Andy Dunn on His Journey With Bipolar Disorder
Andy Dunn found success growing his startup Bonobos into a household name—but when he suffered a breakdown in 2012, his world came crashing down. Now, he has a new book, Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind. The book details his mental illness, his journey to stabilize his bipolar disorder, and how the fast-paced startup world, in some ways, enabled unhealthy behaviors. In this conversation with Daniella, Andy talks about his journey, his new startup Pumpkin Pie, why it was so important for him to come forward with his story—and why he believes the business community needs to be more transparent about mental health for the benefit of employees, the health of the business, and society.
Daniella Pierson: Andy, it is such a pleasure to have you on The Business of Feelings podcast for Wondermind. You have been one of the only very high profile founders that has been very authentic and vocal with your mental health struggles, which is not common in the business world and is seen as highly taboo. In your own words, for anybody who for some reason doesn't know the name Andy Dunn or the brand Bonobos or Pumpkin Pie or the book Burn Rate, could you please tell our audience who you are and why mental health is so important to you?
Andy Dunn: I'm Andy Dunn. I am back in my hometown, which is Chicago, missing New York a great deal. I was there for 15 years and while I was there I got to build a brand called Bonobos. We sold and sell a lot of pants, so I sometimes say I was a pants salesman. I’m half Indian on my mom's side, half Scandinavian American on my dad's side. Over the last two years I have been focused on two things. One is building a new company, which is called Pumpkin Pie—it's like Tinder but for platonic friendship and really aimed at curing the loneliness epidemic and social isolation, and that ties into my passion, which is mental health and mental fitness. I wrote a book in that vein called Burn Rate. The subtitle is Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind, and it is about a 16-year closeted journey I went on with a severe mental illness called bipolar disorder type I. It's a really unforgiving, cruel, challenging mood disorder, and it is also absolutely navigable with treatment, with therapy, with medication, with love. So I'm happy to say I've been mentally fit now for six years, and have a little baby boy and an incredible wife. I wanted to share this story to, first, expunge the shame that I felt for too long about having a mental illness, and also hopefully to provide at least one tiny story about how we can overcome this shit.
DP: Well thank you so much for that amazing introduction. The reason why I wanted you on is because I really wanted to have somebody who had a household name that they founded, because being an entrepreneur in the startup world is very very anxiety inducing. When I was 19 and starting my first company, it would be all of these middle-aged men looking super tough and they would say, “No emotion in business.” So as a 20-something Latino woman with OCD and ADHD, I was certainly not going to broadcast my mental illness to the world. In your book and in other interviews that you've done, you've mentioned that your family and people that were mentoring you essentially told you to put that part of your life in a pocket and zip it up and never look at it again while you were running this company. How did it feel to start a business having bipolar, which can really be debilitating? What is it like being told by people that you trusted and that you looked up to to kind of hide it and not seek help?
AD: I'd love to tell you that I had an awareness of what I was getting into with starting a company and having bipolar I. The truth is that when I was diagnosed I was 20 years old, I was a senior in college and those words, “bipolar disorder,” when I heard them just hit me like a sledgehammer. First the word “disorder,” which is a scary word. Does that mean I'm there for disorderly? Is there something fundamentally disorderly about me? And then the word “bipolar,” which is just a scary word. I learned that you've got these two extremes: mania and depression. The mania can be debilitating psychosis, you end up hospitalized or institutionalized. It could come back at any point. It could be two weeks, it could be 20 years. So that's terrifying. It feels like having a bomb in your brain where you're gonna go through this humiliation of losing your mind in front of your loved ones or strangers. Typically it's accompanied by messianic delusions of grandeur. All kinds of stuff that feels amazing while you're going through it, and then on the flip side of it is really humiliating. On the other side, the depression learning that the suicide attempt rate for bipolar I is 60% and the suicide rate is 19%.
