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The Highs and Lows of the Startup World: One Man’s Journey Into and Out of Habit

Editor’s observe: This Inc.com story is an up to date model of 1 that initially appeared within the March/April 2021 print challenge of Inc. journal.

On the top of his habit, when Stephen Hays desperately wanted a dopamine hit, he’d open up his laptop computer and begin a brand new Excel spreadsheet.

The Dallas area-based enterprise capitalist would spend days meticulously planning a Las Vegas binge weekend in color-coded 24-hour blocks and 30-minute increments. It was a marketing strategy of debauchery, unspooling at pace …

Midday: Land at McCarran. 1 p.m.: VIP suite on the Wynn. 1:10: Craps (three and a half hours, $500 a roll; up $15,000–hot!). 4:45: 90 minutes on the Cosmo (Jane: blond, implants, girl-next-doorsy). 6:15: Bathe. 6:30: Craps on the Cosmo (75 bets an hour: roll, roll, Purple Bull and vodka, roll; drop $22,000). 10:30: Wynn steakhouse bar (filet, bloody; potatoes, gratinéed). 11:30: Upstairs for dessert (three strains of coke). Midnight: Eight-top with bottle service on the XS Lounge (tab: $4,000). Four a.m.: Craps on the Aria (bump up bets to a thousand a pop; claw again 5 grand). Sunup: Wynn, room service (eggs Benedict pizza … cheesecake topped with mixed-berry compote). 10 a.m.: Sleep. 3:30 p.m.: Pool. 4:30: Again to room (Lisa: brunette, older, has buddies with medication). 6:30: Bathe. 6:45: Craps (drop 20 grand–crap out … ).

Once you’re the type of one who goes to Las Vegas 30 occasions a year–who wants to go to Vegas 30 occasions a year–you depart no element unplanned. Journeys to satisfy up with California startup founders offered a straightforward, and geographically handy, cowl; he may tack a binge weekend onto the tail finish of a enterprise journey. By the point the Vegas jaunts took over his life in 2018, he’d begun going twice per week.

Hays was a adequate consumer that the 4 or 5 casinos he frequented comped every part however the playing. Over time, he discovered {that a} four-hour playing shift with a median wager of $500 resulted in free lodge rooms, drinks, meals, golf rounds. Make it $1,000 per wager and typically they’d throw in airfare and a penthouse suite. Markers, or revolving strains of credit score from the inns, let him wager greater than $150,000 in a weekend, as much as $500,000 when he was profitable. When he was operating chilly, which occurred increasingly typically, he may simply lose $50,000 a visit.

He did his finest to re-create cinematic Vegas clichés: befriending his favourite on line casino sellers; inviting total craps tables to affix him at a nightclub for magnums of Dom and liters of Tito’s; tapping a daily roster of intercourse staff for a number of hours of enjoyment and the prospect to snort cocaine from one in every of their lengthy fingernails. He knew precisely how a lot money he may match into his pockets in rolled-up $100 payments: $35,000. He was on a first-name foundation with an outsize and seemingly immemorable retinue. At first, all of it made him assume he was completely happy, for a number of days at the very least. Close to the top, each roll of the cube, each drink, each lady he paid to undress made him really feel like much less of a human being.

There was no spreadsheet for his closing journey to Vegas on August 24, 2018. There wasn’t time. He simply needed to get out of city quick. Away from the $300,000 in debt. Away from the lies he instructed to cover it. Away from a narrative that made its means into all the native newspapers alleging he had hit his spouse with a hammer after an evening of ingesting, arguing, and wrecking his home.

When he arrived in Vegas, he emailed the Cosmopolitan with a selected request: a room with a wraparound balcony.

Sooner or later, Hays meant to make the Cosmo balcony his closing view of the town and of his life. However first, he wanted to lose himself once more, this time extra intensely, extra violently. As a result of there was nothing left to lose. He was bankrupt–financially, emotionally, spiritually.

Nobody in his life knew what his Vegas journeys had hidden for years: Hays lived solely to feed his addictions to playing, alcohol, intercourse, and medicines. They turned his manias–those stretches when he obsessively labored 120-hour weeks–into Techni­colour. And so they washed out the ache and disgrace of the depressive episodes that adopted. If he had nothing left to feed the addictions, what else was there?

