“I distinctly remember there was this one night, it was midnight, we had had a long lab session for one of my classes. I was walking home alone … and looking down from a bridge. I don’t know why, but I thought to myself, I wonder what it would be like to just jump over.” Then a student at Carnegie Mellon University, Andy Chan didn’t make the jump, but his thoughts continued to darken. Fortunately, over the course of many months, he has turned things around, and today doesn’t mind sharing his story if it helps other entrepreneurs get through tough times.
No one imagined what was going on with Chan internally. He was smart, a Thiel Fellow finalist, an athlete who played football at CMU, had a girlfriend, and was co-founder and CEO of VIT Initiative, a tech company that looks to improve workplace safety through wearable technology, algorithms, and other cool stuff. On one level, it was the classic How could a guy with seemingly everything become suicidal? On another level, Chan’s plunge into entrepreneurship had created an internal pressure cooker.
Chan’s passion for entrepreneurship dated back to grade school. “I was really infatuated with the idea of becoming an entrepreneur. As a young kid I had boundless energy that needed an outlet. My first memory is from third grade, making paper airplanes and selling them,” he recalled. “That taste of creating something and sharing it was like this all-time high for me. When I grew up it was like, Ah, this is entrepreneurship. This is what I want to do. I knew I wanted to start something. The whole goal of college was to find that idea.”
That idea germinated at the beginning of his sophomore year. While playing football, Chan had broken some bone in his back, which along with all of the other athlete injuries he witnessed, prompted him and his co-founder – both electrical and software engineers – to develop a smart knee brace for measuring stress and injury potential. That evolved into wearable technology for predicting and preventing other injuries. As interest in their work increased, Chan mulled over dropping out of CMU to pursue the business full-time.
Weighing the Risks of Dropping Out
We asked Chan whether he and his co-founder talked over the risks involved with leaving CMU. First, he explained that there was a third co-founder who would exit at this point. “That was by far the biggest challenge in my young entrepreneurial career, navigating through that relationship, because the third cofounder’s motivation was he wanted to work at a large Fortune 500 company or a tech company, and did not want it take on this risk. But as a young, naïve entrepreneur I was thinking he’s my best friend, he’s just as committed as we are, but really it was a misalignment of goals.”
For the better part of a year, Chan and his remaining co-founder talked over the consequences, good and bad, of dropping out. “Definitely a lot of thought when into this. I was really debating whether I should drop out anyway, because I was not happy at CMU or with college in general.” Most of his friends and parents thought it was a terrible idea, so for a hopefully more impartial sounding board, Chan turned to a professor who was also a mentor. “I remember he just looked at me and said, ‘Andy you know the answer to the question. You’re just asking me for validation to make you feel better.’” Chan realized the professor was spot on. “Deep in your heart you know,” Chan said. “You can’t really describe why you’re compelled to take an entrepreneurial path but you know. You’re just asking to make sure you’re not actually crazy.” Chan also knew that if the business went south, he could return to CMU or get a job. As he pointed out, it wasn’t like he was excommunicating himself from the world. It was also around this time that they were in the final stages of winning the support of an accelerator, so all in all, it was a thoughtful process. Spring term 2015 was his last at CMU.
Success Brings Isolation
The whirlwind began. They won the backing of the accelerator AlphaLab Gear, won some seed money, and companies like UPS became interested in their product because their drivers suffered similar injuries to athletes from handling heavy packages. They soon had corporate customers. Chan applied for and became a Thiel Fellow finalist, a notable accomplishment considering this prestigious program had 2,800 applicants in 2017, took maybe 70 finalists, of which 15 became fellows. And yet, each milestone achieved made Chan want more – and consequently less happy. He also became increasingly isolated and non-communicative, all of which contributed to a downward spiral that would culminate with suicidal thoughts.
The Thiel Summit for the 70 fellowship finalists in the summer of 2017 reminded him of just how isolated he was. “I was really excited for the first time in my life to be surrounded by peers in a similar situation who understand what it’s like to be an entrepreneur and that I could be inspired by,” he recalled. Everyone was under the age of 22 and had dropped out of school. “It was like a celebration but at the same time I got to know some of the founders as time went on, and the conversations were about how it’s a tough life, it’s very lonely, especially as a young founder because so many people you associate with are not in your age group.” Chan also noticed that the founders who ended up being in the Bay area were happier in the sense that they had more of a network. “So for me, I was in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh scene has gotten better but there really are few young founders, whereas in the Bay area it’s an actual community.” (Note: We heard this same observation from Dr. Freeman when we interviewed him.)
