By Matthew Helt, Program Director, Techstars Startup Week
NOTE: If you are someone who lives with mental illness, and you find that reading about it can trigger your symptoms, please be warned that this post contains details that you might find disturbing.
A Mind At War With Itself
My mind was at war with itself.
I woke up on Friday, March 1, 2002, with what I thought were two choices that I had left. Just two choices. Either I was going to die, or I was going to spend the rest of my life in a mental hospital.
March 1, as it happened, was the last day of my 26th year. The next day, Saturday, March 2, I would turn 27 years old. That was an age that had frightened me for over a year. I was convinced that I would die when I turned 27 because all my music idols died at that age. I knew this was a completely irrational thought, but nonetheless it remained firmly cemented in my mind.
What led up to this date was a series of events that shaped the person I was to become. I was a person who had a pretty healthy ego, but I was also very fragile. I was nervous and anxious most of my life, but I did my best to hide it. When I was young I was considered shy because most adults didn’t understand that I was terrified of the world.
So what caused me to give in to the irrational fear I was holding on to?
A Dive Through the Sky
When I was 25 I decided that the best thing I could do to get over my fear of heights was to go skydiving. I went through the training to do the first jump by myself, and got myself psyched up to do it. When the moment finally arrived for me to jump out of the plane, I could barely breathe. I pressed on, though, as I didn’t want to upset the people behind me, who would be forced to land if I didn’t jump. I held onto the strut under the wing, legs dangling 3,300 feet above the ground, and forgot to let go. I looked to my left and the dive instructor pointed up, which meant I needed to tilt my head back and that reminded me to let go. I remember seeing the plane fly away from me and thinking, “Where am I? What’s happening?”
Moments later my chute opened, and I was flying through the air. A voice on the radio that was attached to my left shoulder talked me through the motions of steering myself to the landing site. I’m sure if the radio wasn’t there I would’ve landed in a cornfield far from the landing zone because I was in the middle of full blown panic attack. I could barely get air into my lungs, and my heart felt like it was going to explode.
When I got close to the ground I heard voice yell, “Flare! Flare! Flare!” Because I panicked I forgot all my training and failed to flare, so I hit the ground hard. A stinging sensation flowed up my legs as my feet hit the landing spot. I laid there for a minute and decided I wasn’t severely hurt. Later on I’d find out that I ruptured a disc in my back.
A week later I was at work and a woman I worked with came up to talk to me about something. Without warning, I had a panic attack. I didn’t know what was happening, but I suddenly couldn’t breathe. My heart raced and all I wanted to do was run away. I thought I was sick, so I quickly excused myself and ran to the bathroom. After several minutes I had calmed down, and could go back to my cubicle.
This led to a more than two-year period of time of frequent panic attacks. It was so bad that I was having five to ten panic attacks a day, and the only cure I discovered was alcohol. I’d suffer all day, praying that I didn’t have to go to a meeting or present in front of anyone. One-on-one conversations were frightening enough. I’d get home from work and immediately reach for a drink.
Eventually I convinced myself that I had a heart condition and went to see a cardiologist. After months of tests, they told me nothing was wrong with my heart. They believed it was all in my head. That didn’t make any sense to me. Why was I having heart attack symptoms several times a day? If it was all in my head, why did I feel such intense pain in my chest, up my neck, and down my left arm?
Out of Control
But they were right. Eventually I hit a point of crisis. At two weeks before my 27th birthday, my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child. It was hard for me to feel any joy in that moment because I was suffering so terribly. I decided I needed help, so I went to see my doctor find out if there was some sort of medication that could help me. He ended up prescribing Paxil, which I later found out was a terrible choice. After four days of being on it, I found that the side effects were horrendous, so I took myself off. That was an almost fatal error. I had not been told that I should not, under any circumstances, take myself off of it. I should have instead gone to my doctor to find a better fit. Over the course of a week my brain started to malfunction. I was spiraling out of control internally, but somehow, miraculously, kept it together on the outside.
