The downside of starting up: Depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicide in entrepreneurship

by Tracey Lindeman
Published in the Montreal Gazette on May 15, 2015

 Mike Gozzo, product director of Radialpoint, poses for a photograph at the company offices in Montreal. Gozzo's first startup business, Appifier, had initial success but the company's decline had a heavy toll on his personal life. Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette
Mike Gozzo, product director of Radialpoint, poses for a photograph at the company offices in Montreal. Gozzo’s first startup business, Appifier, had initial success but the company’s decline had a heavy toll on his personal life. Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette

Mike Gozzo saw the end of his startup coming from a mile away.

When he and cousin Steve Panetta started Appifier — software that turned WordPress sites into mobile apps — in 2011, Gozzo thought they’d grabbed life by the horns.

“You get so enamoured in this cult of yourself, and the cult of the startup and this machine you’re building,” Gozzo said.

Appifier went from a self-funded business, to a member of FounderFuel — a highly regarded Montreal startup accelerator — to the recipient of venture capital and government grants in a relatively short span.

Gozzo was pulling 11-hour days. At night, while hanging out with his wife at home, Gozzo would continuously scroll through his emails on his smartphone and take calls from clients.

“It felt like I was never off,” he said.

By 2013, the slow-motion car crash was in full effect. It began with what Gozzo says was bad investor advice and accelerated when the company didn’t get some funding it was counting on.

“The first thing was denial. You see the bank balance going lower and lower and lower. You have staff on hand and you think: ‘I’ll get out of this, because I’ve gotten out of other things before,’ ” Gozzo said.

But he knew he was going to hit the brick wall. He was unable to hold onto his staff, and his co-founder was about to have a baby. The cousins couldn’t handle it anymore and pulled the plug, selling the company off in a fire sale.

“It was the end of my universe,” Gozzo said.


Around the same time Gozzo’s life was unravelling, so was the life of a stranger on the other side of the continent.

Jody Sherman, a longtime Silicon Valley and Las Vegas entrepreneur whose most recent venture was hemorrhaging cash, shot himself in the head at age of 47. The news of his suicide caused a chill to ripple through startup communities the world over, and it remains a cautionary tale in entrepreneurship.

Founder’s blues, startup depression or whatever you want to call it, is par for the course — even if no one wants to admit it.

“It was the end of my universe.”

“Part of the challenge is entrepreneurs feel a need to put on a happy face and always say that things are wonderful,” said Philippe Telio, an entrepreneur and founder of Montreal’s International Startup Festival.

The problem is, things aren’t always wonderful. A lot of things can go wrong between ideation and execution in entrepreneurship: Too much money, not enough money, bad advice, wrong approach, wrong place and wrong time.

Compounded by long working hours, isolation, loneliness, poor diet, lack of sleep and exercise, fear of failure and a pervasive culture of bravado and machismo, entrepreneurship can often feel like it’s designed to drive a person to the brink.

“It’s not just working hard. Working hard is fine when results are coming out of it, but it’s the not taking a salary, having all of your eggs in the same basket. When that doesn’t work out, it’s a crushing blow, Telio said.

“There’s a maxim out there — failure is not an option — which I find completely off the mark. It’s not that it’s an option that you choose, but failure is a reality.”


If failure is a reality, avoiding it has become the most powerful motivator in entrepreneurship.

“The chance of something working is 3 per cent, so it’s obviously risky,” said Haseeb Awan, co-founder of Ottawa-based bitcoin ATM company BitAccess.

To counter that risk, entrepreneurs go into hyperdrive.

“There’s always a fear of losing out,” Awan said. “You have to constantly sell, sell, sell.”

“There’s a maxim out there — failure is not an option — which I find completely off the mark. It’s not that it’s an option that you choose, but failure is a reality.”

Awan compares running a startup to a heart-rate monitor: Sometimes it’s up, and sometimes it’s down. The only difference, he says, is that with startups, the line goes up too high and down too low.

And sometimes, the lows are really, really low.

“I don’t talk about those issues because as a founder, I need to be a strong person. I don’t want to show my weaknesses. But sometimes you want to cry,” Awan said of the internal conversation with oneself.

But crying in front of employees — the people founders try to keep motivated and invested in the company’s mission — is a major faux-pas, Awan said.

“So you cry in the shower instead.”


Sara Ahmadian, by her own estimation, works between 15 and 18 hours a day.

“If I don’t work, there’s nobody else to do my job,” the expat Montrealer said from San Francisco, where she lives now after moving her travel and tourism company Seamless Planet.

The 31-year-old CEO says a previous role at a startup helped her understand what she was getting into when she co-founded Seamless Planet last year.

Ahmadian and co-founder Ramin Hazegh entered Montreal’s FounderFuel accelerator in the fall of 2014, taking a rough idea for a company into one getting venture funding from Silicon Valley bigwigs in a few months. The experience has been intense, to say the least.

