When Death Feels Like A Good Option

It wasn’t until after I seriously contemplated suicide that I was ready to handle a $30 million check.

I closed the doors of my first start-up in the summer of 2001. I was throughly broke, depressed, and feeling the burden of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars of other people’s money. Loneliness, darkness, hopelessness… those words don’t capture the feeling of the profound self-doubt that sets in after a failure. Loneliness. Darkness. Hopelessness. Those words describe the environment of depression. Self-doubt? That shakes you to the core and starts a fracture in your identity that makes you question if you should even exist anymore.

Then, a few short months after closing up my dreams, the planes hit the Twin Towers. I was 23-years-old, just a year older than the late Ilya Zhitomirskiy of Diaspora. It started a descent down to a depth I never knew could exist. Whatever it was, it was over. I knew things would get better. It probably would get better, but I just lost the energy and will to try. Until that point, my life had been a series of struggles and successes. Life was hard, but if you worked hard, if you suffered, if you lived for your dreams, it wasn’t supposed to end this way. There were plenty of examples of winners. People were getting funding, going public, creating change. Was I not meant to be an entrepreneur? Will I never get to pursue my dreams again?

I spent a week in my room with the lights off and cut off from the world, thinking of the best way to exit this failure. Death was a good option — and it got better by the day.

I don’t remember why I left my room. The most meaningful act I performed on my long climb out was to leave that room. It was the best decision I made in my life. I left that room and I got back to my job managing a very dysfunctional Internet radio startup where I was the cause of the dysfunction. It was a actually a positive thing that I left that room to leave a really bad situation to go to a bad situation.

It wasn’t for several months that death no longer became an option, but leaving that room and dealing with reality was the best antidote to a make-belief world where life just wasn’t worth it. When I was fantasizing about death as the panacea, the harshness of reality actually helped — it presented me with problems that I could actually solve.

9 years after I left that room, I would call Brad Feld to invest $30 million in my odd-ball company. Before I picked up the phone, I thought long and hard about losing that money — every single penny of it. And I was OK with it. Failure is an option, and a real risk. Failure and risk something entrepreneurs understand well, and learn to manage. However, death isn’t an option, it’s an inevitability. And before I die, I want to take as many swings at the fence as I can.

For those of you who struggle with this, I’d encourage you to keep walking out that door everyday.

Ilya, I’m so sorry that we didn’t know. From a long line of entrepreneurs who suffered alone and quietly under our own self-doubt, I wish I could talk to you and tell you to bash the shit out of your own self-doubt, or just even slink away with your tail tucked between your legs — either way, the world would have let you take more swings at the fences.

Posted on November 29, 2011, in Business, Personal. Bookmark the permalink. 50 Comments.

  1. wow, heavy stuff Ben. Glad you stuck it out and brought so much joy into the world. My wife and I thank you for it.

  2. Ben, what an insightful and compelling account of your experiences, made even more significant by ilya’s recent passing. Thank you for this- it really puts everything into perspective and I am sure you have just helped many who are finding themselves in this situation.

  3. Ben, thanks for sharing. Being on the other side of the Internet is difficult (creating vs. consuming). Lots of responsibility come with curating great content but I’m glad that you are still around helping bring smiles to people who need it! :)

  4. Good stuff, Ben. Really appreciate you taking the time to write it. Most people don’t realize how low the lows can be for an entrepreneur.

  5. Ben, I hope you become very very very very successful. We need people who are humble, smart, sincere, honest and open to win more often so the world knows how things really work.

  6. Well said Ben! I’ve been there many times myself. Glad you took a few minutes to share with others.

  7. powerful. thank you for sharing. hard stuff to vocalize/publicize.

    I think you’re hitting on the nut of entrepreneurism itself… even at the absolute bottom of the barrel, something inside finds solace in the challenge (wherever it lies).

  8. All I can think of is Larry from GroundHog’s day, telling Phil, “Man, you touched me.”

    Thanks man.

  9. Great to see such honesty. And really sad to see, how much no one in the startup scene really wants to acknowledge this: usually my startup-related Facebook-posts get a lot of likes and comments from all my fellow founders here in Berlin; not this one, though. It received one “share”, which was deleted shortly after. And I received emails from other founders in response, telling me how much they liked this post, noticing that nobody wants to “like” it because nobody wants to be associated with similar flipsides of this always-on, always-successful startup life. Sad to see this lack of honesty, just to keep up this show of always up that no sane person believes anyway.