Early within the day, he went to the Cosmo penthouse of an investor pal from Dallas. They drank closely and snorted strains of crushed ecstasy capsules from a modern, black espresso desk. His thought was to get to a spot the place he felt good and will finish his life rapidly, with as little concern and apprehension as attainable. Perhaps he may even make it appear like an accident whereas partying.

Grabbing a bottle of champagne and shaking it as he crossed the room, he made a present of spraying among the contents throughout the balcony earlier than downing what was left. Impulsively, he climbed the railing, feigning invincibility and eyeing the bottom greater than 50 flooring beneath him. The very last thing he remembers is screaming into the night time, to nobody specifically, that he felt like he was on high of the world.

Habit would not discriminate. In 2019, round 20 million Individuals, roughly 6 % of the inhabitants, had at the very least one substance use dysfunction, in response to the Substance Abuse and Psychological Well being Providers Administration. As a rule, genetics performs a big position.

But habit is very widespread within the startup world, with its adrenalized tradition of high-stakes gambles. Entrepreneurs are 3 times extra more likely to wrestle with substance abuse, in response to analysis carried out by Michael Freeman, a medical professor of psychiatry on the College of California San Francisco Faculty of Medication who research entrepreneurs’ psychological well being.

One motive, Freeman believes, often is the prevalence of preexisting psychological well being points amongst entrepreneurs, together with nervousness, melancholy, and bipolar dysfunction. These situations worsen with the highs and lows of betting on a startup’s success. “Say you are bipolar. Impulsively you shut a $20 million Collection A spherical. That occasion can set off a manic episode,” says Freeman, who can be the founding father of Econa, a psychological well being analysis institute and useful resource middle for entrepreneurs. From there, self-medication with medication and alcohol is just not that a lot of a leap.

The very traits that impel somebody to gamble on startups are additionally a part of the image. Entrepreneurs are already apt to behave in ways in which isolate them. Their mission requires sustained effort, which might intrude with relationships. It additionally encourages workaholism, a type of behavioral habit. When the job not delivers the identical dopamine hit, they might hunt down substances each to reclaim their euphoria and to blot out the stress of surviving in a tradition that calls for they undertaking confidence and management.

Close to the top, each roll of the cube, each drink, each lady he paid to undress made him really feel like much less of a human being.

Entrepreneurs and execs who abuse medication and alcohol have a tendency to attend longer than others earlier than looking for remedy. Kristen Schmidt, a psychiatrist on the Hazelden Betty Ford Basis who often works with sufferers within the enterprise group, says: “They typically are available quite a bit sicker as a result of for therefore lengthy they’ve remained extremely purposeful whereas utilizing substances.” Getting remedy additionally means taking time away from work, which, for a lot of, is the drug of selection.

Hays ticks plenty of these packing containers. Alcoholism and psychological sickness run within the household. The pursuit of thrills in intense settings like Wall Road and high-stakes craps tables got here with crushing temper swings, manias, and melancholy. And he used alcohol to deal with the lows.

Sitting in his brick residence in Frisco, Texas, the 40-year-old Hays simply appears to be like the a part of the West Level grad, former Military lieutenant, living-comfortably-in-the-Dallas-suburbs type of dad that he’s. Together with his graying hair neatly parted and slicked again, freshly shaved face, and black, Zoom-casual zip-up, his typically startling gaze affords the one pop of colour within the room. Two blue eyes dart backwards and forwards throughout the display screen, sometimes pausing to look, huge open, instantly into the digital camera a beat or two after he stops talking.

He spends most of his time on this residence workplace, adorned by his spouse, Christine. Her touches come by way of within the beige partitions, darkish wooden bookcases, formidable desk, framed household photographs and honors, and the summary artwork in soothing grays and but extra beige. Hays has added some tweaks: a tricked-out gaming PC with two displays, a smattering of Eating regimen Coke cans and water bottles, the type of over-the-ear headphones severe e-sports gamers put on, and a pocket book from the Meadows, an habit restoration clinic.

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Hays, who grew up close to Dallas, selected West Level as a result of he needed to serve his nation, and since it was free. For 3 years, he immersed himself in pupil life, pulling largely A’s and B’s and filling his spare time with extracurriculars. All the things modified when he positioned his first wager on a sports activities playing web site in his senior yr, dropping $10 on a soccer recreation.

It was a small wager on an insignificant recreation, however the attraction was magnetic and speedy. He needed that $10 again, badly. And he could not get out of his thoughts the prospect of creating money–and plenty of it–this means. Betting turned a every day behavior, and it did not matter the game–blackjack, poker, soccer, soccer. “It obtained to the purpose I used to be betting on Korean girls’s skilled basketball,” Hays recollects, chuckling. And he turned irritable if one thing else intruded. “I used to be very, very troublesome to get together with,” he says.

Round that point, Hays started to drink closely, typically on journeys to the Blarney Stone close to New York Metropolis’s Instances Sq., the place the bartenders let the cadets drink all night time for $20. Whereas slamming Jack and Coke wasn’t a lot totally different from what different faculty seniors have been doing, for Hays a few drinks was by no means sufficient.

His addictions gave him a guiding function: he needed to feed them, which meant he wanted to start out making some huge cash.

His wins–and the losses–grew. By the top of his senior yr in 2003, Hays needed to name his dad and mom to rescue him from $70,000 of debt. For a household of modest means, it was painful. Hays needed to promote his automobile; his father needed to dip into his 401(okay). “It was the primary backside of many,” Hays says. His dad and mom, centered on getting him to commencement and unaware of how deep his issues ran, stated nothing extra of the incident.

From West Level, the Military despatched him to Fort Benning, Georgia, and the sample of life on the base made his addictions laborious to cover. He routinely confirmed up drunk to morning coaching within the improper uniform. A nasty again a yr in gave Hays and the Military an excuse to half methods. “I did not wish to be there,” he says, “and I used to be ingesting a lot that they did not need me.” He left with an honorable discharge in 2004.

For 3 years, he bounced from one job to the subsequent in property improvement, attempting and largely failing to work 9 to five on suburban tract-housing tasks. As he chased his boredom in bars, he started listening to of dorm-room buddies who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, tipping off a darker flip in his habits. It was the primary time he recollects ingesting himself into oblivion to neglect the ache and disgrace. “I felt like a bit of shit,” Hays says. “All I did was fail as a result of I could not behave.”

The recession hit, and he went to enterprise college to journey it out. When he returned residence for the summer season in 2008, he reconnected with Christine, a tan, petite blonde he had recognized since third-grade Sunday college. “Stephen was infectious,” she says within the couple’s spotless white kitchen. He was the type of man who did spontaneous issues to maintain the enjoyable going, like going to Walmart at 2 within the morning to purchase a board recreation she talked about liking. Earlier than the marriage, a yr later, Hays’s mom made him promise to inform Christine in regards to the playing and the way they bailed him out at West Level. He by no means did.

His addictions gave him a guiding function: He needed to feed them, which meant he wanted to start out making some huge cash. Funding banking in New York Metropolis appeared an apparent selection.

For the primary yr or so of his marriage, Hays labored lengthy hours and did not have a lot time to gamble or drink. He started to rationalize his frequent manias as a superpower: They helped him work longer and more durable and sleep lower than everybody round him. However there was all the time a depressive episode on the opposite facet. He began preserving vodka in his desk drawer at J.P. Morgan. Atlantic Metropolis was a fast 127 miles away. And his rising standing as an I-banker got here with more cash and extra free time.

Christine started to attach the dots when she noticed massive withdrawals from their financial institution accounts and emails on Hays’s open laptop computer with sports activities betting suggestions. However she was coping with her personal dependence on alcohol, buying, and anything that distracted her from the unease of life in Manhattan with a brand new husband she noticed only some hours a day. She thought Stephen was good and good with cash, so he would not let issues get out of hand. “I needed to consider the lies,” she recollects.

Then, on an Atlantic Metropolis journey in 2012, Hays misplaced $50,000, wiping out every part in his 401(okay) and financial savings account. His mom died simply days later, only some weeks after receiving a mind most cancers prognosis. Her sudden dying shook him. He instructed his spouse that they wanted to maneuver again to Texas so he may reconnect together with his roots. The satan was in New York Metropolis and its proximity to Atlantic Metropolis.

