addressalign-toparrow-leftarrow-rightbackbellblockcalendarcameraccwcheckchevron-downchevron-leftchevron-rightchevron-small-downchevron-small-leftchevron-small-rightchevron-small-upchevron-upcircle-with-checkcircle-with-crosscircle-with-pluscontroller-playcredit-cardcrossdots-three-verticaleditemptyheartexporteye-with-lineeyefacebookfolderfullheartglobe--smallglobegmailgooglegroupshelp-with-circleimageimagesinstagramFill 1languagelaunch-new-window--smalllight-bulblinklocation-pinlockm-swarmSearchmailmediummessagesminusmobilemoremuplabelShape 3 + Rectangle 1ShapeoutlookpersonJoin Group on CardStartprice-ribbonprintShapeShapeShapeShapeImported LayersImported LayersImported Layersshieldstartickettrashtriangle-downtriangle-uptwitteruserwarningyahooyoutube

The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship

No one said building a company is easy. But it's time to be honest about how brutal it really is--and the price so many founders secretly pay.


By Jessica Bruder

Editor's Note: This article won an award in the Magazine Personal Service category in the 2014 Annual Awards Contest of the Deadline Club, the New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

By all counts and measures, Bradley Smith is an unequivocal business success. He's CEO of Rescue One Financial, an Irvine, California-based financial services company that had sales of nearly $32 million last year. Smith's company has grown some 1,400 percent in the last three years, landing it at No. 310 on this year's Inc. 500. So you might never guess that just five years ago, Smith was on the brink of financial ruin--and mental collapse.

Back in 2008, Smith was working long hours counseling nervous clients about getting out of debt. But his calm demeanor masked a secret: He shared their fears. Like them, Smith was sinking deeper and deeper into debt. He had driven himself far into the red starting--of all things--a debt-settlement company. "I was hearing how depressed and strung out my clients were, but in the back of my mind I was thinking to myself, I've got twice as much debt as you do," Smith recalls.

He had cashed in his 401(k) and maxed out a $60,000 line of credit. He had sold the Rolex he bought with his first-ever paycheck during an earlier career as a stockbroker. And he had humbled himself before his father--the man who raised him on maxims such as "money doesn't grow on trees" and "never do business with family"--by asking for $10,000, which he received at 5 percent interest after signing a promissory note.

Smith projected optimism to his co-founders and 10 employees, but his nerves were shot. "My wife and I would share a bottle of $5 wine for dinner and just kind of look at each other," Smith says. "We knew we were close to the edge." Then the pressure got worse: The couple learned they were expecting their first child. "There were sleepless nights, staring at the ceiling," Smith recalls. "I'd wake up at 4 in the morning with my mind racing, thinking about this and that, not being able to shut it off, wondering, When is this thing going to turn?" After eight months of constant anxiety, Smith's company finally began making money.

Successful entrepreneurs achieve hero status in our culture. We idolize the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Elon Musks. And we celebrate the blazingly fast growth of the Inc. 500 companies. But many of those entrepreneurs, like Smith, harbor secret demons: Before they made it big, they struggled through moments of near-debilitating anxiety and despair--times when it seemed everything might crumble.

Until recently, admitting such sentiments was taboo. Rather than showing vulnerability, business leaders have practiced what social psychiatrists call impression management--also known as "fake it till you make it." Toby Thomas, CEO of EnSite Solutions (No. 188 on the Inc. 500), explains the phenomenon with his favorite analogy: a man riding a lion. "People look at him and think, This guy's really got it together! He's brave!" says Thomas. "And the man riding the lion is thinking, How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?"

Not everyone who walks through darkness makes it out. In January, well-known founder Jody Sherman, 47, of the e-commerce site Ecomom took his own life. His death shook the start-up community. It also reignited a discussion about entrepreneurship and mental health that began two years earlier after the suicide of Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the 22-year-old co-founder of Diaspora, a social networking site.