Except when I couldn’t anymore. On the evening of Thursday, February 28, I went to bed early. My mind was swirling and I couldn’t keep the panic at bay. I thought that I would just go to bed and sleep my way through it. That’s when I heard two men having a conversation in the living room. I knew no one was there, but I could hear the voices. My body was filled with terror as I knew I was witnessing the collapse of my mind—I was completely out of control.
The next morning, I woke up to find that the terror had not subsided. I knew what awaited me. My birthday was the next day, and I was going to die. Either that, or I was going to spend the rest of my life in a mental hospital.
I went through my morning routine, but I was mostly on auto-pilot. When I arrived at work, I found several people waiting to talk to me about projects they were waiting on. I sat down for a few minutes, then stood up. I looked at my boss and said, “I need to leave right now, or I’m going to hurt someone.” I walked out the door and called my wife. I told her I was headed to the hospital and she should meet me there.
Panic attacks weren’t the only thing that I had wrong with me. I also had terribly intrusive thoughts. Thoughts that were often incredibly violent, both towards myself and others. I’m not a violent person, so I was deeply troubled by what my mind was telling me to do.
When I went to hospital, the staff did a psychiatric evaluation and asked me if I felt safe if I went home. I quickly replied, “No.” I understood that I was not safe and the hospital was the only place I belonged. At that moment, I was not someone who should be left alone, and I was afraid I was going to give in to my thoughts. I was admitted and told that I would be there until I was stable and felt that I was no longer a danger to myself or anyone around me.
I met with doctors off and on throughout the rest of the day. They put me on Xanax to stop the panic and Luvox to stop the intrusive thoughts. I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. For the first time, my condition had names attached to it. Weirdly, just having a diagnosis provided a small amount of relief.
I woke up the next day, on my 27th birthday, in a hospital room by myself. Nurses checked on me every 15 minutes throughout the night to make sure I was okay. I looked around my room, took a deep breath, and waited for the panic to kick in. It didn’t. I waited for the intrusive thoughts to start screaming at me to do terrible things. They didn’t.
What It Feels Like to be a Normal Person
For the first time in several years I felt what it feels like to be a normal person, or as I recently learned to call them, neurotypical. I’m not neurotypical. I have a brain condition. Most people would call me mentally ill. I’ve learned to accept that I’m mentally ill, but there’s a stigma, a very strong stigma, that goes along with that label.
I’ve lived with this condition for over 16 years now. I obviously had it longer than that, with clear signs of OCD and anxiety in my childhood, but my healing began on my 27th birthday. Because my breakdown had a very public component to it, I was outed. Telling your boss you need to leave work or else you’re going to hurt someone has very real consequences. All my co-workers had heard what happened, and I had to meet with HR before returning to work. My doctors had to sign off on my stability. This all makes sense, as they needed to ensure the safety of their employees.
“If this can happen to you it can happen to any of us”
The interesting thing that happened when I returned to work was not that I was shunned or that anyone was afraid of me, but the questions and comments I got. People genuinely cared about my wellbeing. One person even said to me, “Matt, you’re the most put together person in this department. If this can happen to you it can happen to any of us.”
In the Name of Success
As entrepreneurs, we’re driven to succeed by any means possible. Because of this we often neglect our health. We don’t get enough sleep, we drink too much caffeine, we eat unhealthy food. There’s a reason that mental illness is so prevalent among founders. We abuse ourselves in the name of success.
Besides medication, there are a lot of things I do to help maintain my mental well-being. Mindfulness and meditation have been key for my healing. Through the practice of meditation, I discovered there isn’t “one” Matt. There’s a multitude of voices and thoughts all competing for my attention.
My most profound discovery was that there’s one particular voice, my ego, that’s incredibly destructive. It’s the voice that’s constantly saying, “You deserve recognition. You deserve more than others. You’re special. You’re smart.” And on and on and on. When I sat in meditation, I found that that voice wasn’t who I am. When I took the role of observer, instead of participant, I realized who I authentically was. At my root, I don’t need recognition. I don’t need praise. That ego was a false sense of self, constructed over many years.
Many people come to believe that the ego voice is who they are. It’s a voice in your head, so why isn’t it you? I had multiple thoughts in my head all competing for attention—multiple impulses pushing me in many directions. The violent thoughts actually helped me understand that, at my root, I’m a peaceful person who doesn’t wish any harm to anyone. Through the process of observing, and not acting, I could distinguish between all the different thoughts. I felt liberated.
Our Thoughts Are Not Who We Are
The biggest lesson for me was that our thoughts are not who we are. It’s an illusion that our minds have created. If you suffer from a brain condition, it can be torture because you come to believe that you are sick and irredeemable. I’ve come to understand that my condition is the greatest gift I could have ever received. It helped me wake up to who I fundamentally am. The thoughts are still there, and I know I’ll never completely be rid of them, but I have a working relationship with them. When they arise, I watch them bubble up—and I let them go. In the past, they’d latch on so tight that it was very difficult to get past them. Now I observe them and refuse to participate—with my ego, with my intrusive thoughts, and with my obsessive thinking. I often even laugh at my thoughts. There’s nothing more powerful than laughing at something that most would think was extremely disturbing.
You Are Not Alone
If you wonder why I’m willing to share such an intimate story, I can tell you that there are a couple of reasons.
First, there’s a selfish component here. I know that part of my healing process is to share what I went through with others. I went from not being able to have a one-on-one conversation without having a panic attack, to now being able to stand in front of a room full of people and share my story. That journey is one that I could never have imagined. Every time I tell my story I feel better.
The second reason is that I feel people need to know they’re not alone. Suffering in silence is unacceptable, and I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through. I’ve made it my mission to help whomever I can. We need advocates who are willing to share their stories so that others may find the healing they so desperately need. I advise a group in Boulder, CO called Open Labs. Their mission is to eliminate the stigma of mental illness by having people like me tell our stories. It’s terrible that as a society we shame those who have a brain condition. If you have an illness with any other part of your body, you’d seek medical treatment and get sympathy from others. But for some reason if you have an issue with your brain you’re treated differently. We need to end this stigma by openly sharing our stories with each other. I am committed to telling my story as many times as it takes if it will help even a small amount in ending the ridiculous stigma that exists for those of us living with a brain condition.
If anything about my story sounds familiar to you, get help. Don’t wait any longer. Or if someone you know is suffering, encourage them to get help. Tell them that you’ll support them and help them through this. I was lucky that I have an incredible wife who was there for me. Her support was instrumental in getting me to where I am today.
Entrepreneurship Can Be Lonely
Entrepreneurship can be a lonely thing. Suffering from a brain condition and feeling like no one around you understands what’s happening is even more lonely. The good news is that there are people who can help you. You just need to be brave enough to get the help you need. Admitting you are not well is not failure. It’s the opposite. Seeking help is one of the best things you can do—for yourself, for your loved ones, and for your business. Getting help was truly the greatest gift I could ever give myself. I’m grateful every single day that I took that step, and I’m humbled by the person I became through this healing process.
If you’re in need of help, please find someone in your community who is trained to deal with these illnesses today. There’s no reason to wait. Block 30 minutes in your calendar to call someone and make an appointment. It’ll be the greatest gift you can give yourself. I’m living proof that someone with severe mental illness can thrive and live a fulfilling, meaningful life. You can too.
We’re with Matt here: if you need help, get help. Successful entrepreneurs take care of themselves!
National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 800-273-8255
For two and a half years now, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing firsthand the power that entrepreneurship brings to communities around the world.
From Amman, Jordan, to Cebu, Philippines, to Lincoln, Nebraska, I’ve had a front row seat at one of the most powerful, yet widely unknown, change-making activities – startup community development.
After this year’s presidential election, I needed a few days to digest the outcome. I read countless op-ed pieces and blog posts, the authors all trying hard to tackle the “why” of what had just occurred. One thing seems to stand out from the dozens of opinions I’ve read:
White, rural, blue-collar workers in the U.S. feel ignored and have watched their standard of living collapse.
Their once dependable jobs have been ripped away and sent to a foreign land where workers get a tiny of fraction of the salary U.S. workers once received.
The reality is that these Americans have been suffering for a long time and we failed to listen. We discounted their feelings and chalked up their plight to the reality that the U.S. was moving away from manufacturing. Put simply, rural America felt ignored and they elected the person they felt was most likely to do something about their situation.
So the question is, will manufacturing ever return to the U.S.? The quick answer is most likely not. The reason I say this is that corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits and grow their business year over year.
If they fail to do this, they have to answer to these shareholders and risk losing all the wealth they’ve tried to accumulate. As long as American workers’ salaries are many times higher than their counterparts overseas, this dynamic will continue.
How Startup Communities Lead to Job Creation
All of this leads me back to startup communities. From my experience developing these kinds of communities all over the world, I think entrepreneurship is the single greatest opportunity rural America has for business and job creation.
For those unaware of what Techstars Startup Programs are, we focus on giving Community Leaders tools and resources to develop startup ecosystems in their towns and cities.
Programs like Startup Weekend teach people how to take an idea they have for a business and turn it into working concept in just three days.
Startup Week is a 5-day, free event for anyone interested in entrepreneurship to come and learn from their peers how to jump into the startup world.
Startup Digest is an online calendar of startup events curated by local community leaders. All of this activity, driven largely by volunteers, creates a support system to encourage individuals to take action and start their businesses today.
What Can Startup Communities Do for Rural America?
First, it gives people the inspiration to develop the idea they’ve been working on in the back of their mind. It shows them there’s a path forward, and if done properly, can lead to real opportunity. All it takes is access to the internet. The internet has created a true egalitarian system that gives entrepreneurs access to customers anywhere in the world.
Second, startup communities share best practices and mentorship. Through shared learning, startup founders are much more likely to succeed and avoid the pitfalls others have experienced.
Third, communities that have strong startup ecosystems retain talent and attract outside investment. These dollars stay in the community and lead to business growth, which ultimately leads to job creation. The more businesses that are started, the more people are employed. (For examples, see the resources at the end of this post.)
The last point I’d like to make about startup ecosystems is that it requires the community to embrace radical inclusion. This means anyone who is interested in becoming an entrepreneur is welcome to take part. There can be no exclusion based on gender, race or socioeconomic status. All are welcome to take a seat at the table.
We at Techstars are ready to help. We have a global network of community leaders, entrepreneurs and mentors who are ready to give back and help build communities. And we’re not the only ones. There are dozens of organizations that are providing the same education and support.
But what we need most is you. Our programs are built so that anyone, anywhere can follow our structure and develop a grassroots startup community in their own backyard.
America is already great today because of our entrepreneurs. If we want a future where everyone can thrive, we need to make sure everyone knows that entrepreneurship is a real and viable path towards achieving that goal. We’re all in this together – let’s not miss this opportunity.
To learn more, visit the Techstars Startup Programs page of our website and take the lead on fostering entrepreneurship in your community.
We developed a whitepaper in partnership with Google called “Fostering a Thriving Startup Ecosystem.” Check it out to learn the five key ingredients we’ve discovered every community must have to foster entrepreneurial growth.
For in-depth instructions on how to properly support a startup community, read Startup Communities by Brad Feld. It’s the go-to source for all things community-related and will give you real world examples that you can emulate.
Techstars is proud to be a part of the 4th annual Denver Startup Week! Denver Startup Week is bringing innovation to life by taking the skills and drive of an entire team; founders, developers, product managers, designers, marketers, sales teams, and makers. It is where every member of that team can come to learn, grow, and be ready to take on the next challenge.
Techstars is heavily involved in the programming at Chase Basecamp on Thursday, Oct. 1. Chase is a the national title sponsor of Startup Week in partnership with Techstars. Six other cities this year are Chase sponsored: Seattle, Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Dallas, Columbus and Detroit. Learn more about the partnership here.
With 232 events on the Denver Startup Week 2015 schedule (and more being added each day), there’s something for everyone! All events are free, but registration is required.
Check out these upcoming #DENStartupWeek #ChaseBasecamp events with Techstars:
Why Colorado Is A Great Place To Be An Entrepreneur – Thursday, 10/1 8:00am — 9:30am. In this panel discussion, we will discuss and explore what concerted efforts—focusing on Startup Colorado and the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network—are taking place to support entrepreneurs from getting involved in the entrepreneurial community, to early stage companies, and up through fast-paced gazelles ready for a major exit event.
