An entrepreneur sold his design agency to Salesforce after having a psychotic break in his early 30s. He recounts his experience in the toxic world of tech startups — and how he made it through.

  • John Roa, a 36-year-old entrepreneur and the author of "A Practical Way to Get Rich … And Die Trying," spoke with Business Insider about selling his design consultancy, Akta, to Salesforce after having a psychotic break in his early 30s.
  • Roa spoke openly about entrepreneurship's toxicity, imposter syndrome, and advice for emerging entrepreneurs who are struggling.
  • He said he wants others to know they're not alone.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Six years ago, John Roa was on top of the world.

Akta, his design-innovation consultancy, was gaining momentum as one of the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in the US and competing with renowned design agencies. Starbucks, United Airlines, NASA, and other high-profile clients were piling in. Business was good.

But Roa was not. In 2014, four years into leading the company, he experienced his first psychotic break, he said. His only memory was waking up three days after arriving at the hospital, when the doctors told him he had dissociative amnesia.

"I don't recall any of it," Roa, 36, told Business Insider. "I didn't know my own name. I didn't know what city I was in. It was basically my brain just giving up."

That's when he knew he needed to make a change. After a nine-month managed auction, Roa sold Akta to Salesforce for eight figures.

"It was a pretty obvious wake-up call," he said. "I'm probably not going to survive this if I don't make a big change."

Tech startups' culture problem

Roa is one of several young entrepreneurs who have described feeling crushed by the pressure of innovation. In a 2015 survey by Dr. Michael Freeman, a researcher at the University of California San Francisco, of more than 200 entrepreneurs, nearly one-half reported experiencing some form of a mental-health condition in their lifetime.

"I felt like the first and only person to experience that, but I now realize it's all of us," Roa said. "It's crazy how much of a problem this is, even though no one ever talks about it."

Many early-stage startups struggle to prioritize employees' well-being and mental health with growth and profits. Roa said he'd found through talking with other entrepreneurs that younger entrepreneurs are more likely to perpetuate a workplace where employees feel overwhelmed than older, more experienced leaders.

"It's perfectly backward to what you'd assume," he said. "A lot of the worst tendencies of toxic workplace culture are younger leaders. It's more ego. It's power."

Roa went on to write a book, "A Practical Way to Get Rich … And Die Trying," as a cautionary tale to others about the realities of success. His goal is to facilitate and normalize conversations about mental health in a hub of creative geniuses.

"I wanted to put an account out there instead of just the same, frankly, bulls— that we get from every other business memoir, which makes it seem so graceful and cool," he said.

A born entrepreneur

Roa wasn't a stellar student growing up. He says in his book that his uninterest in school was displaced by his fondness for something else: computers.

At 11, he began programming and learning everything about computers. He founded his first computer-repair company at 14 years old.

"I really enjoyed being able to use something I had a big passion for," Roa said. "I traded away a lot of my youth, a lot of my education for that pursuit."

Growing up with immigrant parents and three siblings outside of Detroit, Roa credited much of his drive to an inherent curiosity. When asked where he got it from, he said, "it's just, for whatever reason, how I'm built."

Following in the footsteps of the greats

With no business owners or entrepreneurs in his family, Roa had limited examples to follow. Instead, he looked to major tech moguls — the Bill Gateses, Richard Bransons, and Steve Jobses of the world — for entrepreneurial wisdom.

"I idolized these superhero founders in the same way one would a deity — flawless, magic, powerful," he said.

But it wasn't until Jobs' personal issues emerged after his death and Branson spoke openly about his mental health 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."

Battling imposter syndrome

Roa 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 health

For 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 recovery

He 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.

"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.

His advice? "Find ways to understand that the struggles you're having are not because you're bad at your job," he said. "This is the game, and there are healthy means of support."

When leaders harness their vulnerability and honesty, it can encourage others to do the same.

"What I'm not recommending — or advocating — is that we air our faults to everyone," he said. "But I am proposing to not feel the need to act like a superhero."

It's not enough to just create initiatives for employees, Roa said — you have to actively "participate in them."

Though Roa's used this time to focus on angel investments, luxury real-estate investments, and philanthropy, he said he was ready to jump back into business.

"It's really fun to think again about what's going to be next for me and to not have that pressure of 'you have to make money or you can't pay rent,'" he said. "It's a very lucky way to approach what you want to do next."

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