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It was his biggest secret for two decades. Now Bonobos co-founder Andy Dunn is telling everyone about wrestling with bipolar disorder. Here’s why

October 18, 2022, 11:25 AM UTC

There was a six-month period where Andy Dunn wasn’t sure he was going to get to tell his own story.

Dunn—founding CEO of the New York City-based clothing brand, Bonobos, which Walmart bought for $310 million in 2017—has spent much of his business career with a secret he refers to as his “ghost.” He has wrestled with bipolar disorder since 2000, and six years ago, experienced a manic episode that would land him in a psych ward at Bellevue Hospital and would lead to him being charged with felony and misdemeanor assault.

For six months, the assault case records were public, and Dunn feared his story would become tabloid fodder in the business press. Instead, the charges were dismissed and the records sealed; Dunn’s secret was safe. That is until he decided to share all of it—in his own words—in a book he published earlier this year, Burn Rate

In Burn Rate, Dunn comes clean about nearly losing his now-wife, his company, and everything he cares about in the world as he wrestled with mental illness. Dunn offers a gripping, vivid, and deeply personal account of his own difficulties of building a company while struggling with a mental health disorder.

Dunn, who has been undergoing treatment and therapy since that defining episode in 2016, has become an outspoken advocate for combating the stigma around discussing mental health in the business world. Dunn left Walmart in 2020 to build a second startup, called Pumpkin Pie, which is a social media app for building platonic relationships. He is also the founder of a VC firm called Red Swan Ventures, where he says he strives to support founders on their worst days.  

“Moreso than any conversation about what VP of Marketing to hire or how to think about structuring a round, the bigger existential issues are the ones that I’m here for,” Dunn says.

Last week, Dunn sat down with me to talk about the intersection of mental illness and entrepreneurship, disclosing his “ghost” to Walmart during the due diligence process, and how business leaders can be more vulnerable about their personal experiences with mental health. (Some portions of this Q&A have been edited or shortened for clarity and/or brevity.)

Andy Dunn, the founding CEO of men’s clothing startup Bonobos, says his struggle with mental illness almost cost him everything.
Courtesy of Andy Dunn

Term Sheet: Why did you decide to write this book and reveal such personal details about yourself?

Dunn: I felt so ashamed for so long. Writing the book was a way to expunge that shame in some regard. Shame is what is unspeakable. And I feel like society teaches us—or it taught me—that I couldn’t speak about mental health. I couldn’t have that conversation. First, it was a difficult conversation to have with myself due to the stigma. And then also beyond that—professionally—how was I going to raise venture capital or build a team if I was on the record as having bipolar disorder?… When I finally started to deal with it and process it, and get healthy and see a doctor… [I realized] there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of… The book was a way to say: There’s nothing embarrassing here. This is an illness like any other physical illness that I’ve been through… 

That was the first part of it. The second part was just knowing other people go through this—and now knowing a lot of people who have shared with me what they’re dealing with or dealt with. It distributes so universally. There’s not a family that’s untouched by issues of mental health, or neurodiversity. I felt that if this can be one helpful story of going through hell and somehow getting to the other side of it, then I want to share that on the possibility that this can be helpful to other people. 

What is it like for you to now speak very regularly about bipolar disorder after keeping your own case of it quiet for so long?

[Laughs] It’s weird. Your biggest secret for two decades—and then you’re talking about it on stage and all the time. I guess it’s proof in some way that we hold our own stories too close. We assume that other people are somehow spending their time thinking about us a lot, and therefore, if we share our secrets, it will totally change the way they think about us… I think the truth is: That’s not the case. Most of us are focused on ourselves. In what little time we do spend imagining the lives of others, the stories of struggle, the things that entail vulnerability [are actually] more interesting than our success stories or the projection that we put forward. That vulnerability—those stories of strife—are what draw people in. 

Frankly, I find it to be a relief to have this story to tell. I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to connect with an audience. I don’t have to wonder what they’re going to think of the safe version of myself, because I know the raw version will have their attention. They see me for my struggle rather than for my quote-unquote success… I’d like to think it’s more useful for people [if I am] known for that.

There’s one paragraph near the end that really stood out to me… [reads paragraph]

“For me, controlled hypomania is when I am at my entrepreneurial best: able to work long days, with high levels of endurance; generating kinetic positive energy for recruiting, fundraising, and motivating the team ;and having frequent sparks of ideas, perhaps even moments of vision. Everything is clicking, everything is making sense, life has purpose. Colors seem brighter; gratitude flows. This is the zone where creativity and productivity flourish. We all have days like this. With untreated bipolar disorder, I had eight years of it, on and off, and I don’t think I could have built a company without that gear. But it comes with a price: Manic potential if unchecked, and interspersed, long phases of clinical depression. The possibility of ascending into mania is an unacceptably high level of risk on the upside, and the possibility of sliding into depression is an unacceptably high level of suffering on the downside. And so the psychiatrist’s job is to find the right balance and allowing for the fullness of human experience while shaving off probabilities at the extremes.” Can you talk more about this?

Look—it’s such a high level of the entrepreneurial population that is dealing with different kinds of neurodiversity. For bipolar disorder, depending on who you talk to, I’d say its like 2-3% of the general population…. And that indexes to maybe seven to one for entrepreneurs compared to the general population… And I think that that hypomanic state really is jet fuel. On the flip side, it comes with a price, and that price can be extraordinarily high, setting aside what you are trying to build, for your health. And my hope is that it’s not a prerequisite—and I guess I’m running this experiment right now, building my next company—it’s not a prerequisite to being successful, to have these really high elevated periods of moods to build something, but rather to be able to access some of that without the extremes. 

