Depression in the Start-Up World: A Former CEO Speaks Out

You start with the fact that 90 percent of startups fail. And if they do succeed, the growth expectations are intense. Rand Fishkin knew that going in. He 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 company was doing well, but the stress of not letting down his investors, customers, and employees led to depression.

“I’ll tell you 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 total failure,” Fishkin told MyNorthwest in an interview. “I still do.”

The expectations placed on a venture-backed enterprise is to multiply your returns by 10 each year for investors. That’s hard.

“A lot of private companies, they’d be  happy growing 20 percent. In the venture world, 50 to 100 percent 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 a hard decision in 2014; he stepped down as CEO of his own company.

“I suspect that there’s a correlation between people who pursue entrepreneurship and a predilection for depression,” he said. “I was in Colorado helping to organize and run  a program. 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.”

Fishkin, who now has a less stressful, non-leadership role at Moz, has been 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. It is just heartbreaking to think that that is a requirement of your gender.”

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.”

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing