One week ago, Betabeat rolled out a story about the dangers of depression among young founders in the startup world: ‘U CAN’T HAZ SADZ: The Hushed Dangers of Startup Depression.’ We’d be lying if we wrote that we didn’t expect some kind of response to the story. That said: We didn’t even remotely expect the scale of the response to the story, in size or intensity.
Over the last week, we’ve seen everything from openly empathetic comments to blisteringly cynical retorts; founders and startup celebrities penning posts about their own experiences with the matter; nitpicks about everything from the cover to individual lines, and then some. It also, on the first day, became one of the most read stories on Betabeat since the blog’s inception.
As such—and without further ado—we thought we’d do a follow-up on the story: crash notes on everything from the reactions the participants received for coming out to speak on the matter, to the lines they felt were missing from the story, and of course, some of the behind-the-scenes editorial notes on how the story came together.
As it’s been mentioned, reaction from the startup community was—for the most part—intensely positive. The piece was written in the wake of 22 year-old Diaspora* founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy’s death, which “[appeared] to be a suicide” according to the San Francisco Police Department. Internally at Betabeat, there was a pronounced initial concern among all four of us over whether or not publishing this kind of piece so close to the event was inherently, nefariously exploitative, a concern that after some discussion we eventually set aside with the confidence we had that this issue was as widespread as it was under-discussed. The logic we followed was simple: Young people, a lot of pressure, a lot of money, and very little experience with failure. How is that not an incubator for depression?
What we didn’t have—and wanted—was empirical evidence to support this idea, or to understand the scale of it. Were we drawing too much from one news story? There was always the possibility that maybe in the startup community, depression wasn’t discussed simply because it didn’t exist, and that the type of people to get into these endeavors were just, maybe, broadly immune to these issues.
After one day of reporting the story, we were pretty sure we were on to an issue that was as endemic as it was unspoken for.
The Reader Reactions
The concern of being exploitative was all but gone by the time the story went to press, and reactions started arriving. Most of them were some stripe of this:
- “Important and under-discussed.”
- “This needs to get talked about more.”
- “Agreed. I know many founders deal w/ these issues (very quietly).”
The story shot to the top of Hacker News and stayed there for the better part of two days. Plenty of people there and elsewhere relayed similar experiences:
- “This shit is hard.”
- “Hard to be positive & sell your startup 100% of the time when it’s impossible to be doing well 100% of the time.”
- “Happened to me. 22. Was 19. Raised some cash, tried to build a product, failed. Nearly got sued. Not good times.”
And quite a bit of praise was also reserved to those who spoke out for the story about their own experiences with depression and startups:
- “Props to @joshrweinstein.”
- “huge respect to @joshrweinstein for speaking up.”
- “thanks @jerrycolonna for shining light on this issue. any startup founder who is honest has been depressed.”
It wasn’t all positive. The most common criticism on the story we received came right up front:
- “Worst title, but a good article.”
- “Great article at Betabeat about startup depression that is sadly ruined by an awful title.”
- “Interesting article, but terrible title.”
Even Jerry Colonna—the guru and advisor to many an angel investor, VC, and startup founder we spoke with for the piece noted: “Ignore the silly headline.”
Be it editor or writer, when you come out with a strong headline, you know it’s going to be decisive. And this is exactly what you fear will happen when you fail.
As we wrote on the day the story was published, we did have a conversation about the headline, and we knew it wouldn’t work for some people. The fact is, it wasn’t a matter of wit so much as: How can we sell this rather morose story on people who aren’t inclined to spend 2200 words’ worth of their time on a downer of an issue? That said, we’d also be lying if we didn’t admit we were going for something a little punchy, too. We can’t calculate whether or not it drew more people than it turned away, but if we did it again, we might do a triple-take on it, at least to figure out if there wasn’t anything better out there.
We’ll say this, though: when your newspaper’s senior designer, Scott, is making the rare comment on editorial by asking you if that’s actually the headline you’re going to go with, you might want to listen to him.