually for other businesses. Startups collect lyrics for hip-hop music. :-)

I posit: everyone is depressed, all the time. Start-ups are not unusual.

In the US, 9% of people report being depressed at least occasionally, and 3.4% are majorly depressed. An estimated 26% suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a calendar year (shout out to anxiety disorders!).


I think it depends on the person.

Some people can leverage extreme stress / being busy to suppress whatever issues they have. (At least for awhile -- suppressing things usually results in an explosion later.) Other people's depression manifests as an inability to make effective decisions or motivate.

Either way, it's a ticking time bomb, unless that person has well-developed coping mechanisms and a support network. I wouldn't want to invest in or work for a founder without that.

I think the risk of battling severe depression while operating a fledgling company is that by its nature, you're kind of on your own. Anyone -- even someone NOT suffering from depression, needs to have super strong support networks.

Maybe pysch-evals should be part of due diligence by investors?

Why not check on the state of their marriage/chances of their kids dying from a drug overdose too? Those would affect the investment too!

Ugh. Come on, there has been a line of privacy somewhere.

The results don't need to be shared necessarily, it could be as simple as mandatory evaluation + unbeknownst to the investor, treatment if that's what is recommended.

You talk about treatment, but you mention that this would form part of due diligence - presumably a treatment recommendation would cause the investors to pull out?

Good luck diagnosing depression when the person being questioned knows it's the difference between his company getting investment or not - here's an e.g. form typical of the assessment you get (in the UK) - http://www.sabp.nhs.uk/Documents/D1.3d2.pdf

How do you think the candidate is going to answer to a question like 'I feel like life is not worth living?' in this situation?

And you didn't respond to my points about marriage, and drug-taking kids. I don't see why they can't be assessed if we permit assessment of mental health as a potential cause of harm to investee/investor.

Perhaps we could look into a candidate's sex life to see if he or his partner are performing satisfactorily? Sexual frustration might take a toll on a startup. Perhaps check to see if there's an ill relative who might die during the life of the startup?

Additionally, I think there's a question of how much you can really assess this stuff.

I knew a person who lost a grandparent + split up with his girlfriend + subsequently failed his degree as a consequence despite a lot of assistance, where I myself experienced considerably worse circumstances with no assistance from the university whatsoever - how would you differentiate between us? Some assessment as to our resilience perhaps?

Not to sound cliched, but this really is a slippery slope situation, even if we could reasonably expect to achieve an accurate assessment.

All the investors need to know is you cooperated, they don't need to know what that means. Maybe that means you went and were fine, maybe that means you went and got recommended for some additional therapy.

Education, stigma etc are massive parts of the problem. Being forced to confront it and forcing an industry to confront it head on sounds good to me. When you wait for a depressed person to realize they need help and decide to take action and actually do it you wait too long.

I have no point of reference for marriage and drug-taking kids. I don't know if well adjusted people can leave their problems at home but depressed people cannot, and I do have some experience with that including seeing it take a life.

I'm very sorry to hear that you had to see it take somebody's life, that really is a terrible thing, and my heart goes out to you.

I am a depressive myself so have some experience, and dislike any idea that somebody might avoid employing me/feel leery about my advancing in the workplace because of it (even posting about it here makes me feel uncomfortable because of this stigma.)

Though I applaud the idea that people become more aware of the risks esp. in the computing industry/startups, I think the idea of assessing it being part of due diligence would simply encourage more stigma about it - 'who wants a 'crazy person' in charge of our money?' many will think, sadly.

Anyway, on the subject of depression I have a lot of experience so if you want to talk about that if it'd be of any benefit, feel free to email me (see my profile) :-)

That should be illegal. It probably is, at least in the EU. And it's counterproductive.

Imagine Robbin Williams being turned down by every major record label: "Sorry, Mr. Williams, you suffer from bipolar disorder, we can't take the risk."

Why do you assume it would be a negative signal? History is full of counter-examples.

Everything in the working world fails people with mental illness, even at low levels that aren't especially problematic under less pressure. There are very few organizations that actually promote based on excellence. Most set up a war of attrition based on shared suffering and the mountain of pointless work generated by bike-shedding executives. People with depression (or anxiety, ADD, panic, etc.) are not intentionally excluded; they're just the first to crack. Ugly fact: it's how the system is supposed to work. Competition-on-suffering exists to filter out "the weak" and "the slackers". It's a millennia-old (wrong) mentality of work and only over the past 50 years have we understood the biological causes (not personal weakness) that actually make people drop.

The idea is to assess character by generating artificial stress, but the result is that mild (usually treatable) biological problems are misinterpreted as character flaws. Depression is read as lassitude. (It's not.) Panic is seen as "not handling pressure well." (Actually, a panic attack is 3-20 minutes of hell but the disorder does not impair judgment.) Overwork-induced social ineptitude is interpreted as selfishness. Et cetera.

This setup is sad, stupid, wrong, and counterproductive because the modern economy doesn't need pointless effort and tolerance of suffering. Slackers are no more harmful than misdirected hard workers (which is most, because the people providing direction in most organizations are clueless yes-men). What the world needs, now, are creativity, insight, and excellence, which turn out to be positively correlated with the propensity to depression.

The conformist idiocy and pointless sacrifice of corporate life are unhealthy for normal people and debilitating for many with depression. VC-istan, a very volatile form of corporate life that looks meritocratic, is worse... because people work too hard and personalize their failures.

What I'd like to see over the next 15 years is more of an ability for smart, capable people to start lifestyle businesses. Right now, it's not unreasonably hard to found a get-big-or-die VC-istan company if you have the connections, but there's a whole world of smaller businesses that's not being explored because the market to connect the resources with the talent doesn't exist yet. (Kickstarter is a step in the right direction.)

michael, I agree with most of what you write, but I'm unsure what you would term a lifestyle business? Life coaching is what I'd term a lifestyle business, and I can't think depressed people would be great at it. Could you give some examples?

> The statistics being what they are

What statistics? You occasionally read about startup employees or (co-)founders killing themselves, that's not a statistic. What's the rate compared to non-startup jobs? Suicide is a problem across the board.

If someone is suffering from depression but has even a weak desire to do a startup, I'm not so sure encouraging them to take that job at BigCo is really good advice. A lot of people found or work for startups or small companies simply because they can't stand the corporate dynamics at BigCo, whether it's not being responsible for enough things and feeling like you have no impact, or doing boring things day after day, or bad management and bosses, or something else--if you feel like you wouldn't like a corporate job and you're already depressed, getting that job at a stable company is just going to aggravate you further. The academic world isn't necessarily better; if the games you need to play as a funded researcher aren't to your taste, that too will aggravate you.

Maybe instead of saying "stay away from startups" I'd argue "stay away from startups with an explicit goal of getting big or really rich fast", or more simply "stay away from Extreme Startups". Perhaps encouraging a focus on lifestyle businesses is a better approach?

> What statistics?

The statistics of start-up failure, which is pretty much a given, success is the exception.

D'oh, sorry, I misread that as statistics of suicide in startups. Maybe if the "or" later on in the sentence was replaced by "and" it would be clearer, but that narrows your statement.

No problem, I've re-written that sentence it now reads: "The failure rate of start-ups being what it is, if you are suffering from depression or if failure is not your thing then start-ups are the very last place that you should be."

That should get rid of any ambiguity. Thank you!

This is just about the most patronising, idiotic, misguided and damaging piece of bullshit I've ever had the misfortune to read.

For some people, yes, a high pressure environment that risks failure will put some in harm's way. But if somebody is prone to suicidal thoughts, it's likely that simply living life will put them at risk. Rejection in love. Loss of income. The death of a family member. There's so much in life that can lead to feelings of hopelessness and regret, plenty of them arguably more meaningful than a startup.

And here's the kicker - put somebody who's hugely creative and talented into a 9 to 5 environment or a workplace where they can't express themselves freely to "keep them safe" as the author suggests? There's the equally real danger that they'll feel stifled, trapped, desperately unhappy and will consider taking their own life as a result anyway.

And why does it seem that depression is prevalent in startups, wonders the author? One reason that startups might be a magnet for for such people, is the same reason music or art attracts its fair share of people with depression. It's an outlet, it allows you to define yourself and explore your creativity.

Another reason might be because startups are predominantly founded by young males; according to WHO, suicide in males is twice as high as females in most countries. There's also evidence to suggest young males are most at risk of taking their own lives. And how many founders have undiagnosed depression? How many founders suffer depression as a result of being a startup founder?

Startups aren't for everyone, whether they have mental health issues or otherwise - that's fair comment. People with depression should seek help, and friends should look to support them however they can - that's only to be encouraged. But to make blanket statements about depression just reinforces stereotypes. It's stupid, stupid behaviour.

Paul (has Bipolar Disorder, startup founder and accelerator program director)

Couldn't agree more.

Hey Paul, congratulations on coming out and showing there are survivors of exactly that setup.

Have any of the people in your accelerator program killed themselves?

Would you reconsider your stance if they did or would you stick with it?

Are you trying to identify people who may have mental issues from the population of founders of your seed stage companies?

And if so do you

- help to get them professionally looked after?

- refuse them entry into the program?

"Congratulations on coming out..."

Thanks, but I haven't. I've openly talked about it for years.

"...and showing there are survivors of exactly that setup."

What? I haven't 'survived' anything. I don't do my job in either the accelerator or the startup struggling with the relentless torture of it all.

2% of the population suffers from depression. 2% of the population don't kill themselves. So most are 'survivors' or, to use another word, 'normal'.

"Have any of the people in your accelerator program killed themselves?"

Out of 50 founders so far? No. Out of a wider ecosystem in our city of at least as many again? Not to my knowledge.

"Would you reconsider your stance if they did or would you stick with it?"

What's to reconsider? Would you consider closing a bank because somebody couldn't cope with the crushing monotony of their work and killed themselves? No.

"Are you trying to identify people who may have mental issues from the population of founders of your seed stage companies?"

No. I'm not a qualified doctor.

"And if so do you help to get them professionally looked after?"

If somebody shows symptoms of depression of course I'll talk to them and support them. I'll strongly suggest they talk to their doctor because diagnosis is required to managed depression.

"Do you refuse them entry into the program?"

No. That's stupid. Their depression may have nothing whatsoever to do with startups. Chances are it hasn't because they're still early stage. If I feel they're capable of completing the program in a professional and competent manner, then their mental wellbeing isn't a deal-breaker.

Just so we're clear:

- depression and suicide are not necessarily related, and one rarely leads to the other.

- people get depressed about plenty of issues other than startups. I have a friend, a successful entrepreneur who sets an outstanding example to others; his personal life is often a mess because of his depression. His professional life and his depression don't cross paths, and I'd guess that without doing what he loves in his work, his life would be so much harder.

