A rash of suicides at a Las Vegas incubator exposes the high pressure culture of tech entrepreneurship
Tony Hsieh, founder and CEO of Zappos, is one of the most celebrated entrepreneurs in American business media, particularly for his single-minded dedication to customer service. So it’s unusual for his pet project – a startup city in downtown Las Vegas known as the Downtown Project – to get a rash of bad press.
An in-depth series in Re/Code revealed that soon after Hsieh stepped down from his leading role in mid September, the project laid off 30% of its staff — and that between April 2013 and May 2014, three prominent entrepreneurs from the Downtown Project committed suicide. The latest article insinuated that Hsieh had tried to keep each suicide quiet and that members of the 300-person Downtown Project did not have appropriate outlets for their grief.
How “delivering happiness” could go so wrong
The Downtown Project’s goal was to revitalize Las Vegas and to “deliver happiness” a la the tech-utopian vision of its founder. But as one entrepreneur told Re/Code, “there is a danger of happiness as a goal.” Re/Code described a culture where young entrepreneurs left their homes and communities behind to move to Las Vegas where there was a very shallow emphasis on putting on a happy face.
“It’s lonely. There’s a pressure to socialize and go out. There’s a pressure to party.”
But when some of the startups started going south, young entrepreneurs lacked support networks or people to confide in. The result, according to the article, was that they took their lives.
Do high pressure environments increase the risk of suicide?
The article is reminiscent of a May 2013 article in the New Yorker by George Packer that describes a string of suicides at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley.
At Gunn High School, the pressure to get into a good college is very intense. Over a period of several months in 2009, five Gunn students jumped in front of commuter trains, and others tried to.
“I felt it,” Nate Levine, a 22-year-old entrepreneur, told the New Yorker. “When you’re fourteen or thirteen, you realize that you’re expected to go to a good school. And then the Silicon Valley pressure, you feel this at Stanford, too. You get in as a freshman, and you’re expected to start a fifty-million-dollar company. And I know a lot of people who are, I would argue, in not great mental states.”
The article in Re/Code makes a similar argument. The ethos of success can be very isolating and if things don’t always go as planned (and let’s face it, most startups fail), this can exert enormous pressure on a young person with little else to fall back on.
As entrepreneur Dave McClure, told Business Insider, “And then there are days when you sit in a corner and cry. You can’t really do anything else. You don’t have a social life. You don’t really want to interact with family and friends because there’s just not much context for them. Your world revolves around your startup and it’s all about trying to survive and not look like an idiot in front of employees.”
What you can do
If you know an entrepreneur considering suicide, make sure you reach out and get help. And if you manage employees or invest in any high risk companies, make sure your workers are getting the support they need – you never know when you could be saving a life.