failed_ceo

A very popular founder named Jody Sherman died this week. He was the founder of Ecomom, and had a wonderful reputation for being relentlessly positive, driven and fun.

We weren’t close friends, but we were friends. I’ve received dozens of emails from him over the past two years, and he was on my podcast once. We had a 100 friends in common, as he was a human router who left an impression.

But he didn’t just die, he killed himself.

And it seems like folks are not ready to talk about that issue just yet. Which I can understand. My friend Sarah Lacy wrote a couple of days ago that she didn’t want to speculate on his cause of death, nor draw any conclusions to another founder, Aaron Swartz, and his tragic suicide.

I don’t want to draw any conclusions either, but I immediately thought of Aaron. Then I thought of Diaspora’s co-founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy. They died at ages 26 and 22, respectively, and Jody was 47. All far too young.

While we don’t know the exact histories of each of these individuals, we do know they were all loved. Deeply.

And we do know all were under massive pressure, be it from a legal case or from their startups. Or perhaps mental illness.

Ilya’s mother reportedly said, “I strongly believe that if Ilya did not start this project and stayed in school, he would be well and alive today.”

Let’s pause on that for a second.

Perhaps we owe it to these three amazing humans to examine if the pressures of being a founder, the pressure of our community’s relentless pursuit of greatness, in some way contributed to their deaths?

I’ve always believed that being a founder is an unhealthy pursuit at times, and few have disagreed — certainly not those who have done it. Read any biography of a successful founder and you’ll find collateral damage around — and certainly in — those individuals.

Startups are a full-contact sport. This is a good time for all of us to pause and think about why we’re doing this. And the impact it’s having on us and the people around us.

I’m not an expert on suicide, but I am an expert on being a founder. Many of the founders I know have been desperate, depressed and overwhelmed in their careers. For everyone that shared this with me, I’m certain 10 more didn’t.

Could these deaths have been avoided? Perhaps. Is it worth exploring why this happens and if it is, in fact, a trend? Absolutely.

At the very least, as a community we can make it absolutely clear that success is measured not in net worth or how much you’ve raised, but how you conducted yourself in pursuit of your dreams.

On that measure Jody was a tremendous success.

His last email to me was asking me for a favor, to Retweet his efforts to help feed poor kids.

What a mensch.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]