- that there are people who think like you worries me far, far more than people with depression.

Thank you so much for sharing, Paul.

> With some regularity I read articles about some amiable, accomplished and brilliant young kid that decides to end their life in the start-up scene

This is confirmation bias. You don't hear about all the other people completing suicide.

> If a start-up fails, then to some degree it may feel like you yourself have failed, even if that is absolutely not the case.

There's a risk that this is extended to everything. "If a new job fails"; "If a new relationship fails"; etc.

Really, the article could be saying "Get treatment for your depression" (which is important whether you're doing a start up or not) and "Develop some tools for resilience, learn some techniques to help you cope with life".

I knew these people, and I know a lot of people. Judging by the difference between start-up types committing suicide and people that I know outside of the start-up scene there is a huge difference between the two groups. Of course it is possible that my experience is an outlier, but it is a pretty extreme one (5:0, on groups of 100's of individuals).

It's still bias. This is something medical professionals have to be reminded of over and over again: Your perception is not a double-blind study! You have no randomized control group and not enough cases.

There is a fair chance of that. But since this is my blog I will write whatever the hell I please, it's not a double blind study over 20 years and it does not pretend to be.

It's a plea. Which may stop the next friend or person that I'm in contact with from taking a right turn for a dead end in some broom closet somewhere.

Enough bright lights have been extinguished in this fashion over the last couple of years.

> But since this is my blog I will write whatever the hell I please

Of course. But I hope you would care that what you wrote is upsetting to a lot of people, and that we believe the advice is actually harmful, even though you didn't intend it to be.

If you truly do care about these issues and genuinely want to help people, I would love to chat to you about it. I don't think this is really the place for it, so please email me (@gmail.com) if you want to take up that offer.

Any specific examples?

No, I won't go into specific examples. This was tough enough to write as it is without opening up old wounds.

Most of the people I know who have killed themselves (hrm...10 or so over the past decade?) were not involved in startups in a senior role. One had sold a successful company a year or two before, and another was a senior engineer at a fairly successful tech company, and of course the other was aaronsw (who was involved in non-profit, activist stuff; it would be hard to say startups were involved in his death).

If you excluded people with depression from startups, I don't think you'd meaningfully change the suicide rate, but you probably would reduce the number and quality of startups. IMO, if one's internal emotional state is relatively independent of the outside world, it's not so much that losing a client or having a startup fail will lead to suicide, but that depression/withdrawal/etc. will lead to the startup failing.

The question is more can depression and startup success coexist.

This article is unbelievably wrong!

If you've tech skills, but you don't find working in a noisey office is for you, then you've really got to find a way to earn an income that works for you. Carrying on, and forcing yourself to apply for more and more jobs, where you have to compete with those in their early 20s who are willing to work 12 hour days, and havn't the burden of 15 years of technology changes in their heads isn't for everyone.

Startups offer an opportunity to create a world that not only works in the economocial sense, but also in various health capacities. If you don't like working in big offices. Don't. If you want to work in teams, when the rest of the tech world you know encourages solo endeavours & alpha-male heroes then you can choose to work in teams. You get to choose with who you work with. It's not easy in any stretch of the imagination.

There's been some high profile suicides of late. And it's a waste of life. A horid and chronic waste of life. Whilst there's a few people who hold nasty views on this, I believe the vast majority of people would just rather find a way to help people out through their struggles. I've seen an unexpected side-effect, of others who in one startup forum, have been much more open about their health issues, and in particular addiction. Being more open about health issues is important. Helping people is important. Saying don't do a particular line of work is daft!

Imagine an ordinary every day office job Joe, who suffers from depression, but yet fights on every day despite massive calls from within to do nothing, or stay in bed. These people deal with far bigger ups n downs than most. I'd argue that if that person finds that they're much better off without the 'ordinary every day office job' and finds a sustainable team to work as part of in a startup that they've passion for they're going to be in a better place. Also due to the past fights they've been through, they're going to be much better equipped to deal with the ups n downs of startups than people who havn't suffered from depression.

Startups give opportunity to create a sustainable business and to have a much greater influence on creating a sustainable workplace than merely being employee number 30+ in an established business.

If anyone reads this article and thinks startups are not for me then please do get in touch. I'm http://ianmoss.com/contact

Have a great day :)

There is a big problem with this article:

The writer assumes too much: * Depressive founders don't get treated * Avoiding doing a start up minimizes failure and stress * Minimizing stress and failure minimizes risk of suicide

All these assumptions can be argued with.

Also: Never confuse the reason a suicidal person gives for his contemplated/attempted suicide with the cause of a problem.

People talk bullshit about their emotions all the time. Depressive people do it in a very particular way that is easy to confuse with rationality. They don't take their lives because their business fails. It's way more complicated, even if they say there is exactly one reason...

The kind of reasoning in this article can be taken a notch further and urging depressive patients not to take any job beyond minimal wage....

I disagree. The article makes sense to me and could be also applied to a lot of situations. Certain career paths shouldn't be pursued with depression unless they got help first. Would you recommend a depressed person pursue becoming a mortician, skydiving instructor, or prison guard just because they wanted to?

