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The health impact of starting and running a Tech Startup

Published Aug 22, 2018


Ariana Huffington wrote an Open Letter to Elon Musk after he admitted via an interview with New York Times (NYT) that this year was excruciating for him. In the letter the founder of the Huffington Post reminds Musk about the need for balanced life-style. Huffington has raised a matter that is hardly talked about in the tech startup community. She has raised something that is the real issue in the process of starting and running a technology company.

Although Elon Musk shrugged off this caring gesture by Huffington, the tech startup community should heed the warning by Huffington. A study conducted by Dr. Michael Freeman revealed that startup founders have a greater likelihood of depression due to stress associated with startup related pressures. The Startup tech community has a long list of depression sufferers that are suffering in silence. Some choose to not speak openly about their challenges and end up killing themselves literally. The following are just some of the few tech community members who were negatively affected by tech tech startup lifestyle: Ilya Zhitomirskiy, Aaron Swartz and Jody Sherman.

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Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a 22-year-old co-founder of the hyped Facebook rival Diaspora committed suicide. On the evening of 12 November 2011, Zhitomirskiy was found dead in his San Francisco home by police responding to calls about a suspected suicide. An autopsy report from the Medical Examiner's office formally ruled the death as a suicide in April 2012. He died from an intentional inert gas asphyxiation using helium. Zhitomirskiy’s mother, Inna Zhitomirskiy, did not comment on reports of his history of mental illness, but she did say on his participation in Diaspora, "I strongly believe that if Ilya did not start this project and stayed in school, he would be well and alive today.

Diaspora came into existence by raising more than $200,000 on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter while the founders were still at university. They attracted breathless coverage from technology publications. Diaspora promised to give users ultimate control of their personal information and privacy. They wanted to be different from Facebook and create an alternative and in tech terms a Facebook killer.

Development of Diaspora stalled soon after the initial burst of publicity, as the reality of developing a social networking site from scratch hit the inexperienced team's admirable goals.

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Aaron Swartz was a tech whiz-kid and political activist devoted to a free and open internet. When he tried to 'iberate data from an academic website, US authorities responded fiercely. He faced a fine of up to $1m and 35 years in jail. Then he took his own life.

Aaron Swartz was an American computer programmer, entrepreneur, writer, political organizer. He was involved in the development of the web feed format RSS and the Markdown publishing format, the organization Creative Commons, and the website framework, and was a co-founder of the social news site Reddit. He was given the title of co-founder by Y Combinator owner Paul Graham after the formation of not a bug, inc (a merger of Aaron's project infogami and a company run by Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman).

Swartz's work also focused on civic awareness and activism. He helped launch the Progressive Change Campaign Committee in 2009 to learn more about effective online activism. In 2010, he became a research fellow at Harvard University's Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption, directed by Lawrence Lessig.He founded the online group Demand Progress, known for its campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act.

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In 2011, Swartz was arrested by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) police on state breaking-and-entering charges, after connecting a computer to the MIT network in an unmarked and unlocked closet, and setting it to download academic journal articles systematically from JSTOR using a guest user account issued to him by MIT. Federal prosecutors later charged him with two counts of wire fraud and eleven violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act,carrying a cumulative maximum penalty of $1 million in fines, 35 years in prison, asset forfeiture, restitution, and supervised release.

Swartz declined a plea bargain under which he would have served six months in federal prison. Two days after the prosecution rejected a counter-offer by Swartz, he was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment, where he had hanged himself.

In 2013 an entrepreneur named Jody Sherman killed himself. He died five days before his 48th birthday. News of Sherman's suicide ripped through Twitter and the technology blogs. His death left thousands aching and confused. He left no note. A couple of weeks later, Ecomom closed its doors. The real reason for his death was related to his company's liabilities that were greater than its assets. Just a few days after Sherman's suicide, his company, Ecomom, had a board meeting in which his co-founder and the board found the startup in a startling state.

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His company, Ecomom, was E-commerce startup company that was offering environmental caring, safe and healthy products for mothers, babies and children. Its sales exceeded $1 million by 2011 and it raised $12 million before January 2013 at the time of the founders death. Ecomom, was later acquired by a larger e-commerce company.

The story of Jody, Aaron and Ilya illustrates the grave reality in the tech startup eco-system that is hardly mentioned.

In the book written by a South African tech entrepreneur Nic Harry (Do.Fail.Learn.Repeat) he mentions that after an exit that went sour his health suffered but he managed to bounce back. Many today in the tech startup eco-system are suffering from depression with limited support from institutions that are to assist tech entrepreneurs.

The revelation by Elon Musk in his NYT interview should serve as a wake up call to pay attention to the wellbeing of Tech startup founders. Technology accelerators and incubators should consider programmes that support not just financial and market needs of startup founders. Programmes that focus on the holistic wellbeing of tech entrepreneurs should be developed to avoid depression related to starting and running a tech startup.

Elon Musk should be commended for opening up about his challenges. People closer to him and within his company should also find ways of providing the necessary support.

Wesley Diphoko is the Founder & Editor-In-Chief of The Infonomist.

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