Inside per week of returning to the Dallas suburbs and settling into a neighborhood funding banking job, he had related with the nation membership bookie and a drug vendor. The satan had adopted him to Texas.

His moorings loosened in 2015 when he swapped funding banking for enterprise capital, launching Deep Area Ventures with $20 million from a high-net-worth particular person in Dallas. A online game fanatic himself, he centered on tech and e-sports firms, investing in startups like FanAI, OpTic Gaming, and Infinite Esports & Leisure.

One huge change with this profession transfer: As a VC, he primarily labored for himself. He had loads of earnings and causes to journey, and now he moved in circles with different traders and founders who spent their free time in a lot the identical means.

He rapidly jumped into the VC occasion circuit–SXSW in Austin, the Collision Convention in New Orleans. At a birthday bash for one entrepreneur, he made a brand new set of buddies: individuals who partied more durable than he did, doing medication he’d by no means heard of, getting excessive in plain sight in the course of the restaurant. A few of his investments, Hays displays now, have been largely about making connections to founders and fellow VCs who additionally had Vegas and drug habits. And when Hays was drunk and excessive, he admits, he did “outrageous, asshole issues.”

A few of these asshole issues resulted in felony fees. In January 2017, he pleaded responsible to tried assault after a drunken altercation with a younger lady he allegedly pushed exterior a bar in Vail, Colorado. He additionally pled responsible to tried extortion of a enterprise affiliate who was a witness to the altercation. He obtained 4 years of probation; a subsequent civil case was discontinued. Makes an attempt to succeed in the lady for remark by way of her lawyer have been unsuccessful.

And on August 5, 2018, he was arrested for allegedly putting his spouse within the head with a hammer the night time before–though the couple now preserve that is not what occurred. Early within the night, they are saying, they drank closely at a live performance, quarreled, and went their separate methods. Round Four a.m., Hays got here residence indignant, pulling doorways from their hinges, smashing Waterford crystal, and knocking photos off the partitions. Within the commotion, a big portray above the mattress fell on Christine, the shattered glass lacerating her head and face.

However that is not what she instructed police when her sister-in-law drove her to the hospital. As an alternative, she reported that Hays had given her eight blows to the pinnacle with a hammer–which police discovered caught within the wall above their mattress. She says she lied as a result of she was angry–Hays had bankrupted the household and destroyed the home she loved–and as a result of she was certain he was on his method to Las Vegas to commit much more destruction. “I stated what I wanted to say to get him arrested,” she admits.

Hays was certainly on his method to Vegas, however police caught as much as him two hours from residence. The following day, Christine says, she instructed police the true story. She provides that she was within the hospital for 45 minutes and wanted only a few stitches, which might not have been attainable if she’d been bludge­oned with a hammer. Nonetheless, the DA charged Hays with aggravated assault with a lethal weapon. The case is at the moment pending in Collin County, however Covid has introduced court docket operations to a halt.

After the native press lined the story, the startup media picked it up too. The information accounts despatched Hays spiraling downward. The one who funded Deep Area Ventures fired him. Hays says: “I knew it will finish with me dying or in rehab.” And on August 24, he headed again to Vegas.

When he noticed Hays perched that day on the balcony railing, his pal realized Hays had crossed a line from bravado to desperation. The pal jerked him to the balcony flooring, knocking him unconscious.

When he lastly got here to round midday, Hays, who had been ferried again to the Wynn (he was booked each there and on the Cosmo so he may crash wherever he maxed out), was mendacity on the ground in his room amongst smashed champagne glasses, scattered clothes, day-old room service, and needles and spoons left by a pal who appreciated heroin. His cellphone lighted up with texts from Christine: I am downstairs. Inform the entrance desk to let me up.

She got here in together with his 78-year-old father. She barely seen the detritus of the room. What struck her was Hays’s utter brokenness. “It was a glance in his eyes,” she says. “The lights have been out.”