I’m careful to tell people: I don’t think you need a mental illness, or a diagnosable mental illness, to be a successful entrepreneur. But there’s clearly a link between creativity and performance and disorder. And part of the pathology of bipolar disorder is that you have these high, highly energetic days. My doctor likes to say: The goal is to be controllably hypomanic. The goal is to be in an energized mood state each day. Call it an eight out of 10—but have that be the high end, to be something that doesn’t slip further upwards, where it’s so unsustainably elevated of a mood that you know it’s going to crash. I’ll happily make that trade now—I’m happy to be more middle-of-the-road for longer periods of time. And I actually think that’s healthier in the long run for company-building because I’ve got more endurance than when the fire is burning proverbially too hot.

Why is it that you think no one talks about mental health in the business world?

I think it’s changing, which is good. I think we’re seeing that happen right now. But I’ll give you examples of what I haven’t seen. I haven’t seen the CEO of a Fortune 500 company talk about their mental health issues…

Unlike the arts or entertainment or even sports—because money’s involved—we want to feel like there’s a steady hand or there’s stability in our leaders. And so anything that would call that into question—it feels like a potential professional liability… And yet we know it’s there. And it seems like entrepreneurs—Elon Musk talking about being on the autism spectrum—it seems like entrepreneurs are in a position to lead that because the lucky entrepreneurs are in a position where… it’s almost like it’s expected in a way. But I know that we will really be making progress when a hired CEO of one of the Fortune 50 or Fortune 500 companies talks openly about the mental illness that they have.

What are some action steps that could be taken within companies or within boardrooms to proactively address that some people may be dealing with mental health issues?

Normalizing disclosure of mental illness generally has to start at the top. And so I feel like when a CEO or founder or senior executive finds a moment to share something that they’ve gone through or are going through, or maybe something that someone in their family has gone through, it changes the tone, and it creates safety and permission for other people to share on their side. And so I think it’s far more important than saying hey, we support this initiative, or here’s this investment, or here’s the service that we have available to you is to role model disclosure. And I think for me, that’s the central mission is to normalize disclosure of mental health issues in the workplace. And I think leaders have to go first.

You mentioned in the book that when you first met Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, you showed up 45 minutes after him due to heavy snow. I’m just curious whether he was bothered by your lateness at all.

No, I wasn’t late! He was just early… We were meeting, I think, at the Guideshop on Crosby Street at six and then we were having dinner at seven. And I was like, oh, I’ll leave at five—it’s a mile and a half away—and it ended up taking me almost an hour to get there. So I got there at like 5:50, thinking, oh, I’m still 10 minutes early, and Doug… had gotten there early and was just hanging out. There’s a lesson: The most successful people in the world are either habitually early or habitually late. There’s both kinds.

You disclosed to Walmart that you had bipolar disorder during the due diligence process of that acquisition. Do you think that that influenced the deal in any kind of way?

The fact that the deal went forward is the most important fact. I think it would be such a great question if the deal had fallen apart. That would invite a really difficult conversation around what kind of a factor that was. 

For me, I had no idea how to think about it. I was going to become the officer of a public company. It was actually a collision of what we were talking about earlier—where, maybe as an entrepreneur something is acceptable or societally acceptable… But what about for a corporate executive, where the stakes are different…

And that’s part of why it was so affirming when we were halfway through the deal process. I’d disclosed what I’d been through, and not just the mental illness, but the fact that I’d been arrested, that it might come up on a background check. Those are really hard things to talk about with people you’re just starting to get to know in the corporate deal-making process. They did their diligence: They had an outside psychiatrist review my medical records. It’s not like they glossed it over at all. But the care and the love that I felt side by side with the diligence part of the process, it was remarkable, and I think it speaks to Doug and the tone at the top there.

Did your co-founder Brian Spaly read this [book] before you published it?

[Laughs] I don’t know. I just saw him at a wedding, and I still don’t know if he’s read it. He’s certainly had a few chances to read it… We’ve spent a lot of social time together, so I took that to mean we were in a good place. 

What are key takeaways that you want founders to get out of the book?

One conversation that has come up is: When do I disclose to my investor or investors a mental health issue that I’m facing? What I say is that trust has to be earned. Vulnerability doesn’t mean all at once. And it doesn’t mean all the way…

I have a friend who is a venture capitalist who has bipolar disorder, and he called me when the book came out, and he said, I’m so jealous of you. I’m so proud of you, but I’m also really jealous, because I feel like I can’t share because I’m at the stage where I’m still building. It just made me really sad to hear that. We need to figure out how to move from a place where you have to give a grand unveil to one where you can find the right moment to bring up the story while you’re building something. We haven’t flipped that switch.

Any plans to write another book in the future?

No. I hope to earn the right to another book, I guess that would be the way to put it. I can’t picture what it would be about. Maybe in another 30 years.

Naughty Nikola… Trevor Milton, the founder of the electric truck company Nikola that went public via SPAC in 2020, was found guilty by a federal jury of defrauding investors regarding the vehicle’s technology at the end of last week. He was convicted of one count of securities fraud and two counts of wire fraud, and he could face up to 20 years in prison. “Let this case serve as a warning to anyone who plays fast and loose with the truth to get investors to part with their money. It won’t end well,” U.S. Attorney for Manhattan Damian Williams said in a statement. Milton had founded Nikola in 2014, and it had been valued at $34 billion at its peak when it went public, before posting any meaningful revenue. A big yikes to SPACs and their lofty projections. You can read more about it here

See you tomorrow,

Jessica Mathews
Twitter: @jessicakmathews
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Jackson Fordyce curated the deals section of today’s newsletter.


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