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Behind The Scenes Of Success: The Toll Of Entrepreneurship On Mental Health

This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine.

By Mallory Stevens, co-founder, Taft

In 2014, my husband, Kory, and I started a company called Taft. The story of how it all began and how it has grown is pretty interesting, but there are a lot other places you can read about it in detail. Here’s the gist of it: we launched Taft on Kickstarter as a men’s no-show sock brand. Our friends told us we were crazy when we passed up on a couple post-graduation job offers to sell socks, but it felt right, so we did it. Our Kickstarter funded and we set to growing the brand. From the start, we put a lot of energy into doing things differently — marketing differently, handling customer service differently, designing differently, creating content differently. I took pictures for our social media accounts, Kory was the most convenient model, and our new baby boy was always strapped to my back or just out of frame in Kory’s arms.

With the help of some serious content-creation efforts, our Instagram following grew from a few hundred to a few thousand to a few hundred thousand. Soon, it became clear we had an audience of shoe-lovers and so we started sampling shoes. Kory made his first factory visit to Spain when our second baby — a little girl — was two weeks old. I booked his flights from the hospital after she was born. Thanks to a favorable mention on Reddit and some insane site traffic, we launched our shoes on pre-order months earlier than anticipated. That was November of 2015, and we’ve been pushing hard ever since. We made our way to about $2 million in sales, all while operating from a spare bedroom in our little house. We moved into an office in February of 2017 and I stayed home with the babies while Kory plugged away at the office, almost always alone. We had our first full-time hire in June of 2017 and raised a seed round of funding in March of this year. It’s been a whirlwind. I don’t know what we were thinking when we started, I don’t know how we were so miraculously undeterred by the odds stacked against us. It was ignorant grit and a big vision that pushed us here, but it still feels completely surreal that it’s working like we imagined it could. We feel very fortunate.

Despite everything going really well, running a business is hard. Insane. There was a time early on when I thought everyone should start a business, it was sort of the honeymoon phase — we were working from home, everything felt flexible and easy and the stakes were relatively low. Then the madness started. There was a moment where we had to decide if we were going to be a lifestyle brand or if we were going to go for it. We opted to go for it. And there was no looking back. But here’s the thing about running a business — it always looks so much more glamorous on the outside. And the bigger it gets, the more glamorous it tends to look. We’ve been fortunate to be featured in Business Insider, Forbes, Inc., and more. Every new article brings a very sweet slew of congratulations from friends and colleagues, but I wanted to give some insight into what those articles don’t reveal.

Kory has struggled with severe depression for almost 15 years now. He’s been very open about his struggles, which I’m always impressed by, because Kory’s an inherently private person. To put it simply, we’ve been in the thick of it for all seven years of our marriage. But mental health-wise, the last year has been the worst of all. There are days when I've received a call from a friend congratulating us on a feature, or on a new product launch, or on our round of funding, and through their well-meaning comments, all I can think is, "Taft is the last thing on my mind, we're barely surviving over here." The most common thing we hear is, “Man, you guys are killing it.” But holy smokes, that is never, ever how it feels. I don’t think that will ever be how it feels.

The last year has been remarkable for the growth of our business, and harrowing for us personally. We do our best to celebrate all the small (and big) victories, but they often feel insignificant as we're literally fighting to keep Kory alive. He's had bad reactions to almost every medication we’ve tried, leaving us hesitant to try more. When a bad reaction happens it feels life-threatening and urgent and there is no sense of relief until the medication is out of his system. Those days have been some of the longest of my life. Most recently, Kory had a bad reaction immediately following factory visits to Portugal and Spain. He got home on a Friday and it was clear something was wrong. He was semi-conscious the entire weekend, trying to sleep off the bad reaction. And on Monday morning he was CEO again. Barely recovered, barely hanging on, but trying to show up. We were weary from an exhausting weekend, but if you looked at our Taft Instagram the most recent posts would leave anyone wishing they had an excuse to travel to Europe for work.