One day you're a 20-year-old who thinks that the world is their oyster and the next day you've got this thing and it's hanging over you, and by the way, there's a one in five chance that you're gonna end your own life. You're only 20 years old and now you're thinking about these weighty concepts. The natural thing one does when presented with that is to reject it. Partly because you're hearing it when you're coming down from a psychotic episode, you're not necessarily in the best state of mind to process a diagnosis either. So I just didn't believe that I had it because I rejected the diagnosis. We, as a whole family actually, found a way to tell ourselves a story, which is that it was related to some mescaline psilocybin use from three weeks earlier. I was a senior in college. I was drinking a lot, smoking a lot of pot, and for the first time I tried mushrooms with some friends and so there was a narrative that we constructed, which is that it must have been the mushrooms that had caused the episode, that otherwise this wouldn't have happened and therefore the diagnosis was not accurate. When seven years later with a friend I co-founded Bonobos, it wasn't at the top of my mind because it was really a recessed, pushed down, traumatic memory.
DP: Thank you for being so vulnerable with that. When you and your parents said, “Oh, it must have been the drug use,” did you really believe that narrative?
AD: I believed it at the time. I wanted to have a reason to believe that I didn't have this illness, and I think one of the hard things about the word “bipolar” is that we tend to say, and I hear it to this day all the time, that so-and-so is bipolar. The analogy would be to say that so-and-so is cancer. We would never say that. Someone isn't cancer, they have it in the same way that we have bipolar. We are not it, but we equate the identity with the illness. It’s the idea that you actually now are your illness. If you're going from a world where you are you but now you are an illness, you are bipolar, you are the disorder—it's a natural thing to reject it. It didn't really dawn on me that I might actually have the illness until I started facing depression in a really meaningful way about a decade later while I was building Bonobos, while I was building a startup. I started to have months at a time where I didn't want to get out of bed, where I would be asleep all weekend. I didn't have the energy to live. I didn't have hope, having suicidal ideation, and I felt like I couldn't share it with anyone. I didn't have a channel open.
DP: You also had a lot of people depending on you.
AD: I did. In the role of an entrepreneur, and it's not the only role that's like this but—you're on display. You're on display for your team every day and you're meant to project optimism and a contagious, positive energy to draw people in. On the flip side of the mood spectrum, shy of psychosis, there is a mood state called hypomania. And hypomania is basically highly energetic, contagious, positive energy, prodigious amounts of energy in terms of being able to get things done, speaking a little more quickly, perhaps a little bit of distractibility or irritability, feistiness when disagreed with… More or less the central casting traits of an entrepreneur. There was one mood state where it was like jet fuel, and then another mood state on the flip side, the depressive side, where I felt like I couldn't do the job at all. I had to hide it from everyone. It was only as I was experiencing the depressive side that I had a little voice creeping up, which I describe as a ghost, that was like, Okay, wait a second. Empirically, I knew I had had a manic episode when I was 20. Now I'm experiencing depression. I know that the colloquial term for this illness is manic depression. I'm kind of two for two at this point because prior to that part of my life I hadn't experienced depression.
That was when it started to gnaw at me. So that began an era where when things were really hard, when I felt like I couldn't go on, I would seek help. At one point I approached a mental health therapist in New York who I spent some sessions with. I had a psychiatrist who I went and saw. I had another executive coach who I had who was a former psychiatrist. I had two family doctors. All five of whom told me that they didn't think I had bipolar disorder. It was just an unfortunate thing that I received confirmation for what I hoped was true rather than the difficult truth, which is, “Hey, you did get diagnosed with this. You are presently symptomatic, and that probably means this is what you had. That diagnosis is accurate, let's now talk about what we should do about it.” Instead, I found people who were willing to validate the narrative that I hoped was true, that wasn't. That turned out to be a devastating realization in 2016, when I had the second psychotic break and ended up hospitalized and charged with felony and misdemeanor assault from having been violent in the manic state. It's one of those things—we can't rerun our lives, but I wonder sometimes if just one of those people had said, “Hey, let's get you help. This probably is what you're dealing with.”
DP: We both have said that things like Wondermind and the book that you wrote are so important because so often therapists and experts are limited to people who can afford one $1,000 per hour sessions. It sounds like you were obviously in the position where you could seek help and you still did not get help.
AD: Yeah. Nine years into Bonobos, I finally connected with a doctor, my doctor to this day, who's both a psychiatrist and a therapist, who's a psychopharmacologist who can oversee the regimen of five medications that on any given day I might need to take. Usually it's one mood stabilizer that I call my ride or die. It helps keep me in bounds as a baseline. Then we have other medications we can use if I'm going too high or going too low to get me back. That's been a healthy half decade, and it shouldn't be the case that we need so much money to afford this. It shouldn't be the case that the medical reimbursement rates are so low. It shouldn't be the case that it's so hard to find someone who can help you.