“No gym, no friends, no drinks, no weekend. … But it was worth it,” she said.

The choice to work hard, Ahmadian said, came down to basic math.

“It’s up to you. You can chill and not work that much, but if you really want to be successful, you have to make sure you get everything out of it that you can,” she said.

Ahmadian said she now tries to take one or two days off a week and take better care of herself and her relationship with her husband, who she says is also a workaholic.

“I try to balance it a little bit because it’s impossible to do that forever,” she said.


As a psychologist at the Douglas Institute, Dr. Camillo Zacchia sees a lot of people who can’t balance it.

“Entrepreneurs have a lot of stress,” Zacchia said. “How do you maintain balance, especially when you’re competing with people who are dedicating twice as many hours as is reasonable?”

How people see their goals speaks volumes, he said. Take, for example, an entrepreneur who makes $1 million in sales one year and pegs next year’s goal at $2 million.

If the company only makes $1.5 million the next year, there are two ways an entrepreneur can look at the situation: One, Zacchia said, is for them to pat themselves on the back for making a 50 per cent jump in sales.

The second option is to beat themselves up over not meeting the $2-million goal.

When it comes to entrepreneurship, anything short of perfection is often disappointing, Zacchia said. “Goals become traps, in a sense.”

When it comes down to it, stress is a normal response to challenge — but constantly being stressed is not. Zacchia says there are four major contributors to stress that can make it unbearable: The presence of a threat, unpredictability of a situation, novelty and the loss of control.

Anxiety and depression can happen when those factors converge. Some people try to resolve those feelings by digging in their heels and pushing harder, while others can spiral into the depths of depression.

“Stress is hard to deal with it once it’s there. I think it’s important to understand what feeds it,” Zacchia said.

Forgiveness, enjoying small successes, accepting failures and being able to let go when things don’t work can go a long way in quelling the torrid waves of anxiety. And a healthy dose of optimism doesn’t hurt, either.

After all, Zacchia said, there’s only so much a person can do to force the success of anything.

“You’ve got to recognize that there are going to be things that are beyond your control,” Zacchia said. “You need some luck.”


Addressing depression in startup communities is challenging, Telio of the International Startup Festival said.

“It’s a dark subject. We considered approaching the subject after Jody Sherman committed suicide, but we chose not to,” he said. Festival organizers felt that an otherwise joyous occasion meant for networking was the wrong venue for a frank conversation about depression and other health concerns.

“No gym, no friends, no drinks, no weekend. But it was worth it.”

“It’s super important to have circles of trust with other entrepreneurs,” Telio said. “Even small groups of four or five people who get together and tell the truth … I don’t know if there’s enough of that.”

Noah Redler is the campus director of Notman House, a hub for tech entrepreneurship in Montreal that offers affordable office space to young startups.

He said the idea of a co-working space like Notman House is meant to help entrepreneurs feel not so alone.

“Working in silos is really a major issue. There’s nowhere to get outside of your head in those situations,” Redler said.

He said he often sees people wandering Notman’s halls late at night, lost in their thoughts and looking for someone to have a beer with. When all the networking, socializing and backslapping is done, young founders — especially ones who work alone — need someone to vent their frustrations to.

“The late-at-night conversations tend to be the real ones,” Redler said.


Gozzo of Appifier, who has since moved on to the role of product director for a startup within established tech-support company Radialpoint, said counselling helped him overcome many of the emotional difficulties he faced after his startup failed.

“Looking back, I feel failure is part of personal growth,” Gozzo said.

Of course, he spent some time wallowing in his own misery, but he said seeking help changed a lot of his outlook on what had happened. Now, he said he’d launch a new startup in the future if and when the stars aligned.

If entrepreneurship is a collection of what-ifs, there’s one thing for sure — starting a business alone is a great way to go crazy.

Many accelerators will not accept a startup with only one founder, so there’s that. But having a built-in support network — at least another co-founder and a solid team — is essential to entrepreneurs’ mental health.

“Everyone is in the same boat,” Awan of BitAccess said.

Having a happy work environment is next on the to-do list. Awan said it’s actually quite easy to create one, but entrepreneurs have to consciously choose to do so.

Awan said his group sets aside some time each day to openly discuss the previous day’s successes and failures. And, he added, perks like the ones BitAccess offers — the possibility of working from home, unlimited paid vacation days, group activities, paid trips to conferences — help improve employee morale.

“People will work harder if they’re not compelled,” Awan said.

Seamless Planet CEO Ahmadian is, for her part, still in the thick of ramping up the team and production, as well as securing a round of venture funding. She says having the right people on board is crucial not only to the success of a company, but also to the well-being of the people who run it.

One of her first acts when establishing the company was finding a co-founder who could take charge of the technical side of things. And so, when asked for what kind of advice she’d give to people considering the path to entrepreneurship, she answers quickly.

“If you want to start something, don’t start it alone,” Ahmadian said.



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