Attempts to Deal with Loneliness
We asked Chan what he did to address the feelings of isolation and loneliness. “The first year of business I addressed loneliness by ironically shutting myself in and just doing work,” he answered in a subdued tone. “I thought success would somehow justify the loneliness, like somehow making it, hitting my milestones, that kind of thing, that would replace the internal loneliness I felt. I don’t know why I thought that, but I thought that for the first year. When we raised some money and closed some clients, I felt worse than ever. I lost friendships because I was so out of touch.
“The second year I flip-flopped. I made all this active effort to call up my friends, rekindle relationships, go to as many networking events as I could. But because of that I became highly unstable in the sense that, I don’t want to say that I was starting to become like a functioning alcoholic but basically I was.” He was burning the proverbial candle at both ends. “I was always out trying to network, talk to friends, and then I’d crash. And then go to work and repeat. It just drained me, and if anything it just made me super dead.”
Internalizing the Stressors and Keeping Secrets
What about other key stressors? we asked Chan. “Frankly, there’re too many stressors to count,” he laughed. “But some other major ones would be trying to close sales, and hiring and firing team members. I think as a young person to hire and fire team members is a very personal thing, because as a start up the people that you hire and fire end up being your friend. So I think that’s a pretty emotional roller coaster.” The other big stressor is the specter of bankruptcy, which Chan has had to face down a handful of times.
“The big stress is bankruptcy. So our company has faced bankruptcy four or five times. The first two or three times that we almost went through bankruptcy, it was a secret to myself. I didn’t even share it with my co-founder. I didn’t share it with anyone on the team because I felt it was my burden to carry. My rationale was I don’t want to bother the Tech Team by saying like, Hey in 50 days if we don’t do anything we’re dead, or something to that effect. I didn’t want them to freak out. As a 20 or 21-year-old that was incredibly stressful, potentially going through bankruptcy, not being able to make payroll, and you’re responsible for putting food on the table.”
The internalizing of financial trouble was another significant contributor to Chan’s growing suicidal feelings. It wasn’t so much the financial trouble as it was the internalizing of emotion, burying it, layer on top of layer.
A Desire to Talk About Suicidal Feelings
Getting down to the nitty-gritty, we asked him to walk us through the progression to that jarring realization of Holy shit, I’m suicidal. Something’s got to change here. We also asked if he was OK talking about. Without even a fleeting moment of hesitation, he answered, “Yes, I would love to because it is definitely something I wish other entrepreneurs talked to me about.”
Chan then laid it out in pretty matter-of-fact terms as feeling “blue” snowballed into something more. “I think the progression for me started right at the end of high school and the beginning of college transition area, where it was just the blues you would call it. It was really weird because I’m typically a happy person, and it was a new thing for me. I didn’t know why I was feeling blue. That was the beginning of college, 2012-2013. It just kind of started snowballing.
Snowballing Depression and Manic Thoughts
“The blues turned into I was sad all of the time, and then I became depressed. I didn’t necessarily have the motivation to do things. And I felt like I was bipolar in the sense that there’d be bursts of moments where I’d be manic, I’d have all this inspiration. Let’s change the world, nothing can stop us. Then it would flop right back to, Oh my God nothing is going to work. I don’t know why I thought this would work. This kind of progressively got worse from 2013 to 2017, so it was four years of a slow progression where it went from I’m a little sad to this manic mode of highs being higher and lows being lower.
“I think one of the realizations I had was, Oh my god, maybe I’m not right in the mind. It actually started right before I left CMU.” It was the night he wondered about jumping off the bridge. “Obviously I didn’t but I was like, That was a weird thought, I’ve never had that thought before. So I just kind of pushed it back into the depths of my mind.
Burnt Out and Desperate
“I would say this suicidal thing resurfaced in 2017. I think it was a combination of things. The business was at an all-time stress level for me; we were facing potential bankruptcy; the product wasn’t working as good as we thought; I broke up with my girlfriend of seven years; and I was burnt out. I was straight up burnt out from the entrepreneur experience. I think all those things combined … and for a period of time I was basically a functioning alcoholic.
“I think I realized it had gotten to a really bad problem when I would go out to party with friends on the weekend, and I’d come back home, and I would just be mad crying … by myself. Then I would be crying with a knife in my hand. Obviously I didn’t do anything with the knife, but I had that thought of doing it. It happened multiple times through 2017, so it was in 2017 I realized I was not okay. I needed to change the way I think about things and get myself out of the hole I had dug myself into.”
Find out how Chan brought balance back to his life and now serves as a mentor to others in Part II of our interview.