Ermm. Non of those career options arn't open to someone because they suffer from depression! Why would you think that? A prison guard capable of empathy might deliver bigger results in reducing reoffending rates than one that doesn't. A sky diver capable of conquering fears? Oh, I think that might be quite useful. Not sure about mortician tbh. What is the ideal mortician? Probably someone who cares that the family of the deceased.

(1 in 10 people suffer from depression. It doesn't necessarily have any link with death, apart from in a few very unfortunate cases - it mostly results in a reduced quality of life, and with awareness and help from those that care there's ways around the problems the affected people have. It's more a case of stopping trying to fit square pegs into round holes, than stopping doing anything)

Would you recommend a person who has suffered from depression, not become a politician or prime minister?

I find this crazy. You don't start something because you want to. You start because you feel you have to.

I don't feel like I could last more than 3 months at bigco, that is if my lack of degree, and my full startup career, and "no-nonsense" attitude woud not block me at the recruitment process.

When you need control of your office life, when you have to be able to make a better expense report system if you see a problem, when you want to impact the end product in a major way, when you want to select the people you will work with, then you have to go for small and young companies.

> You don't start something because you want to. You start because you feel you have to.

Seconded. Though i haven't done any new startups, except work at a small one.

OTOH, as someone known to have been depressed, i would say he makes a good point. i could identify with that eiffel tower climbing as an attempt to cure the fear of failure analogy very well.

I'm extremely worried, I'm locked out of bigco (for the best), I don't want to be locked ou of startup land.

The herd mentality is so strong in this part of work world that it might really be quick.

It's not 'either do bigco or do a start-up'. You could probably do great as a consultant or a contractor. That way you still get to write your own ticket and you avoid the (majority of) the stress.

I'm just bad at service, I tried being a contractor and then an independent consultant and it was a disaster.

I work for products, I need a team with the skills I don't have, I need to make mistakes and correct them on the way to a product that sells. I need smart people doing stuff I didn't know where possible that quick, I like to cut the red-tape and corp. foolishness for them, I like to bring candidates in the middle of the team and check if they fit or not, I like to say "sorry" to a customer after someone makes a mistake that wrongs them. I like going on skype a 3AM after a pagerduty alert and seeing we're 2 or 3 on the incident. And I like the fight against clutter and complexity inside growing companies.

I note that this title could be written in a different way.

"Suffering from depression? Would you like to be? Try a startup!"

I joke -- a bit.

I've been at this startup thing for a few years, and who knows how much longer I'll be at this until I'm happy with it. Probably never.

The more I do this, the more I begin to think 1) that being somewhat insane can help you in a startup, and 2) the people I really want to listen to and learn from are the guys who tried for 20 years. Somebody like Zuck who hit the lottery really has very little of import to share with me. I'm average Joe Startup Guy. It's a different world for us.

In all honesty, I'm not so sure I would discourage depressed people from startups. Freud thought that depressed people were just smarter than the rest of us -- they realized how truly the world sucks. So in some sense, they may be better equipped for startup life than other folks. Fighting depression is fighting depression. External stimulus has little to do with it. In fact, that's the definition of depression -- an internal state of being where you find most everything hopeless (or pointless). There are a lot of really rich, successful people who are depressed.

Suicidal people? Different thing entirely.

Ferruh's guide to risk free startup (for depression prone people and the rest)

= Prerequisites =

* You have proven technical skills

* You have minimum amount of social and business skills (if you don't have this, don't do startups anyway)

= What not to do =

* Do not attempt to start the next Facebook, Twitter etc. Start small. If you like your next company can be the next big thing, for now don't do it.

* Do not start something that needs huge investment. Stick with SaaS that doesn't require big operation.

= Step by Step =

1. Find the idea

2. Design the PoC

3. You'll need max 1 year to deliver the product yourself

4. Pitch it to people you know (if you can't find & convince at least 3-4 to invest one in total of one year salary ~$80K then do not do startups). Do give away up to 49% of the company. Do not care. So the valuation of your company will be about 2 x your annual burn rate. i.e. $80K x 2=$160K

5. Only accept investment from rich people who is OK to lose that investment. Try to avoid relatives. This is really really really important.

6. Nice, now you have 1 year care-free time, do your thing.

7. At the end of 1 year if it doesn't work, close your company go back to your office job. If you are afraid that you can't find a job, DO NOT start your own company, that means you don't met the prerequisites in this guide (not technically good enough).

Congratulations, you have just started and failed a risk free startup. You lost some time of your life but possibly you learned a lot.

If you like you can repeat this many times until actually make it a reality or to figure out that you don't have what it takes to do this.

I think it helps to understand investing. A lot of the emotional hangups I hear from founders is that they are afraid to let down their investors.

It sounds harsh, but you shouldn't care about investors because they shouldn't overly care about your success.

You should care enough about the start up to want it to succeed and do almost anything for it without having the investor breathing down their neck. On the other hand the investors should know this is a high-risk investment and not have their financial survival depend on it.

> risk free startup

That's a new one!

Nice list, it definitely mitigates some of the risks.

:) I think zero emotional risk is not possible because startups are personal and depending on the person effect can be huge.

However removing the money from the equation will make things much easier for sure. Many people perform bad when they are economically pressured and they don't have a good plan B.

I'm not sure I agree.

You seem to think that extreme stress from your mentality makes it difficult to deal with extreme stress in your job. For many it is the opposite. If you're riding a rollercoaster then another rollercoaster is not so scary. It will hurt but it is expected.

