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Depression in the startup world: A former Seattle CEO speaks out

Rand Fishkin stepped down as CEO of Moz, the company he founded, in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Rand Fishkin)
LISTEN: Depression in the startup world: the former CEO iof a Seattle startup speaks up

Ninety percent of startups fail. Living in a city where it seems like everyone is launching an app, product, or company there are bound to be a lot of stressed-out people susceptible to depression.

Seattle’s Rand Fishkin worked at one of the approximate 700 startups the Puget Sound Business Journal reports operate in the city. Rand founded Moz 10 years ago, a startup that sells marketing analytics software subscriptions. Rand was putting in 70 to 80 hours a week, and the stress of not letting down his investors, customers, and employees led to severe depression.

“I’ll tell you very honestly, at the end of six years of terrific growth, building a $400,000-a-year company to a $30-million-a-year company, I felt like a complete and total failure,” Fishkin told me from the downtown Moz headquarters. “In fact, I can tell you, I still do. The obligation of a venture backed entrepreneur is to have these absolutely extreme unlikely, unusual outcomes.”

Outcomes like multiplying your returns by 10 each year for investors.

“A lot of private companies, they’d be very happy growing 20 percent year over year. In the venture world, 50 to 100 percent year over year is considered just OK. Luckily, for the first six years, we did grow, actually remarkably fast, 100 percent year over year.”

But that growth did not quell his anxiety, so Rand made an extreme decision in 2014; he stepped down as CEO of his own company. A company Seattle Met magazine named as “One of the Best Places to Work and Play” in 2011.

“I suspect that there’s a correlation between people who pursue entrepreneurship and a predilection for depression,” he said. “That’s just been my personal experience. I was in Colorado helping to organize and run Foundry’s CEO summit. At the end of that day, the last session was talking about the emotional issues surrounding startups. [Someone asked], ‘How many of you have suffered from severe anxiety or full-blown depression during your tenure in your company?’ Every hand in the room except two went up. There were probably 26 or 27 of us. That’s pretty unbelievable.”

Health issues, including depression, prevalent in tech

Seattle psychologist Dr. Garrett Gilchrist says yes, mental health issues are prevalent in the startup community.

“A lot of depression, anxiety, stress, ADD,” Dr. Gilchrist said. “People often don’t even know they have these things. You increase the stress, like in the tech industry, it’s going to bring up all of your underlying issues.”

He estimates that nearly a quarter of his clients work in the tech field.

“There’s high competition, they want to succeed, they want to obviously make money and then their whole identity can get tied up into that,” Dr. Gilchrist said. “So you lose parts of yourself. But there’s such a push to succeed and to make it that they fall into that trap that they have to sacrifice self-care, relationships, sleeping in order to make it. High success, achievers, Type-A personalities are drawn to that.”

This being the tech world, a lot of his clients prefer to communicate electronically.

“It’s common for us to have patients and they actually don’t want to come in in person,” Dr. Gilchrist said. “They’d rather meet over the phone. They’d rather do a Skype session.”

Fishkin, who now has a less stressful, non-leadership role at Moz, has been quite outspoken about what he went through. He thinks it’s important for others to know that someone like him, someone who looked so successful, was struggling. He got help and hopes others will too.

“I think that one of the awful truths of our era and our country is that the definition of masculine almost prohibits you from speaking openly about this stuff,” he said. “American masculinity is strong and silent and you don’t talk about your emotions and how you feel, definitely, don’t talk about anxiety and depression. You don’t talk about therapy, you don’t see a therapist. That’s what a man is. I have so many strong, ugly words for that. It is just heartbreaking to think that that is a requirement of your gender.”

Dr. Gilchrist’s advice for people struggling starts basic: get enough sleep and exercise, eat well, take vitamins, and talk to the people in your life.

“It’s the basics that people cut off. ‘Well, I don’t have time to sleep, I don’t have time to eat right,’” he explained. “And that’s hard for people. So they come to the office and they’re going a hundred miles an hour, they don’t want to slow down. I’ve got to go to my next meeting, I gotta hurry up, blah blah blah, just fix me real quick. They’re looking for a quick fix. I feel like I have to re-educate people and start with the basics.”

Fishkin says Moz tries to help its employees as best it can.

“The Wellness Coaching Program means that Moz has a budget set aside for each employee to spend. Whether that’s a professional coach to help with your career or whether it’s therapy, you know, we offer to cover that.”

Fishkin says stepping down as CEO of his own company was the right decision.

“My personal happiness is much, much better. Night and day difference. I can be at peace with the mistakes that… Well, at peace is maybe the wrong word. Hmm. I can…not unhealthily dwell on the mistakes of the past. I’m not the kind of person who really forgives myself for stuff. But certainly, I can be a happy, functional husband and good employee and hopefully good interview subject.”

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