Hays was each devastated and relieved to see them. “They instructed me, ‘If you wish to reside, we’ll allow you to,’ ” he says. He spent per week at residence in Frisco, barely leaving his mattress. He scheduled a 30-minute session with a therapist and took Christine with him as a result of he did not belief himself to be trustworthy. They stayed two hours. He’d tried therapists earlier than, however all the time bailed as they started to uncover his lies. This time, when the therapist instructed him to verify himself in to an inpatient clinic, he felt prepared.

Even so, in September 2018, at his first Alcoholics Nameless assembly on day one in every of rehab on the Meadows in Wickenburg, Arizona, he struggled to acknowledge himself as addicted and frightened {that a} extra average model of himself wouldn’t be as succesful. However after about 15 fellow attendees shared their tales, he was struck by how regular they sounded. “Oh, shit,” he recollects pondering, “I am in the suitable place.”

On day two, a psychiatrist suspected bipolar 1 dysfunction inside 5 minutes of assembly him. His speech, his erratic communication, the depth of his tales and experiences gave it away instantly. She wrote him a prescription for lithium to stabilize his temper swings.

Sober and again residence in Frisco 45 days later, Hays slid into melancholy. Rehab hadn’t made his issues go away; it simply took away his traditional coping mechanisms. The turnaround got here when a neighborhood Baptist minister who ran a church restoration group for males launched him to a man together with his personal gnarly habit expertise. Hays wanted to listen to extra tales like his–sit with individuals who had lived by way of an identical hell and are available out on the opposite facet.

Christine helped too. She caught by Hays, she says, as a result of she noticed how laborious he was working to get again to the individual she fell in love with. “He now lives a lifetime of rigorous honesty,” she says. She bristles at those that assume she is masking for him, or choose him by his pre-recovery habits. “Irrespective of how a lot individuals speak about psychological well being, second possibilities, and redemption,” she says, “the stigma continues to be there.”

Hays cannot promise anybody he will not relapse. Essentially the most he can say is that he’ll concentrate on sobriety sooner or later at a time.

Hays’s experiences and motivation coalesced in his return to startup investing. Now he focuses solely on early-stage firms within the psychological well being and habit restoration fields. Usually, the founders of such firms have themselves fought related battles. Hays sees their recoveries as superhuman achievements. “That is who I am in search of,” he says. “I wish to put money into every part they do.”

He spent the latter half of 2019 attempting to boost a $20 million fund. After talking at an occasion in New York Metropolis in October, he went to the Midtown workplace of a VC he was certain would assist him. In a glass-walled convention room, the VC was blunt. Hays’s sobriety was nonetheless too new, and the unresolved drama in his previous did not assist. He requested: “How do we all know you will not relapse and take the cash to Vegas?”

The VC steered Hays construct a monitor file by recruiting different traders for syndicated deals–in different phrases, do the laborious work of discovering offers after which, maybe, get different VCs to present him the cash. To Hays, it sounded depressing. When he obtained again to his lodge room, he climbed in mattress and stayed there for 24 hours. “It was possibly my most harmful second in restoration,” he says.

However he quickly realized the VC was proper. Hays cannot promise anybody he will not relapse. That is not how restoration works. Essentially the most he can say is that he’ll concentrate on sobriety sooner or later at a time. In January 2020, he established What If Ventures, which invests and syndicates offers and runs an accelerator. It closed 2020 backing 9 firms with $5.Four million from 300 traders.

Hays is now two and a half years sober. He nonetheless has laborious days, however he says he hasn’t had a manic episode since his closing journey to Vegas. Restoration has given him a special set of instruments and responses for difficult moments. “When these issues occur,” he says, “I’ve educated my mind to name somebody, to inform them what I am feeling.”

Neither restoration nor remedy, nevertheless, is a panacea for the complexities of the human psyche. After this story was despatched to the printer, a number of individuals approached Inc. alleging that Hays engages in erratic, indignant, and even bullying habits. Amongst these critics is Sarah Hashkes, an entrepreneur who met Hays at a psychological well being startup occasion in October 2019. Since then, in response to Hays, she has disparaged and harassed him by way of on-line posts. In November 2020, Christine known as Hashkes and had a dialog that culminated in Hays and Hashkes exchanging phrases. Hashkes has since filed to acquire a restraining order towards Hays, accusing him of harassing her on-line and over the cellphone. Hays disputes these allegations, and a listening to on the matter is ready for March 17.

Whether or not Hays proves his critics improper or stays entangled within the harm and anger that fed his habit issues stays an unwritten chapter in his story. “Have I stated ‘fuck you’ to individuals over e mail and textual content? In fact, and I am going to most likely do it once more,” he says. “I’ve made errors in how I deal with different founders and traders, little question about it, however a part of me attempting to be effectively is recognizing that and providing to make amends, and I do this. If I do not do this, I do not keep sober. That is a part of my process–I’ve to course of that resentment.”

The resentment, recommend his What If accomplice Graham Smith, stems from what has turn into a standard expertise for Hays: A founder or a fellow investor begins googling Hays after which asks him to clarify his previous intimately. Smith says typically individuals rightfully have questions and Hays will reply them, however he can have a brief fuse when these questions revolve simply round information headlines. “There are occasions once I’ve seen him be quick and impolite and reply with radical candor. It’s what it’s, but it surely’s not overly aggressive,” Smith says.

One query has haunted Hays since he obtained sober: Why did he wait so lengthy to hunt assist? The VC in him solutions a technique: Restoration applications have a low success fee. The person interface and expertise are sometimes missing. “Restoration is not interesting to those that want it most,” he says.

The survivor in him responds in a different way. “If somebody had been capable of clarify to me that being sober and discovering a special function in life is extra fulfilling than a budget, quick, shitty dopamine hits I obtained from alcohol, medication, girls, playing,” he says, “I’d have gotten assist sooner.”

And now that he is ready to help others, he understands the problem of persuading somebody to search for lengthy sufficient to hunt assist: “You do not say, ‘Hey, it is best to get sober.’ All you are able to do is depart the sunshine on for them.”

Getting Straight

On-line sobriety teams provide one thing mere well being apps can’t: group.

A 2019 survey by the U.S. Division of Well being and Human Providers discovered that almost 90 % of adults with substance use problems don’t get remedy. Covid has exacerbated this drawback. Now plenty of startups are providing restoration applications that may assist these in want wherever they’re. Whereas these digital-first communities cannot substitute detox and inpatient applications, they tackle two of the most important challenges confronted by individuals in restoration: isolation and accountability.

Founder and CEO Holly Whitaker says the concept for Tempest got here from her wrestle to discover a restoration program that catered to her personal cir­­cum­stances: She knew her ingesting had turn into an issue, however the label alcoholic put her off, and 12-step applications did not enchantment. Annual Tempest memberships begin at $149 for entry to a non-public on-line group of greater than 5,000 members and digital assist teams, rising to $850 for a guided four-week intensive on-line program, weekly streamed workshops and classes, and smaller, unique digital assist teams. Whereas open to anybody, greater than 80 % of members are girls.

When co-founder and CEO Mike Russell launched Monument in beta in January 2020, he thought the restoration program’s therapist-moderated assist teams would turn into a income. However as he noticed how Covid minimize individuals off from remedy, he determined to open up the teams free of charge. Now the Monument nameless on-line com­munity numbers round 15,000. Monu­ment additionally affords consul­tations with physicians to debate remedy choices and particular person remedy classes. Subsequent up: applications for households and buddies of Monument members. Plans vary from $10 to $249 a month, plus a one-time $90 initiation payment.

This program, based by Eric Gastfriend and David Gastfriend, takes the weird strategy of providing monetary rewards for wholesome behavior–members who attain their targets can earn as much as $100 a month on a wise debit card that may’t be used at bars, liquor shops, or ATMs. It is a methodology known as contingency handle­ment, which makes use of constructive reinforcement to alter habits. Along with coaches and accountability instruments like a Breathalyzer gadget, DynamiCare affords free, every day on-line restoration assist conferences open to anybody. Month-to-month plans vary from $80 for text-only assist to $200 for a program that features one-on-one teaching.

If you happen to or somebody you realize is struggling and desires assist, please attain out to the Substance Abuse and Psychological Well being Providers Administration helpline: 800-662-HELP (4357).

From the March/April 2021 challenge of Inc. Journal


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