Entrepreneur John Roa on toxicity in Silicon Valley and mental health - Business Insider

The dark side of startups: An entrepreneur sold his design agency to Salesforce after having a psychotic break

10/17/2020 11:55:00 PM

The dark side of startups: An entrepreneur sold his design agency to Salesforce after having a psychotic break

Business Insider is a fast-growing business site with deep financial, media, tech, and other industry verticals. Launched in 2007, the site is now the largest business news site on the web.

that Roa realized his perception was not necessarily reality."When I was coming up, even when I was in my 20s, they still maintained that invincibility, superhero kind of persona," he said.Looking back, Roa said, "even the people I held as idols, I was holding them as idols for the wrong reasons."

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Battling imposter syndromeRoa thought that, as prominent entrepreneurs so deftly hid their vulnerabilities, he had to do the same — and he did.His drive for innovation was nonstop for 10 years. He moved to Los Angeles and started a video-game-marketing company. In Chicago, he founded an advertising-technology company. Debt soon piled up from traveling, failed startups, and massive student loans. By 26, he owed almost $200,000.

"I was all over the place just trying to get something going," he said.Somewhere in that flurry of founding companies he landed on a business jackpot: providing cutting-edge design expertise.He said the idea stemmed from an admittedly superficial knowledge of user-experience design, a concept he said only a few companies were aware of. As businesses regularly sought his advice, Roa realized he could sell these consultations as a service.

Akta quickly became a smashing success. But behind the scenes, Roa said, he was "struggling a lot.""I had very little qualifications to start," he said. "I'm not a designer — I'm a technologist. I felt like I was going to get caught in a lie, and it really started to mess with me."

That feeling soon spiraled into bouts of depression, anxiety, and panic. He said he turned to substance abuse, drugs, partying — "all the stuff to distract your mind from what you were doing every day.""You get home, and you're laying in bed trying to unwind for the day, and you realize you just took on a million-dollar project," Roa said. "And you're like, what does that even mean? What if we can't do it? What if we can sell it but not execute it?"

Confronting his mental healthFor many entrepreneurs, it's a dream to land an eight-figure Salesforce deal.But for Roa, achieving his goal meant he finally had to confront his precarious mental state, he said."All the mental-health stuff you've been pushing away, it now doesn't have the busyness to block it away," he said. "It all comes to the forefront."

The road to recoveryHe said he spent the next six months with a doctor to recover mentally and physically. (In his book, he writes he "tried all sorts of treatments," including psychotherapy, acupuncture, and tai chi.) He used his earnings to escape to Europe, splitting his time between Greece and London.

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"It was a way to reset everything in my life and figure out what everything means again," he said.In that time, he's reflected on a desire to provide insight for up-and-coming entrepreneurs who are struggling. Read more: Business Insider »

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