Lately, more entrepreneurs have begun speaking out about their internal struggles in an attempt to combat the stigma on depression and anxiety that makes it hard for sufferers to seek help. In a deeply personal post called "When Death Feels Like a Good Option," Ben Huh, the CEO of the Cheezburger Network humor websites, wrote about his suicidal thoughts following a failed startup in 2001. Sean Percival, a former MySpace vice president and co-founder of the children's clothing startup Wittlebee, penned a piece called "When It's Not All Good, Ask for Help" on his website. "I was to the edge and back a few times this past year with my business and own depression," he wrote. "If you're about to lose it, please contact me." (Percival now urges distressed entrepreneurs to seek professional help:

Brad Feld, a managing director of the Foundry Group, started blogging in October about his latest episode of depression. The problem wasn't new--the prominent venture capitalist had struggled with mood disorders throughout his adult life--and he didn't expect much of a response. But then came the emails. Hundreds of them. Many were from entrepreneurs who had also wrestled with anxiety and despair. (For more of Feld's thoughts on depression, see his column, "Surviving the Dark Nights of the Soul," in Inc.'s July/August issue.) "If you saw the list of names, it would surprise you a great deal," says Feld. "They are very successful people, very visible, very charismatic--yet they've struggled with this silently. There's a sense that they can't talk about it, that it's a weakness or a shame or something. They feel like they're hiding, which makes the whole thing worse."

If you run a business, that probably all sounds familiar. It's a stressful job that can create emotional turbulence. For starters, there's the high risk of failure. Three out of four venture-backed startups fail, according to research by Shikhar Ghosh, a Harvard Business School lecturer. Ghosh also found that more than 95 percent of startups fall short of their initial projections.

Entrepreneurs often juggle many roles and face countless setbacks--lost customers, disputes with partners, increased competition, staffing problems--all while struggling to make payroll. "There are traumatic events all the way along the line," says psychiatrist and former entrepreneur Michael A. Freeman, who is researching mental health and entrepreneurship.

Complicating matters, new entrepreneurs often make themselves less resilient by neglecting their health. They eat too much or too little. They don't get enough sleep. They fail to exercise. "You can get into a startup mode, where you push yourself and abuse your body," Freeman says. "That can trigger mood vulnerability."

So it should come as little surprise that entrepreneurs experience more anxiety than employees. In the latest Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, 34 percent of entrepreneurs--4 percentage points more than other workers--reported they were worried. And 45 percent of entrepreneurs said they were stressed, 3 percentage points more than other workers.

But it may be more than a stressful job that pushes some founders over the edge. According to researchers, many entrepreneurs share innate character traits that make them more vulnerable to mood swings. "People who are on the energetic, motivated, and creative side are both more likely to be entrepreneurial and more likely to have strong emotional states," says Freeman. Those states may include depression, despair, hopelessness, worthlessness, loss of motivation, and suicidal thinking.

Table of Contents

Page title Most recent update Last edited by
Signs You Are Not Cut Out To Be An Entrepreneur 30 April 2015 11:44 PM Augustine C.
So You Want To Be An Entrepreneur by Matthew Toren 30 April 2015 11:19 PM Augustine C.
Knowing When To Quit Your Day Job 25 April 2015 2:32 PM Augustine C.
The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship 23 April 2015 8:09 PM Augustine C.
What stops you from taking the plunge? 17 July 2014 8:51 PM Augustine C.
Richard Branson on turning an idea into a business 11 April 2014 11:29 PM Augustine C.
A small story - what are v getting ourselves into? 9 April 2014 8:46 PM Augustine C.
Agenda for the Meetup on the 12th of April 2014 9 April 2014 10:00 AM Augustine C.
Aims and Objectives 9 April 2014 10:14 PM Augustine C.
About Mumbai Entrepreneur Mentoring Group 18 July 2014 12:18 AM Augustine C.

People in this
Meetup are also in:

Sign up

Meetup members, Log in

By clicking "Sign up" or "Sign up using Facebook", you confirm that you accept our Terms of Service & Privacy Policy