Founder Real Talk From the Edge

On September 1st, Franklin Wise was not having a great day. He had just finished moving out of his San Francisco apartment, which he was forced to leave behind when a startup job didn’t work out. He was devastated over that; he didn’t want to move and was struggling with the changes he was undergoing. When the final items were packed in the truck, he kissed his girlfriend in that empty apartment, then he kissed her again, and a little more for good measure. She turned to go the bathroom, and he turned, as well, but not to the door. Instead, he took to the ledge and jumped. He ended his life on the street below and, in the process, broke the hearts of so many he left behind.

I knew Franklin from my time in LA, although we had not seen each other in years. We worked together at Myspace and shared an office in Santa Monica after that. He was a unique guy, to say the least—bold, slightly crazy, and full of dreams, just like most of the great people you encounter in the tech industry. He had a passion for what he did, but beyond that, he had the tenacity to do something. Tenacity is a vital trait in our startup world because you’ll fail time and time again. You’ll be discounted and told “No” over and over. You’ll be defeated and want to give up 100 times before you’re successful just that once. Franklin’s own startup ideas never really took off, which, no doubt, took a toll over the years.

Tenacity aside, sometimes in our work, a series of events is just too much to handle, even for the strongest person. An unpredictable string of actions or inaction can bring you to the darkest of places. When you get to this place, you’ll realize that you’ve been beat down before but not like this. This is something different. The increased cadence and sheer volatility of shit has just become too much. That’s when a tragic event like this can occur.

When I first wrote about dealing with depression in the startup industry, it was because these events were becoming more common. There was one tough period where we experienced 3 such events in a very short time span. While it does appear that the amount of founder-related suicides has slowed, we’re not immune to it today. I suspect we’ll never be. So these events still happen, and as tragic as they are, they serve as a reminder to continue a dialog around the topic. On that point—and to be quite candid—it was tough for me to write about it before, and not much has changed in that regard. It may be tougher now, actually, because I know that when you do write about suicide, you’ll likely receive an overwhelming amount of outreach from those who are struggling. I can’t say I’ll ever be either emotionally or logistically able to manage that well. So if you are reading this and nodding your head, maybe crying with a bottle of Jack and already at the edge, please seek out professional help. For example, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or look to a local resource. While I’m just a guy with a blog, they’re trained to help you.

However, I did—and still do—want to help those in our industry who are struggling. I was incredibly lucky to have the chance to work at 500 Startups these past few years on their accelerator programs. Dave McClure hired me after my last startup imploded, and I was emerging from my own dark place over that. I was ready to accept my failure and receive closure but on one condition. I wanted to help other founders avoid some of the mistakes I had made and better manage the great journey that is building a company. 500 Startups was the ultimate platform for this, of course; nowhere else would I have the chance to work with so many startups. Volume investing is literally in our name. So in my mind, I said that once I helped 100 founders, my job would be done; at that point in time, my debt to the industry that had given me a chance would be repaid. I never really kept count, but I passed that number some time ago and just kept on going.

We introduced content into the program to help founders have real discussions around the topic. More than that, we developed an environment where it was OK to come to us and say, “Hey, I’m really struggling here—HALP.” Many founders did, and I used to joke that if you saw me sitting in a conference room with a very sad-looking founder on a Monday (most startup life breakdowns come to a head this day), we were having some “real talk.” And real talk became a theme of my programs and perhaps something I became personally known for. During these sessions, I mostly just tried to listen. So much of the time, a struggling person just needs someone to vent to. They tend to find their own answers this way with some slight nudging.

There are, however, a few pieces of general advice I gave out. For those struggling, I’ll share them now, as I hope that they can be helpful. To the other investors out there, you likely have one or more investments in your portfolio in trouble. Those teams are the most at risk, so I would encourage you develop your own approach, but if nothing else, be on the lookout, and be there to listen.

It’s OK to Quit

I think this is something that few investors will say because we are incentivized for you to never quit. There’s even all types of inspirational startup-quote bullshit out there that says you should never give up, but I’m sorry—that’s just not true. You do have a responsibility to your investors and team, of course, but that does have its limits. I told my companies that had hit the end of the road (zero cash and few options left) that I saluted them for carrying on, but I wanted them to please set a realistic timeline for when they’d stop. Just having a date out there helps because it does two things. First, it gives you some motivation to hit the target. Second—and more importantly—it’ll limit how much your overstretch yourself. While it’s fine to go the edge again and again for your business, be mindful of that last step that’s going to send you over.

It’s also worth telling founders that investors are almost never looking to get 1x their money back. We want a big win or nothing. So if you’re pushing yourself to the edge just to return your investors’ cash, you’re doing it wrong. We would much rather you wrap up things and come back to us with your next great business. Yes, it’s very much possible to get another chance—please don’t forget that.

Write, Create, Smash Something

Writing is an incredibly powerful tool for managing the stress of startup life—even if you hate writing or suck at it! Even if no one ever reads it! Just putting it down and taking it off your mind and chest will do wonders for you. So much of the challenge of the startup life is your inability to say what you really feel, lest you send the wrong signals to investors or staff. You always have to keep up appearances, and that is so tough for many, especially those who are struggling. So I do encourage you to get those thoughts and feelings out in some manner. If writing is really not for you, just the exercise of creating something—anything not related to tech—will be therapeutic. Worst-case scenario, just smash something, and get those feelings out. You’ve earned it.

You Don’t Have to Be in Silicon Valley

For the other locals here in the cradle of innovation, maybe it’s not you—perhaps it’s the location. In Silicon Valley, you deal with a disproportionate amount of “startup theater” and other optical bullshit, not to mention all the stress and anxiety of a town that has well outstretched its means for supporting itself. While that makes for an exciting ecosystem with endless possibilities, it also makes for a pretty grueling life. I have traveled the world the last few years and seen startup communities of all shapes and sizes. I can honestly tell you that the quality of life in those new tech hubs is significantly better. While no place will ever be Silicon Valley with its quick-moving cycles and abundant resources, it’s certainly possible to build an amazing business elsewhere in the world today.

Ever Try Acro Yoga or Learning French?

Remember hobbies? Those were the things you had before you threw way too much of yourself into the business. The founders I see best managing the ups and downs seem to always have the best hobbies. They take a break sometimes and do something non-tech that they really enjoy. I know it’s easier said than done, given the demands of startup life, but I encourage you to make it happen.

Franklin had so many wonderful hobbies—from salsa dancing to playing music to roller skating. I remember wondering how he was doing and clicking over to his Facebook page about a year ago. It was covered with these activities, and it gave me some peace to see him smiling and enjoying himself. It’s safe to say that they enriched his life and gave him some strength to weather so much these past few years. Despite what has occurred, as well as the fact that I’m writing this post, I believe that having a hobby is an important aid to those at the edge.

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Sean Percival

Sean helps startups get an unfair advantage in the market. Want to work together? Get in touch.