The point when you decide to leave a 'comfortable' existence in BigCorpâ„¢ is the point in which you no longer feel comfort there, and at that point you are no longer looking to find comfort in another large company, you're looking to take the high level of stress you have and actually get something out of it. Oh, sure, it's 'risky' but it's nowhere close to as risky as somebody who has never dealt with depression founding a start-up...

Don't assume that life at a company in which you don't have control over what you work on, have no impact, and are beholden to corporate politics is somehow more comforting and safe for depressives.

I would like to add that, speaking from personal experience, your mental state really slides downhill when you pass from just being uncomfortable to feeling trapped. You start thinking less of yourself, your interview performance goes down, and every failure to change your situation notches you down and actually makes your situation worse. Sometimes the only way to break that cycle is to say "Fuck it", quit, and do something on your own. At that point, any level of risk looks better than certainty because the certainty sucks so bad. That is the path I would have taken years ago, were I not stuck in Dallas. Would have been preferable to the 2+ years of hell I went through at my "safe" job until I finally found something else.

I disagree with OP. Maintaining a job when you have depression is very difficult, but you can work on your startup. Infact, having something to work upon, something that you love, gives a purpose to your life.

And these are not some arbitrary statements, I was suffering from depression & other related issues and focusing on startup really helped me. Before that, I was at bottom point of my life. Working on a idea, idea that i loved, was only one reason because of which i was waking up in the morning.

But, then again, I can see that startup is not a medicine for depression. It may have worked for me but there is no guarantee it will work for other. Even then, we can't say that if you are suffering from depression then startups are not for you.

I don't have the data in terms of startups to back it up but there are a couple reasons why someone who is suffering from depression can actually thrive. Some people suffering from depression may be especially good at working on hard problems and seeing them through, spotting issues (not being blinded by them) and bringing creativity.

On the flipside, people who are perfectly happy in regular jobs might crumble in startup situations because it does invite a great deal more struggle.

I'm not saying that people suffering from depression should go into startups for that reason and I agree that startup success is typically low. I don't find the message that compelling though, as if a depressed person will be appreciatively better off with a 'steady job' (to the extent such jobs still exist). Soulless jobs are a big reason people get depressed in the first place.

If you do suffer from depression, regardless of your occupation it should be a priority to figure out how to manage it, to have a strong support system in place and put your health first.

Winston Churchill suffered from terrible bouts of depression but he that didn't stop him from doing what he felt he needed to do. I certainly wouldn't base a career choice on a sweeping generalization.

The plural of "anecdote" is not "data".

I'm sorry for what you have been through but ultimately, this article, whilst coming from a thoughtful and heartfelt place, is ultimately just displaying misunderstanding and bias against mental illness.

Some people should not do startups. Some people suffer from some degree of mental illness. There will be some overlap in these groups but it is insensitive and prejudiced to suggest that the groups are the same.

Of course those groups are not the same. But from where I'm sitting it looks like one of the groups has significant overlap with the other group.

Yes, I can tell that you are prejudiced against people suffering from mental illness from what your wrote, and I'm sure this is due to what you experienced.

Often prejudices are due to personal experience. Many people think that women are less capable in tech roles due to personal experience. Many people are prejudiced against other races due to personal experience. And many people are prejudiced against people suffering from mental illness due to personal experience.

Just because of your personal experience, does not mean it is not prejudice. Even though I'm sure your intentions are admirable, ultimately your message is incredibly negative towards a subset of the population based on anecdotal evidence, and this is why I am calling it out.

Anyone should think carefully before embarking on a startup and be aware of the huge trials they will face. However you should not be dissuaded from trying solely because you are a certain gender, a certain race, or have a certain illness. This is why I disagree with what you have written.

Perhaps a better way of phrasing this is: suffering from depression? Don't do that startup unless you have a safety net (of course, that could apply to people without depression too). Hell, I'd say that applies to doing a PhD (I'm in one right now) or anything that does mean you have to deal with a lot of ambiguity on your own. In those situations it's all too easy for even the most mentally secure person to start neglecting themselves in the service of the work (mentally, emotionally, psychologically, physically), potentially to disastrous effects.

Oh, and to add to my own comment, I'd also say you could swap out "depression" to "ongoing medical condition".

Similar thing, it's fine if you manage it, if you don't things could get a whole lot worse (and other people will end up hating you for either carrying your load or being let down)

I don't think depression necessarily means you shouldn't do a start-up.

People who know what depression is and know how it works can actually quite often cope with it better than people who don't know what depression is. If all you've ever had in your life was happiness and success, then a depression can suddenly have a far greater impact on you than someone who knows how it feels.

In that sense, I think that people who are suffering from suicidal tendencies should stay away from startups at all costs.

When running a startup, the ups and the downs in life are far greater than when working for someone else. The thrill when things are going up is why it's so attractive, but everyone who has ever done a startup knows the horrors of crashing and burning - and you will crash and burn at one point or another.

Almost nobody I know will come out of a crash without some mental bruising, some hurt ego, some depression. They may not show it, but even the most ruthless businessmen have to deal with failure and the associated feelings of depression.

If you are unable to handle the lows that come with startups, and if you are at risk of hurting yourself, startups are not for you and I would recommend working for someone else. Otherwise, if you do occasionally get depressed when something in life doesn't go so well, but you always get back on the saddle after a short period of depression, then startups are perfect for you.

If I could upvote this a hundred times, I would.