What I wish for everyone is the care that I received. So for me, the step that I feel like I'm in the best position to affect and influence is that denial step at the beginning. It's going to always be there, but let's have it be two weeks or four weeks, not 16 years. Because we can't afford to be in denial of what might be an underlying reality for 16 years before we go on that journey of trying to identify the right help, the right medication, the right practitioner.
DP: Yeah, absolutely. When Selena, Mandy, and I started Wondermind a lot of people said, “Well, why don't you start it as a charity?” And the reason why I was so passionate about making it a business is I said maybe we could get all of our friends together and wealthy people and say, “Let's raise 50 million dollars,” but we would only be doing 50 million worth of change. If we can make this a multi-billion dollar company, where all of a sudden Wall Street, VCs, private equity are like, “Oh wow, mental fitness and mental health is good business,” then maybe we can do what the fitness world did, where 10 years ago the only way you could get to work out is you had to go somewhere in person, pay $40 for the class and then leave all sweaty. Now because there's been so much investment you can have a free workout on hundreds of apps and it's all paid for via VCs and private equity, and so that's what I want. I'm hoping in five years there are people who are trying to bridge that gap between the democratization of not only knowing about, Hey I feel these things. Could I potentially have bipolar? and going to a doctor with that knowledge, but hopefully there are so many other companies that are subsidizing all of these bills because they see it as good business. And so, thank you for pointing out how not realistic it is for a lot of people to get that kind of help.
AD: 100 percent, I think you're right. We need corporations and investment firms to be looking at this as a good decision. It's not a charity. It's good for employee productivity. It's good for longevity. It's good for retention rates. For-profit entities that get behind this are going to do better as businesses. That's exactly the way that change happens on a large scale.
DP: So you graduate Stanford, at some point meet your co-founder, and you start Bonobos. What part of the first year was the hardest in terms of your mental health? Was it raising capital? Was it hiring people? Was it getting adjusted with the co-founder? What can you tell anybody who is looking to start a business and wants to know what the hardest parts were for you?
AD: I think in some ways raising money was the best part for my mental health. It's going to sound funny because it's so hard but the fact that I needed to raise money, the fact that there were no institutional venture capitalists or seed funds at the time in New York City that really believed in this idea of pants on the Internet… I didn't have the luxury of pitching firms so I had to raise money from individuals. I think in our first three years we raised money from over 100 angels. We raised eight million from over 100 people and that probably meant that I had 1,000 meetings to get, let's say, a ten percent conversion rate. That extroverted energy and the requirement of just three to five conversations a day was its own form of an antidepressant because I had this thing to do that was bigger than me. It was so that I could keep making payroll for our developing team and it gave me a sense of purpose. Those fundraising crises that we would be in, which was like three or four months a year for the first three years—that was when I was at my best because I had to get out of bed to go to the breakfast, to raise money, to pay the salaries for the team. It was exciting and you start to drink your own Kool-Aid a little bit too. Just telling the story of your company and what you're trying to do you kind of get fired up and people push back and you get defensive, and they turn you down and that gives you fuel. You're like, “Oh, I'm gonna show you that you were wrong.”
The flip side of it, the thing that was the worst, was the co-founder divorce that I went through and just the conflict that came from being in a really problematic interpersonal dynamic for the first time. We were effectively married because we had raised money together and it was originally his idea and I had come in second, so I felt a real sense, like a duty of care, to him. Then having a monumental falling out—I was not equipped at all for that. One of the great things that the therapist who I was seeing at the time (who, you know, was in the bipolar disorder denial list, so that wasn't good, but she was a pretty good therapist) I remember her saying, “Andy, are you in touch with anger?” And I was like, “Anger? What's that? I've seen movies where people get angry. I've seen other people get angry, but I don't get angry.” And she said, “Sublimated anger can manifest as depression.” That really stuck with me. I still remember where she was sitting and where I was when she said that underneath anger is so often sadness. I was angry at my co-founder for a million reasons. He had a million reasons to be angry with me or disappointed in me, and I just wasn't in a place where I was processing that in enlightened ways. The second part of the book is really a tip of the cap to him for taking the blame for what went down and being the one that left the company and doing so gracefully. It's only in retrospect with the benefit of a decade of hindsight that I can see the story from his side. I can process what it must have been like to work with me, to be working with someone that had untreated and unmedicated bipolar disorder, to be interacting with someone who had these mood swings and trying to figure out how to navigate that. I had no idea. I blamed him for everything because it was the easy and convenient thing to do. And only in retrospect do I now see myself potentially as the villain in the story.
DP: I also want to talk about when Bonobos really started getting out there. You talk about these manic episodes and one of the side effects of bipolar disorder is oftentimes feeling like you are God. How did you balance that when you were essentially seen as God by your employees, by the media, by you know, everybody, because you were the CEO of this huge brand?
AD: It was less the leadership of Bonobos that led to some sense of delusion or of grandiosity. It was more what I thought then was the realization that all of retail was gonna be effectively following our lead. We got to see the Warby Parker founders, Glossier, Harry's, Away… These are all people that came to meet with Brian and me, to talk about how to build something. And so it felt like we were this little brand actually, in the big scheme of things, but we were changing the way every brand was going to be built. I can remember waking up one night in the middle of the night, it was like 3 a.m., and I was like, “Oh my god. No one knows that this is coming for the whole trillion-dollar retail economy.” And, like, I'm sleeping in a bedroom with 300 pairs of pants. This is our inventory room. We have nine employees. And I was like, “I know this is gonna happen for the whole retail economy, and I, like, have this secret.” It leads to drinking your own Kool-Aid. It leads to this sense of self-importance and messianism that we see. You can watch Netflix or Hulu now and you can see entrepreneurs run amok of their own vision. The truth is that it's a very fine line between fantasy and reality.
This is why I love startups—because it's like the collision of fantasy and reality. And it's a very narrow subset of people that actually know how to walk that tightrope and manifest their fantasy without it being a mirage, without it being BS, without it being something where you raise all this money and then there's nothing left at the end of the day. Bipolar disorder is well suited to that kind of a moment because you're wired for this upward ascent in mood where you become unmoored from the ground. It's in the wiring, which is why it's not at all surprising to me that the study of the University of California at San Francisco that looks at entrepreneurship and mental illness shows that bipolar disorder might be two to three percent of the general population and the index is seven to one in entrepreneurs. To say nothing of OCD, to say nothing of anxiety, to say nothing of ADHD, to say nothing of depression, the Autism Spectrum, Asperger's, narcissistic personality disorder.
That then becomes the journey. How does one dream big and how does one seek to attract talent and capital, inspire others, change the narrative in the public markets, in PR, with potential partners… but still stay humble? Stay humble enough to work hard. Stay grounded enough to be rooted in reality so that when things come up with mental fitness you have the humility to be like, “I need to take care of myself.” If I actually want to be this change agent I can't be off the ground. I can't be in bed all day. Change doesn't happen from the extremes, even if great ideas might come at the extremes sometimes. It's a tightrope. Fantasy and reality is a tightrope to walk.
DP: It definitely is. As an entrepreneur myself and as somebody who started with literally zero credentials, with all of these things against me, it's like, “Fake it till you make it.” But that is such a fine line where it's like, “Fake it till you make it to get people hyped up and excited but like don't fake your company.” There are some examples of where people faked it and made it and it was not a good thing. In order for somebody to stand in front of people who are literally dedicating their lives and their family's livelihood to you, you have to have some sort of optimism that everything's gonna be okay, that even though you get punched in the face 100 times a day, you are still gonna make it.
That's the difference between people who end up failing as entrepreneurs and people who don't. I mean truly I think the only reason why I became successful is because I was in survival mode. With OCD and depression, I thought I was the last person that was going to be successful. So, very opposite to you, but I was like, “I've committed myself to this. I am not a good student. No one's gonna hire me. I just have to survive.” And that's why I identify as a survivalist. It's really interesting because I think different mental health disorders help people in different ways. And now you are encouraging so many powerful people to be open so that people can say, “Wait, actually, all these people I admire are going through the same things I'm going through.”