  10. Ben,

    Firstly, thanks. Secondly, these inspiring and potentially life-saving words should be featured prominently in the entrepreneurs’ handbook.

    All the very best,

    Gareth

  11. Thank You for the great tribute to Ilya Zhitomirski. Your entrepreneurial passion is inspirational.

  12. Ben, thanks for sharing. Being in the abyss of failure is an awful awful thing. I couldn’t write it better. With entrepreneurship being encouraged by the presidents and veterans like Steve Case, there should be more writings such as to help those that do not succeed in their first try, which, I think account the majority. Failure is not an option, it’s almost a prerequisite for most entrepreneurs and many, such myself, had no idea how deep the abyss can be. Thanks again.

  13. Heavy stuff. Living is the best revenge.

  14. One of the biggest mistakes I made was raising significant amount of money from friends and family. When the company failed and lost all the money, the burden of guilt is unbearable and keep pulling me back into “the dark room” whenever I try to get out.

    Will definitely go the angel/VC route next time.

  15. It’s incredibly generous of you to share the story of your depression. The more people admit to dealing with it — especially people as successful as you — the less stigma there will be. Thanks for sharing!

    Foster Kamer wrote a very good article on this subject: U CAN’T HAZ SADZ: The Hushed Dangers of Startup Depression (http://www.betabeat.com/2011/11/22/u-cant-haz-sadz-the-hushed-dangers-of-startup-depression/)

  16. Thank you so much for sharing this, Ben. You have brought out into the light what so many entrepreneurs can tend to deal with.

    In Sydney, where I live, a guy by the name of Gavin Larkin (recently passed away from cancer) started a campaign called R U OK? (http://ruokday.com) The focus of the organisation is to empower people to be going below the surface with their friends, family and co-workers to help eliminate the quiet despair that may lead to suicide. Basically, asking the question, “Are you doing ok today?” This simple, yet powerful initiative has fueled the movement around Australia.

    May many draw strength from your vulnerability, Ben.

  17. Ben — I can totally relate. There are really, really dark days… But if it was easy everyone would be doing it.

  18. Thanks for sharing this – I haven’t even begun (technically) and self-doubt has swallowed me several times; it always helps to know when someone says “this is the crack you’re going to fall into, it’s going to hurt…go through it and get past it and you’ll be ok.” As fear engulfing as the thought is, it seems to be a tad better of an experience when someone cares enough to let others know.

  19. Thanks for sharing. Entrepreneurship is tough as hell, but I’m not so sure I’d like it if it was easy…

  20. Thank you Ben. Self-doubt is more powerful than we sometimes realize. It’s helpful to know we’re not alone in our struggles.

  21. Thanks for sharing. From an entrepreneur that’s had his share of failure, I look forward the to kind of success you’ve achieved. Cheers.

  22. Ben, This is one of the most honest and deeply affective stories I have read in a long time. You’re right, entrepreneurship is glorified in the media when there is a success to talk about. We all hear about, in your words, the entreprenuers who are..”getting funding, going public, creating change”. However, the dark lonliness that sets in when we try but fail to personify these dreams, is something that gets swept under the rug, leaving entreprenuers to wallow alone and “think” our way out of the deep, deep hole of despair to come back and try yet again.
    I guess this is the way of the entrepreneur’s life.
    Thanks Ben, for sharing your experience. It will definitely help a lot of us who are experiencing this part of the entreprenuerial cycle.

    After reading this, I have made benhuh.com my default home page!

    ~ Al

  23. Thanks Ben for this honest sharing. I like it very much. I thought that magazines often just publicize the rosy picture of successful startups. I think they are doing a good job in motivating more entrepreneurs. But what I concern is this will set the false expectations among those aspiring entrepreneurs.

    The entrepreneurship journey is tough, and we need more people like you to share what is the reality like. The objective is not to demotivate people, but get those aspiring entrepreneurs understand what they will be facing, and get them to have the right attitude to prepare for it. I think that will give them a better chance in managing their life as an entrepreneur, and increasing the odds to succeed.

    I was wondering if you are willing to do a short interview video on yourself based on this article. (Something like what I did for one of my entrepreneur peers here, http://www.procto.biz/story/entrepreneurs-the-pillars-of-malaysian-economy/

    If you are willing to do that, I will be very grateful to you. I think you will be a great inspirations to a lot of people.

    Please email me directly and let me know your thoughts.

