Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh’s Amazing Story of Survival

12/1/11Follow @curtwoodward

If you just read the headlines and watch the reality shows, the life of a tech entrepreneur probably sounds something like this: Work hard, play hard, raise tons of money, change the world, retire early. It’s a swashbuckling, mile-a-minute joyride filled with the best and the brightest.

Except when it’s not. The flip side of that wide-open adventure and hard-charging culture can be an extreme sense of loneliness when things don’t work out—a spiral of dread and depression that can be fatal, as Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh told us this week.

In a remarkably personal blog post, Huh tells how the failure of his dot-com bubble-era company Raydium left him stuck in a dark, depressed place, face-to-face with thoughts of suicide.

“Was I not meant to be an entrepreneur? Will I never get to pursue my dreams again?” Huh wrote. “I spent a week in my room with the lights off and cut off from the world, thinking of the best way to exit this failure. Death was a good option—and it got better by the day.

“I don’t remember why I left my room. The most meaningful act I performed on my long climb out was to leave that room. It was the best decision I made in my life. … It wasn’t for several months that death no longer became an option, but leaving that room and dealing with reality was the best antidote to a make-belief world where life just wasn’t worth it.”

Huh was moved to write about his experience from years ago by the recent death of Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the 22-year-old co-founder of social networking startup Diaspora. While no official cause of death was given at the time, The New York Times reported that “friends and associates of Mr. Zhitomirskiy said there were indications of suicide.”

I talked with Huh Wednesday afternoon—he was in New York attending a conference—to learn more about why he wanted to make such a personal topic extremely public. Huh said that, months before Zhitomirskiy’s death, he had spoken with another Diaspora co-founder about the startup’s struggles.

“It was very clear to me that they were struggling. They were struggling at a fundamental, conceptual level of who they were,” Huh says.

He also notes that the loneliness may have been compounded by the fact that Diaspora raised seed money through Kickstarter, the online crowd-funding platform—which meant they were fully in charge, but also didn’t have a venture capitalist or angel investor who could provide close guidance. “Even thought they were loved by so many people, they were really, truly alone.”

“When I read about Ilya’s death, it was one of those things where even before the reports come out that they suspect it was suicide, you just kind of know,” Huh says.

As an entrepreneur who’d been through the dark times, Huh says he wanted other young people who might be in a similar position that there was a way out—to break the sadistic comfort that depression can provide, find something to do, and get on with your life.

That can be extremely difficult in the startup world, where your company or product is more than a 24-7 job: “It’s everything that you are,” Huh says. “When that falls apart—that’s the only purpose for living.”

And for all the talk of prizing failure, learning from mistakes, iterating, and moving on, Huh says, the entrepreneurial culture doesn’t do enough—at least publicly—to confront the obvious dark sides of crashing and burning along the way.

“For a culture that supposedly embraces fast failures and pivots, we don’t talk about the psychological and emotional effects of those failures,” Huh says. “We’ve actually come up with a safety word for failures, called ‘pivot.’ We’ve kind of swept it under the rug.”

His tale is one of renewal and redemption in the end. As Huh eloquently writes, surviving his depression left him with the perspective and strength to handle another failure, should it come his way. “Nine years after I left that room, I would call Brad Feld to invest $30 million in my odd-ball company. Before I picked up the phone, I thought long and hard about losing that money—every single penny of it. And I was OK with it.”

Huh does worry about some negative effects of laying some very deep, personal moments out in public. “Is an investor going to say no because of what I went through? Will this divert the attention of what I do to this topic?” he asks. “As the CEO and founder, the thing I’m most focused on is the welfare of my company and employees.”

A day after the post went up, however, the positive responses were flowing in. Huh says people who read the post were sending thanks for his story to the Cheezburger Twitter account, with some saying they also had struggled with depression.

Entrepreneur Dan Shapiro, now at Google after its acquisition of Sparkbuy, was among the people giving Huh public kudos for sharing his tale.

“Building a startup is about the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The problem is that while people shout about the highs from atop the tallest mountains (or TechCrunch), the lows are suffered in private,” Shapiro told me in a follow-up email. “It’s a feat of profound courage to share your darkest moments. With more brave truth-tellers like Ben, perhaps we can avoid tragedies like what befell poor Ilya.”

“Part of me felt like so many people struggle with this,” Huh says. “I feel good that I wrote it.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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