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The Dark Side of Start-up Culture

In tech start-ups especially, there's the idea that if you can't go big, you can just go home. This tragic story shows just how dangerous that ethos can be.

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Earlier this month entrepreneur Jody Sherman (no relation) killed himself on his birthday. The company he co-founded, Ecomom, sold healthy alternatives to conventional products for families. Apparently things were amiss at the company, as Alexia Tsotis reported in TechCrunch:

If this week's reports are correct, and we've heard they are, Ecomom will be shutting down soon due to mismanagement of funds and some sort of purchasing decision the site somehow couldn't recover from.

The combination of depression, business problems, and expectations--he wanted Ecomom to be "as big as Zappos"--were lethal.

Depression needs professional help. So does mismanagement, although of a different type. But the wild expectations that can exist in the start-up world are something else. Some in the tech community, like Jason Calacanis, have begun to question how the business culture may contribute to personal problems:

I'm not an expert on suicide, but I am an expert on being a founder. Many of the founders I know have been desperate, depressed and overwhelmed in their careers. For everyone that shared this with me, I'm certain 10 more didn't.

The Painful Truth

Virtually every entrepreneur in some sense wants to be a hero, overcoming impossible odds to ride into the circle of victory. And there is nothing wrong with that. The danger lurks when you accept someone else's definition of victory and you don't want to disappoint. As Ecomom investor Paige Craig told Tsotis, he would ask Sherman how things were going and he would reply, "Killing it." They would get into deeper conversations, but not enough to arrive at the "painfully 'truthful' part."

Killing it is never a realistic answer or goal. It's not something you want, because it assumes a total mastery of all aspects of the business and a lack of problems. There are always problems. Even wild sales success brings pressures in customer service, fulfillment, supply chain, and cash flow, just to name a few operational hurdles that growing businesses must handle.

Start With What's Possible

As the old saying goes, if you aim for the moon, you might hit the rooftop. But it's time to get out of the false expectation that everyone will actually hit the moon. And as an entrepreneur, you can't wait for everyone else to come to that conclusion.

If you've been caught up in the killing it mania, it's time to step back. What you really want is for your business to succeed. Forget the all-or-nothing mentality that might goad you into going above and beyond what you thought was possible, but that can also sink you into enormous mistakes, false turns, and unwarranted despair.

Look to build a real business, not the game-changing-mind-blowing-industry-shattering icon that people tell you you're supposed to want. If you really want to change the world with a business, that's great. Take it a step at a time and make the company work so, eventually, you can reach your bigger goals. It's a lot easier and more certain to reach the rooftops with a ladder than a single leap.

IMAGE: Cultura/Zero Creatives/Getty
Last updated: Feb 26, 2013

ERIK SHERMAN's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.
@ErikSherman




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