  24. Ben: Thank you for this honest and inspirational post! :)

  25. Ben, thanks so much for the honesty. The dark/tough side of entrepreneurship that no one ever talks about. Really appreciate it.

  26. For me this hits the spot cause I can relate. I truly thought I hit rock bottom after being laid off . . . again. After spending so much time locked in my apartment I got out. Learned to design and build sites quicker and on my way back up.

    Thanks for sharing your story. Reminds me many others that we’re not alone. And that falling is is lifes way of teaching us to get back up.

  27. Found this through Chris’es post about how hard start ups are. I’m glad this post is out here, and that you shared this in such an honest and upfront manner. I’d be lying if I didn’t have to struggle with the same feelings, but the harshness of reality is really what keeps us going.

    There have been many times where I’ve been somewhere strange in the world, with no one to call, sitting in my room scared to go outside because I didn’t want to bear being looked at. But I knew people were depending on me the next day, and if that was not there I don’t know where I’d be today.

    Support structure is important, but sometimes it blows up in your face and you have to look in that mirror and convince yourself that all of it is a good idea. How can you do that, when you’re the only one?

    I’m glad you didn’t do the undoable, and I want to also reach out to Ilya’s friends and family and extend my prayers and thoughts.

  28. I found this link through Brad Feld’s blog! Its profound and deep. Thanks for sharing this as most people only see the limelight in which the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs lived and forget the hundreds of other failed ventures making it difficult for them to face the harsh reality of failing big.

  29. Ben,
    I understand what you went through. I am there now. But I am mush older. Tomorrow hardly seems like an option. Despite everyone “getting” what we want to do….we…cannot fund…we have spent…..we are seemingly done. I am done. I am in that proverbial room and the exit I crave is to go where Ilya went…now.

    I want no more than to be at peace….I am part of the diaspora…and now I fell that I am truly alone and exiled beyond even that….

  30. Thanks for sharing this, I think the entrepreneurial path has as many lows as highs, many don’t realize this….great post.

  31. Dear Ben, the moment I was writing this comment, I was in exactly the same situation and the so called “when death feels like a good option” feeling you were in. “self-doubt if you should even exist anymore” are the words exactly my fractured heart was telling me. Guess what happened, I just googled by the key word “What to do when it feels death” and I found your extra-ordinary message and I had no chance but simply sat in amazement.

  32. Thank you for writing this. I’m a 23 year old entrepreneur, been working on an app for the iPad that I’ve got investors counting on for over a year and a half now, and depression has hit me hard. I knew I wasn’t ready to take on this project and I have that one thought drilling into my head every day; “What if this fails, what if all of the money these investors have given you has been wasted”. I’m still working away at the tens of thousands of lines of code, 3D models, 2D multimedia and various web design aspects, but it seems like every day that I get closer to the end the pressure of failure grows more and more.

    From one entrepreneur just starting out to you, your post has been an inspiration to push on.

  33. I started up a publishing company about a year ago. I suffered from depression my entire adult life, but the feelings became acute since opening the company. The funny thing is when you run a company you have to seem happy all the time when much of the time my mind and body are screaming at me to just not bother and find a nice piece of rope somewhere.
    As tempting as that is – and it is – I get up each day and work (well…most days). The thought that keeps me going is that if I don’t work it will be my clients who suffer.
    I can deal with suffering. I’m used to it. But I can’t stand the thought of my clients suffering because I didn’t do the job they entrusted me to. And I certainly can’t do my job well if I’m dead.

  34. Just ran across this after googling “depression and entrepreneurship” Thanks for sharing. It’s nudged me a little closer to the door and helped me feel a little more connected, however remotely, from this hell-hole of isolation and self-loathing. You’ve made a difference.

  35. Hi Ben,

    When I read through your experience, it sent shivers down my spine.

    I closed my technology training startup couple of years back to find myself flirting with the idea of suicide for longer than a month. Then decided to forget it and took a long gap of 6 months from all activities and left the place. If I wouldn’t have left my city would have ended up with mental trauma or suicide.

    Thanks to inc.com for directing me to this page. I could never share my fatigue, self-doubt with anyone.

    Just like you I would like to lend my ears to all those stressed out buddies.

    Cheers,
    Sandeep.

  36. Ben, this is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on entrepreneurship and motivation. I am so glad you didn’t give up. Ilya is unfortunately not there anymore, but finally entrepreneurs started to talk about their fears openly. It is so bad how we are harsh on ourselves in times of failure. We blame the failure on us, but success on luck. Thanks for the great article!

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