I left a startup I co-founded after almost two years of engagement that was becoming increasingly half-hearted -- with symptoms of a mental health problem already showing and just in time to prevent the effects from being devastating. I did learn a lot, but in retrospect the decision to leave was good both for me and for the startup.

I see it the other way around. Creating a start-up is supposed to be fun and exciting as well as challenging. Someone suffering from depression starting a start-up could be a great way to get over their depression by working on something their passionate about.

I suppose there are many sides to this debate but that's just how I see it.

Start-ups are only 'fun and exciting' the first 90 days (if you last that long) before your first major crisis will hit. If it isn't like that you are not trying hard enough.

Side projects can be fun and exciting as long as you stay the hell away from success. There are not 'many sides' to this debate, people prone to heart failure should not be trying to set world records, people that suffer from depression should not do start-ups. It's simply asking for trouble.

Overall good advice, but I don't know if completely dissuading someone with a history of depression from founding a startup works. There's no reason you can't succeed, it's just that the risk of failure (or runaway success) can be dangerous without support.

The main point people miss when someone goes about with a startup idea is that most of the time, it's just you.

There's rarely a saftey net, often no co-founders, and sometimes not even anyone else to confide in. Well, not if you want to show weakness and still have any investors left. That's an awfully lonely and frightening place to be for someone who doesn't have a history of depression, so the condition will only compound the problem.

And a startup need not fail either for all of this turmoil to kick in. Often times, success has very similar consequences.

I agree in principle, but for some of us working startups is just too much engrained in our fibres. I love it, but its hard work. We would do much better as a collective community work on removing the stigma of depression rather so people can work around it (if possible).

I believe there are different types of depression, with different causes and different solutions. Poverty leads to one type, boredom another, stress, uncertainty, loneliness. This list has not been checked for completeness.

A startup, especially if it's your first, contains nearly every trigger listed above. but many who are already depressed see it as a way out of depression. Since if successful, it also covers nearly all solutions.

For some then, a startup is not a choice, it's the only visible way out.

Good article. It adds something valuable to the (anti/)cheerleading body of evidence that a lot of aspiring startup folk base their should-or-shouldn't-I decisions on.

I would add that I know several people who committed suicide, and these incidents lead us who are left behind to build a mental model of suicide reasons.

My personal suicide anecdote model says:

- If you are depressive please avoid:

- * show-business ( esp. if you have early success )

- * entering a heterosexual marriage and having children if you are actually homosexual

I think we can remove the "if you are depressive" from the last one.

I agree very much ! But I would say that then the statement becomes 'general-good-advice' rather than 'suicide agent'

Suffering from depression? Don't get into that relationship. When you've invested years of your life, and a part of yourself, into someone, and you lose that person, it's harsh. Also, don't have children, because that could be stressful too. BS!

Some aspects of startups are probably unhealthy for people prone to depression: 80 hour weeks, risking everything on a business model without revenue, the culture that says you have to "change the world". If you start a company, though, you set the parameters. Work 40 hours a week. Choose a less risky business model, one that has revenue built in from the get-go. Have cofounders to share the burden; have a support system, preferably one that includes people outside your startup's reality distortion field. Realize that you have limits, that the startup can push those limits, and have a plan for dealing with that (both for steering clear of the limit, and for coping when you've crossed it). Know thyself.

We shouldn't pretend depression doesn't exist. But, like other chronic conditions there are ways to manage it, and, I submit, ways to do that while starting a startup.

"Risking" everything seems to be part of the "lean startup" mentality. Incubators and early stage funding is intended to trade equity for exactly that risk.

Depression is not a barrier to doing a startup. Indeed, given that a large number of people (statistics vary widely as to the exact %) suffer from depression at some point in their lives, it is likely that there are far more happy outcomes of depressed people (or people prone to depression) doing startups than there are tragic cases where it has led to suicide.

There is some evidence that depressive spells can lead to more clarity - this is wrapped up in the debate as to why depression exists in the first place. Additionally, the severity of the depression is a major factor - I have seen people entirely incapacitated by it, whereas others are able to effectively manage it using therapy and/or meds.

Also relevant is the nature/cause of the depression - it is possible to suffer from symptoms of depression (i.e. scoring highly on, say, the Beck depression inventory) that are largely situational - i.e. they are brought on by a job you hate, a bad relationship, etc. In these cases, doing a startup might actually be something that enables you to focus your energy and actually reduce or eliminate the symptoms entirely.

Depression is largely an episodic thing (dysthymia, though it's sometimes called "chronic depression", is actually a distinct issue). Many people do indeed go through one or more episodes in their lives, and this is not necessarily a problem. But like all mental faculties, it can get out of control, and then the problem becomes serious.

I'd say that going through a depressive episode actually is a barrier to doing a startup. The reason is simple: getting a startup off the ground requires almost all-consuming motivation, but one of the most common symptoms of depression is impaired motivation. In other words, depression hits right at the heart of what makes startups workable, and while this is not necessarily insurmountable, calling it suboptimal is an understatement. The wise thing to do would be to get it back under control, and then start the business when you're in a better state to see it through.

I suffer from depression, but there is a silver lining to it. You learn how to cope with and overcome hopelessness. You basically become emotionally impermeable to anything the world (startup or regular) can throw at you because you've already lived through the worst of it in a broken mind.