Feld & Friends – Thursday, 10/1 12:00pm — 1:30pm. Join Brad Feld of Foundry Group and he brings his favorite #squad members to chat about investing, startups, and life as an entrepreneur.
Founders Story: Brad Feld Of Foundry Group – Thursday, 10/1 3:00pm — 3:30pm. Join us daily from 3:15 to 3:45 at Basecamp for a quick chat with a superstar Colorado startup founder.
Pitch Techstars – Thursday, 10/1 4:00pm — 6:00pm. Six lucky individuals will get the chance to pitch Natty Zola of Techstars and get feedback.
Check out the full schedule for Denver Startup Week here.
For Immediate Release
Feb. 5, 2015
Phoenix Startup Week Brings Top Leaders, Businesses Center Stage at Premier Event Celebrating Entrepreneurship
PHOENIX (Feb. 5, 2015) – Phoenix Startup Week, a free event taking place from February 23-27, 2015, announced its final speaker and event lineup this week with more than 130 different workshops, presentations and panels from over 120 of the Valley’s business leaders. Championed by UP Global in partnership with Chase, Phoenix Startup Week is organized by and for local entrepreneurs with events held in downtown Phoenix, downtown and north Scottsdale, Tempe and the Biltmore area at locations such as ASU’s SkySong, GoDaddy headquarters and Deskhub.
Sessions will bring a weeklong agenda packed with startup advice and inspiration to Valley entrepreneurs. Topics include finding funding, business basics, marketing and sales, and startup stories from speakers such as Greater Phoenix Economic Council’s Chief Executive Officer Chris Camacho, Infusionsoft Chief Marketing Officer Greg Head, and longtime Valley entrepreneur Don Pierson.
In addition, the event also will debut Basecamp launched by Chase, which will be the entrepreneurial hub and epicenter for all Phoenix Startup Week attendees. The mobile Basecamp will be hosted at a different site each day and will feature programming, mentoring opportunities, charging stations and sessions with local entrepreneurs, business leaders and more.
“Chase recognizes the value in helping entrepreneurs succeed, and Phoenix has thriving startup community,” said Noreen Bishop, regional manager for business banking at Chase. “Today’s startups are tomorrow’s job creators, and they have a huge impact on our communities. That’s why we’re so proud to see the Valley’s groundswell of support for this inaugural Phoenix Startup Week.”
Registration is open on the event’s website and is encouraged as sessions are expected to fill up quickly. This event is made possible and free to attend, courtesy of its generous sponsors: Cox Communications, bluemedia, Eliances, Eeko Studios and community partners such as the City of Phoenix.
Jonathan Cottrell, Phoenix entrepreneur helping lead the week’s organizing effort, said, “Phoenix Startup Week could not happen without the support of our entire entrepreneurial community. It’s been a thrill to see how the Valley’s best, brightest and boldest have unified to collaboratively host such a massive celebration of our startup ecosystem. This marks the beginning of what will surely become a staple Arizona event.”
About Startup Week
Launched in 2013 in Denver, Startup Week has expanded to include cities such as Seattle and Tampa, making its fourth stop in Phoenix. As a thriving metropolitan community for entrepreneurs in all industries, Phoenix Startup Week aims to build awareness and elevate the startup community as one that fosters and cultivates an innovative environment for entrepreneurs. For more information and a complete schedule of events, visit http://phoenix.startupweek.co/.
Locations: #ChaseBasecamp will be the hub of activity each day of Phoenix Startup Week
- Monday 111 W. Monroe St., Phoenix
- Tuesday Deskhub, 4900 N. Scottsdale Road, Suite 4500, Scottsdale
- Wednesday Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe
- Thursday GoDaddy, 14455 N. Hayden Road, Suite 219, Scottsdale
- Friday Hool Coury Law, 2398 E. Camelback Road, Suite 1020, Phoenix
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Dec. 17, 2014
Valley business leaders, funders and founders celebrate entrepreneurship with premier event
Phoenix Startup Week Powered by Chase on February 23-27, 2015
Entrepreneurs and startups are invited to unite and celebrate everything
entrepreneurial at Phoenix Startup Week on Feb. 23-27, 2015, a weeklong series of more than 60 events focusing on inspiring and strengthening the Valley’s entrepreneurial communities.
