When most entrepreneurs look in the mirror, they want to see  confident, successful leaders. But when Russ Perry looked in the mirror, the reality was scary. Not only was he suffering alcoholism and marital problems, but he--and no one else--had made his business hopelessly toxic.

A core part of the problem, Perry now admits, was his blatant inexperience in running a company.

"As an entrepreneur, while I went to design school and graduated from Arizona State University, I never took a business class," he says. "I did not have the cerebral knowledge of what it takes to run a business. I also wasn't mature enough myself."

But compounding the lack of experience was a painful misinterpretation of what life as a business leader is supposed to be like. Booze became part of his sales strategy.

"I took clients out to expensive dinners, bought them gifts and went on trips--all of those things," Perry says. "In doing this, I created the toxic environment [for my business] by focusing more on the illusion of what it meant to be an entrepreneur rather than actually providing a solid service. The damage I caused in poor client relationships by overpromising and underdelivering, I'd try to make up for with new sales, just to keep my head afloat."

And, as any entrepreneur can tell you, running a company comes with stress, even when things are going well. So when Perry tried to stand on the shaky business ground he put down, the stress was astronomical. And, on top of the stress from the company, Perry was feeling the weight of home anxieties, juggling a child from a previous relationship while anticipating the birth of a baby with a new wife. The office ironically became a coping mechanism.

Perry says, "I started to sedate, not only with alcohol but also with my business. When I would get stressed out about things or start to feel lonely, I'd just go do some work."

And when that didn't work, Perry made another bad decision--he had an affair. "I thought it was the only solution to the anger and frustration at my bad business, the loneliness I felt because I was now sharing my wife with my daughter and not getting as much of my wife's attention, combined with sheer stupidity from being an alcoholic," he says.

But eventually, Perry opened his own eyes. He had become the person he had never wanted to be, and he knew it.

He says, "I knew there had to be a reckoning with myself. I was the common denominator in all this. It wasn't my wife's fault, wasn't my business partner's fault, wasn't my clients' fault, wasn't the market's fault, wasn't the industry's fault. Just me, not having the skill set and the mindset and tools I needed to succeed."

And so Perry set out to kill the grand mess he'd slowly brought to life. His first step? Getting sober. That, he says, was fundamental to being able to think clearly again and build up his confidence.

Then came rebuilding his marriage. By focusing on marriage counseling and personal development, Perry and his wife turned things around.

Looking at the disaster in his company came last, because it wasn't until Perry had sobriety and solidity at home that he really could invest in what he was going to do professionally. He invested in business consulting, training, and coaches trying to sort it all out. At the end of it all, in 2014, Perry decided that the best choice ultimately was to shutter the company he'd run for eight years.

"It was the hardest thing I had ever done (after rekindling my marriage) because I had no other identity for most my adult life outside of being an entrepreneur," says Perry. "But I knew that identity had to die in its current definition. [I] had massive clarity. I was stronger as an individual, I was stronger in my relationships, and I had hired and used experts to help me reach that clarity."

And out of that clarity came a new idea. Perry grabbed it and turned it into Design Pickle, which is the world's largest subscription-based cloud graphic-design service. The company currently boasts $8 million in revenue and has helped 10,000 clients with more than 350,000 design jobs.

"I believe Design Pickle has achieved so much success because I decided to invest in myself first and I wasn't focused on my identity as an entrepreneur," Perry asserts. "I was focused on getting myself help. For those in a similar position, the business challenges and problems are likely a symptom of the challenges you are having with your own body, being healthy physically, how you're treating yourself and your mind. What you need to remember is that [relationships matter] the most, and [the most important ones] are the ones at home."

Perry demonstrates the harsh reality that toxicity in a business can come from anywhere--including the founder and CEO. And that toxicity doesn't always take the shape of micromanaging, tuning out ideas, or letting water cooler gossip blossom. Sometimes it will cost you. But Perry also demonstrates that admitting failure and taking responsibility for it sets the stage for mental, physical, interpersonal, and professional recovery.

All doesn't have to be lost.

No matter where you are when you start rebuilding, just start.

Published on: Jan 18, 2019
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