While we're having record breaking sales days, making exciting hires, and working on yearly planning, we’re also attending countless doctors appointments, trying every new treatment possible, scheduling therapy, reading everything possible about the brain. There are times we’ve gone to events dressed in our best clothes, smiling and laughing with friends, only to spend the entire ride home discussing how we can keep my husband alive. I know it’s heavy — but it’s the reality we face everyday. What nobody tells you (or I guess what nobody told us) was that even when sales are higher than they’ve ever been, and your team is growing faster than it ever has, the stress of running a business doesn’t magically disappear. If anything it intensifies, and you absolutely have to adjust if you want to withstand the crushing weight of it all. Like most things, I know we’re not alone in this. Kory’s mental health has been of concern long before we started Taft, but I’d be lying if I said entrepreneurship hasn’t exacerbated the problem. Running a business pushes your brain and your body to unimaginable extremes. There are so many balls to juggle, so many things to not forget, and it takes a toll over time. Of course, I can’t take any credit for discovering the link between entrepreneurship and depression. Recent studies report that 1 in 3 entrepreneurs struggle with depression, with many more experiencing prolonged, heightened stress levels. Running a business demands a lot of a person, and sometimes it’s too much. Burnout rates are incredibly high among entrepreneurs, understandably so. We tend to push ourselves until we physically and mentally can’t go on, not stopping to rest until it’s too late.

If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that we’ve seen first hand the power of vulnerability. In our inner circles — with our investors and board and employees — we’re completely open. Kory has given so many people an intimate and honest glimpse into what he struggles with everyday, because hiding it serves no one. As difficult as it is, when he’s struggling he’s learned to tap into his network. He calls his trusted advisors, he’s honest about his fears. He’s learned to shake the fear of looking weak in exchange for the remarkable support that inevitably follows vulnerability. And really, that’s what’s available here in Utah. An entire state of entrepreneurs who have the experience to help and the kindness to listen. We’ve benefitted from that dynamic countless times. But here’s the thing — people can’t help you with what they don’t know is happening.

Earlier this year we were at the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards at the Grand America. It came on the heels of one of the most difficult months for our family, despite having had the best quarter in Taft’s history. We were weary and tired. We were chatting with some friends who asked how we were doing. Out of habit, I found myself giving them a rundown of every good thing happening in our life, “Taft is good! Our kids are getting so big, we have some exciting hires in the works, oh, we’re expecting our third baby, we just found out it’s a boy!” We exchanged a few more cordial words and I walked away disappointed with myself, knowing that we had an opportunity to truly connect and we missed it. I told myself that if I had another opportunity to be vulnerable, I’d take it. Just an hour or so later I was talking with Shauna Smith from Four Foods Group. I had just met her that night. We got talking and Kory’s depression came up. Being the saint that she is, Shauna just listened. I told her how afraid I was of losing him. How hard it was to run a business through it all. How heavy everything felt. We stood there in the Grand America ballroom in black tie attire, my eyes filled with tears. Shauna offered me comfort and advice. And when Kory walked over, unaware of the conversation we’d just had, she did the same for him. And I went home feeling like we had someone in our corner.

For years we went at it alone in our entrepreneurship/depression journey. I can tell you from experience that the moment you share what’s heavy is the moment it can start to lighten. So often entrepreneurs are concerned with looking like the perfect CEO, with looking like they have it all under control, with running their highlight reel by the board and by their friends, that they miss the opportunity to be buoyed up by a network of kind, experienced, individuals who are very familiar with the weight they’re carrying. We all do each other a disservice when we only display our best and brightest moments. There is such a propensity for kindness in this state — tap into it, or be that listening ear for someone else. So whether you’re in the thick of depression, or just feeling the typical stress of entrepreneurship, here’s the quickest advice I can offer: get some sleep, eat good food, move your body, leave your work at work. And most importantly, talk about it. Find your network, surround yourself with people you trust, and lean on them to help you get through. Ultimately, I can attest to the fact that the old adage is true — health is wealth. No success, no amount of money, no amount of PR, is worth more than the joy of a healthy lifestyle. Make your health your priority — do it now, or pay for it later. Be vulnerable. Connect. Take care of yourself. I promise that you (and your business) will be better for it.

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