Now this is the perspective of someone that has known depression for a long time. If you are new to depression should you do a startup??? As long as you are getting professional help, you can do whatever you want. If that is a startup, then do the startup. Just recognize that you have to actively address your depression in the beginning as you learn how to reduce it, weather its storms & live with the residual aftermath.

Depression is nothing to fear, its just something that sucks for a while, and sucks less and less over time. But if you do have it, I hope you find happiness in knowing that you will become stronger and a more resilient as a result of it, which seem like pretty good characteristics for a co-founder to have.

Note to people that know me IRL: This comment is quite personal. Feel free to read it but please bear that in mind.

I've really been trying to bite my tongue in the last 2 months but the number of articles about depression on HN is overwhelming and it's starting to bug me. A lot. And by "bug" I mean "upset, anger, and insult".

Here's some ground rules for not being insulting. It is possible to break these rules and not be insulting, but it's hard, so for a crude guide I think they are of some use:

1. If you don't and have never suffered from depression, don't tell people who do what they should and should not do.

2. Do not ascribe people's actions to their disease, nor predict them based on them having the disease.

3. Do not assume there is a correlation between depression and suicide. The connection is actually very weak, far weaker than most people assume.

4. Don't use (or even make mention of) other people's deaths for your own cause.

If you don't understand any of these, or see a need for them, please ask and I will expand.


Specifically regarding this article, but by no means is this the worst offender in recent memory (I just feel that, out of everyone, Jacques will actually read this):

If you want to write an article saying that running a start up is very stressful in certain ways, that you need to have certain other areas of your life in order, go for it.

Don't cover it with the blanket "don't do it if you have depression".


Stress isn't linear and some people can cope with some forms of stress better than others. What would break one person another could power through. Some people stress most at the thought of being homeless and jobless, other people find the idea of being stable secure and in a rut far more stressful.

Some people who don't have depression would fold under the stress of running a startup.

Some people who do have depression would rise to the challenge. It may even help them to have more control over their situation.

So in terms of a classifier for who can run a start up, depression isn't a particularly useful variable.

On: "taking their own life because"

Just don't go there. Please. You have no idea why they did it or what was going on. How many of your friends ran startups just fine while managing depression, and you had no idea they were depressed? How many people commit suicide seemingly randomly because no one else has any idea what is really going on inside their heads?

People with depression aren't fragile timebombs that if you aren't super nice to, they will kill themselves.


So, I've tried to keep things cool and rational so the things I am saying are hopefully sensible and self-evident. But I do want to impress upon you, Jacques, and you the reader, and especially you the HN contributor who might write an article like this in the future:

This advice is toxic. It is horrible. It is exclusionary. I suffer from depression that varies from the extreme mild end of the scale the majority of the time, all the way to the severe end of the spectrum at its worst. The one constant is that it is always present, even if in a very mild form. You are effectively telling me: "You will never make it. You don't have what it takes - some quality that I have, and you do not. Because of a disease you have due to no fault of your own, you won't make it in the startup world. Your dreams are futile and you should stick to the 9-5".

How would you react if someone had told you that some years ago, before you starting doing your thing? There are times when my reaction would be to curl up, give up, cry. Even now I am shaking not just with anger but also because I want to cry. These days though I am stronger - it is possible to have depression and yet be strong - and so my response is simple: "Fuck you. I'll do what I want."

I really hope that others reading this article have the same reaction, not because it is a good one (I would much rather the reaction be "What a useful and insightful article, I know what my next steps should be") but because it is far, far better than the alternative - to give up.

As a brother in arms in the battle with the same personal illness, you nailed everything I was thinking. When I first read even just the title my first reaction was "Screw you, random post on HN".

If you really want to be helpful with startsup and depression, encourage people to get some mental health treatment. No one ever has to fight alone nor is it a battle that can be won without support.

This is really refreshing to see here. Thank you for taking the time to write something so deeply personal. Could you imagine how many people would be affected by a post telling them not to do comedy if they're depressed? This isn't just a phase for some folks; it's a series of highs and lows that never goes away. Expecting people to give up on their dreams because of a mental illness that society already tries to sweep under the rug and douse with often-ineffective drugs is beyond my comprehension. These are some of our best and brightest minds, we should be encouraging them.

> Do not assume there is a correlation between depression and suicide. The connection is actually very weak, far weaker than most people assume.

Do you have a source for this? I've been searching for a bit, but can't find anything that indicates depression is very weakly related to suicide.

I believe the correlation is there, but it can be very misleading. The presupposition in the article is that a prospective start-up founder knows he has a mental health problem. In that case, his suicide risk is already lower.

I have two minds about the depression/startup debate.

First, I'm going to make a blanket statement. People with depression are, as a group, better people. Sure, there are bad people with depression and good people without it but, in the aggregate, people who have suffered through it tend to be more empathetic and less mean-spirited. You're not likely to kick those who are down if you've been down. If you've had a 3-month spell in which everything took a massive amount of effort, you're not likely to inject annual "low performer" witch hunts into a company (cf. Enron, Google) for shits and giggles. So, it might get good for VC-istan to be more accepting of neuro-diversity. People with mild depression are also less prone to the absurd optimistic bias that plagues the ecosystem (depressive realism). People like that shouldn't be excluded just because they're the first to crack in this absurd brogrammer pressure-cooker that actually results in an extremely low quality of work across the board.