Leaders from the Valley’s entrepreneurial community designed this event to help entrepreneurs find success by focusing agenda content on the topics of finding funding, marketing for startups, sales training, mentoring sessions with CEOs and funders and more.
Championed by UP Global in partnership with Chase, Phoenix Startup Week is built by the community for the community. In 2013, 5,500+ startup community members and more than 650 companies engaged in 125+ community-driven events all with the goal of celebrating everything entrepreneurial in the Mile High City. Since then, Startup Week has launched in Seattle and now Phoenix, the third stop in its national expansion.
Events will happen across the Valley throughout the week of February 23-27, 2015.
#ChaseBasecamp will be the hub of Phoenix Startup Week activity with programming, charging stations, meetup and mentoring opportunities. Sessions will feature local entrepreneurs, business leaders and more taking place at various venues across the Valley.
Phoenix Startup Week
Phoenix Startup Week is 5 days celebrating the Valley’s great startup community with more than 60 free events! Since 2012, the most creative and well-connected innovators have gathered in Colorado and beyond to come together for a week of learning, discussion, networking, and more. Now, it’s the Valley’s turn. All events are free and more information can be found at www.phoenix.startupweek.co and @PHXStartupWeek.
It was a beautiful late winter day back in February of this year and I was in Boulder, CO, doing some work for a non-profit I help out with. My mission was to network with as many people as I could and talk to them about the non-profit and its mission. One of my friends sent me an email and said I needed to meet Andrew Hyde, Program Director and Founder of Startup Week. Seconds later I got another email. This time it was Andrew with an invitation to have dinner up at his place. I promptly said yes and by 6 pm I was having dinner with Andrew and about 8 other folks. (I would later find out Andrew’s dinner parties were legendary and I can certainly understand why. Amazing food, fantastic conversations, etc.)
As the night went on, Andrew and I talked about the work I did and he said, “Would you have any interest in working on Startup Week?” Without hesitation I said, “Yes, absolutely.”
Four months later I officially applied for the position of program manager, and after several interviews landed the job. I was so incredibly stoked. I’m very passionate about building community and this was the perfect opportunity to help cities around the world bring together entrepreneurs in a fun, dynamic way.
So what is Startup Week? Put simply, it’s a free five-day, entrepreneur-led, volunteer-run, community-focused event. Local organizers select the tracks they want to build programming around and schedule 3-5 events for each track. These events could be talks, panel discussion, meet-ups, etc. The goal here is to build a week-long series of events that celebrates that city’s entrepreneurial community.
Which brings me to Denver Startup Week (September 15-20). This will be the first Startup Week I attend, and I couldn’t be more excited. The local organizers have done a tremendous job of building an event that truly includes every aspect of their entrepreneurial community. They’ve built programming around four tracks: business, design, technology and manufacturing. All told, they’re hosting 150+ events in venues all across Denver during the week. Plus, they’re setting up a really amazing space in downtown Denver to host Basecamp. Basecamp is a space that’s open to all Denver Startup Week participants. It’s a place to recharge, network, listen to some keynote talks, and even get mentoring from Denver’s most influential and successful entrepreneurs.
The highlight for me will be Thursday of that week. That day Brad Feld, entrepreneur and VC at Foundry Group, will be hosting a Techstars CEO summit at Basecamp. It will be absolutely fascinating to be surrounded by so many smart, forward-thinking CEOs.
My hope is to come away from Denver Startup Week with a huge list of best practices that I can share with other Startup Week local organizing teams. We’ve already got a big list compiled from other Startup Weeks, but as this is my first one it’ll be good to test my assumptions and see what actually works.
I’ll also be writing a follow up post after the event, so stay tuned for that.
In the meantime, if you have any questions about Startup Week, or would like to host Startup Week in your city, please do not hesitate to contact either myself or Andrew. We’d love to talk with you about what it takes to bring Startup Week to your town to celebrate your entrepreneurial community.