AD: 100%, because we know this in the common culture, right? Every asset has a liability. Every greatest strength has a greatest weakness. With mental illness, mental health issues, and creativity and performance, there is this interlocking relationship. So the question becomes, “How do I unlock my strengths but protect myself and others from the shadows of those strengths?” and let those strengths sing. Let's unlock the power of that but not have it be debilitating. Minimize and mitigate the costliness of that so that you don't have to check under the bed 200 times before you go to sleep, so that OCD doesn't take more than an hour a day, or whatever the clinical diagnosis is. That, I think, is the job. And that's why I'm so optimistic for the amount of money going into mental health tech. Five years ago it was 100 million. This year it'll be over 5 billion. So we have 50 times the capital and therefore 50 times the talent… Wow. What we can do societally with an open conversation, with investment and with great talent—it does leave me feeling really optimistic.
DP: I would love for you to talk more about your book and your new company. Why did you decide to write this book, and would you have ever written it while you were still CEO of Bonobos?
AD: No way. I would not have had the bandwidth to write it while I was the CEO of Bonobos. I would not have had the benefit of hindsight and distance to go back and reexamine and look at the stories that I had told myself that were still alive for me and taking the time to figure out which of those stories still feel true in retrospect, which of those stories might be things that I told myself to protect myself, which of those stories were things that I had told myself because I needed to raise capital and had to believe them. That takes time and distance. In terms of like, “Why did I write it?” I was just so tired of being ashamed. I felt like society had taught me (because I didn't learn that from myself) to feel ashamed of what I'd been through, of the psychosis, of the messianic delusions. Society taught me to feel like I was a blight or some kind of a human stain. I was bipolar—that's what I was taught. I was the illness that I had been diagnosed with.
16 years later, as a 36-year old man with a great girlfriend who went through this with me who became my wife and is now the mother of our child, with the benefit of a great therapist where I could process these experiences, with the benefit of family, having been in jail and charged with a felony, and having been behind bars… Every single person was a man of color who was with me, every single person was Black or Latino, and knowing that they didn't have counsel standing by their side when they went before the judge the way that I did, I would never forget those people. I had all these vectors of transformation that I had been able to access due to privilege and I felt like, If I don't write this book, with all that privilege and the good fortune and the success, then who is expected to come forward? I'm certainly not the first person, but when it comes to the business community and the startup ecosystem there, there's only been a few people that have come forward. There are others, but it's time for us to come forward in droves, because as founders and as CEOs and as leaders, we are in a position to be on the front lines of disclosure.
DP: Well, thank you so much. If you want to give a quick shout-out to Pumpkin Pie, what is it about and how can we find you?
AD: Pumpkin Pie is rooted in this realization that we bet too much of our happiness on romance and romance is a difficult thing to control. It's not so easy to just wave the magic wand and fall in love with someone who's a great partner. For those of us who have been lucky to fall in love with a great partner, it's not like the solution to our life's woes. It becomes a part of your life, good and bad. Yet we have this thing which is platonic friendship, which is scientifically shown to be our happiest state, when we're with our platonic friends more so than in our romantic relationships because over time those take on obligation and duty and negotiation. It's a game of give and take. Or even, as I now have a child, parent to child it's not easy because you're trying to keep this person alive. You're trying to raise a human. But platonic friendship is this beautiful relationship where neurochemically we are at our happiest. Vulnerability is welcome and there's no sense of obligation. It's a free market for human relationships. We've all had friends that have just gone away and they go away much easier than a breakup. And then if we're lucky we have friends who've been with us for a long time. 100 percent of doctors agree that friendship is good for your mental health.
We're thinking about mental health tech in a little bit of a different way, which is—rather than focusing on what's right in front of us, let's just be a great place where platonic friendships can begin. That's why we call it Tinder for friendship, as a simple way to think about it. The reason why this is hard to do, by the way, is that platonic friendship has two dynamics: number one, defaults of vulnerability, so vulnerable disclosure, and then number two, unplanned, spontaneous, um, physical run-ins. Those are the two ingredients, and that's why no one's been able to crack this. Because it's hard to unplan a planned behavior through an app. It doesn't work as a typical thing. So there are ten different things we have to do right and I can assure you that we're only doing like two of those right now. That's why we haven't launched yet. We've got more work to do, but hopefully we'll be doing a push in New York in November of our beta, and then hopefully in the new year we'll launch the app.
DP: That's awesome. Well, thank you so much, Andy. You are such an inspiration. I can guarantee you that you are changing and saving lives through all of the work that you're doing. I really really appreciate our conversation.
AD: Thank you. Thanks so much.
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