Finally, business formation doesn't have to be an all-consuming, destroys-your-life-if-it-doesn't-work-out-and-merely-ruins-it-if-it-does, affair. Our natural tendency, as humans, is to examine and improve things. For many of us, that includes abstract processes. That's kind of what business formation is... or at least where it starts. It's too natural and important of a process for it to exclude people who can't lay down a 5000-hour work year. It's a 90-hour-per-week, all-consuming affair in VC-istan, but maybe the problem is that ecosystem and not business formation (a millennia-old, natural process) itself.

On the other hand, there is currently no way for most people to start businesses that isn't unhealthy. Bank loans expect personal liability. VC-istan's problems are well-documented; VC's can ruin your reputation and make you unemployable and unfundable, so they hold all the cards. Using personal savings isn't a good idea in a world where full-time employment is taxing enough to exclude almost everyone over 65. Using friends-and-family money is even worse, because it can interfere with the personal relationships people need to be healthy. Then, in the U.S., there is the evil of private health insurance.

Obviously, I'm not saying that business formation should be entirely risk-less, but right now, there's no healthy way for most people to do it. Most people don't have the capital, relationships, and leeway.

I wish there were a healthy way for people who are inclined toward business formation to do it, and maybe that's the real problem we should be out solving.

This has nothing to do with VCs. Building a business-any business-is incredibly hard and stressful. I'm not sure if you've been there, but bootstrapping a business, really building something new and unknown from nothing, is infinitely more stressful than running a funded startup.

Raising money at least gives you a little cushion, a little breathing room to experiment and fail and try again. Bootstrapping, the "you don't sell, you don't eat" bootstraping, is constant, unending stress and fear. One single mistake, one bad hire or mismanaged advertising buy can kill the business, and the stress and pressure to stay alive is constant- the sword is always hanging over your head, and at any moment you think it's going to drop.

And that's what bootstrapping a successful, highly profitable business was like. I can't imagine what sinking all your time and savings into a failure would feel like. The sheer carefree bliss of never again having to decide whether you should buy AdWords ads or eat meat this week is worth whatever equity stake you give up.

You are agreeing with my point, which is that there's no way to form a business that isn't extremely stressful. That's unfortunate, because there are plenty of people out there who have the talent and ability but don't want to take on the pain.

This makes me think of Abraham Lincoln, who was known to suffer from deep bouts of depression. What would have happened if somebody told him not to run for president?

I don't think suffering from depression alone is enough to rule anybody out of any particular field. There are ways of managing depression with the right support structures, therapy, medication, etc.

It's worth Googling "CEO Disorder" and looking through the results. Apparently Bipolar and manic depressive people have a correlation with being CEO's and successful entrepreneurs. Whether this is simply an interesting correlation or if there is a causation from one side or the other is an interesting topic to think about.

> For some reason start-ups are a magnet for people that suffer from depression.

Hmm, I don't know if this is true. Maybe we just see it that way because of the vocal minority effect? Bluntly put: We don't see many 'hey, Joe didn't kill himself/isn't depressive' posts being written.

Also consider that depression sometimes is 'latent' and the startup roller coaster can be the triggering factor. My first co-founder (and lifetime friend) committed suicide a year after leaving the company to become a federal agent. We could never have guessed he was suffering from severe depression.

People seems to think that depression is a personality issue/characteristic, not an actual decease. Depression is a curable decease that sometimes can even be detected with blood and saliva tests. It requires medical attention and almost every case ends up in drug treatments.

If your doctor understands what a startup is and allows you to do it, I don't see why you shouldn't. You can't scape from depression by not doing a startup.

This article assumes that depression and difficulty coping with failure are one and the same. When in fact depression and difficulty coping with failure can be two pretty distinct personality traits. I'm sure there's some correlation but many of the depressed friends I've had seemed depressed no matter what. Their depressive state having no causal relationship to whether they were doing well or poorly professionally.

How about if you have depression then maybe get the depression looked at and managed ?

It's terrible advice to just go and 'get a stable job' as you're clearly just treating the symptom not the cause.

There's probably lots of things you shouldn't do if you have depression, that's why it's not a good thing to have depression and you should seek help, not run away.

This is basically medical advice, given by someone without any medical training.

Would these people he is talking about have committed suicide if not in a start-up?

There is a link between stress and depression, and between depression and suicide. But for a lot individuals, both links just don't exist. Life is complicated. Sweeping advice is as bad as no advice.

People are ripping on the OP, but I think his advice is good.

VC-istan is corporate life. Corporate life, for most people in most organizations, is depressing. All of it, whether it's a startup or some dead-end subordinate position at a Fortune 500, is pretty awful. The natural human tendency toward work has been perverted through subordination, inadequate rewards, wasted efforts, and capricious evaluation.

The difference is that the former is often all-consuming, while the latter tends to be, although miserable, limited in scope. If you tend toward depression, you're more likely to have it flare up in a 90-hour VC-istan gig than a 40-hour corporate job.

The problem isn't that business formation itself is detrimental, but that VC-istan is an ecosystem where (a) economic life dominates a person's existence, crowding out everything else, and (b) there's extreme volatility with no safety net. If you're a grunt, your startup might acqui-fail and dump you into a subordinate position that makes no sense, or you might get fired on day 364 with no severance and no equity because of the "cliff". If you're a founder, your investors hold all the cards and you're just there to do the legwork until you burn out and fall to pieces (and will then be replaced either with one of their friends, or another young, clueless, idiot).

It's not startups that are the problem, though. It's unhealthy work environments.

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