Over the last decade, Bonobos pants have consumed significant real estate in my closet. I was fitted for a few blazers at their Guideshop in San Francisco. With a swipe of my credit card, I walked out with no merchandise (because the store didn’t carry inventory) and they arrived at my home two days later. Bonobos was ahead of their time as one of the first digitally-native brands also reinventing the way retail was done.
In April of 2019 I heard a riveting interview of the co-founding CEO of Bonobos, Andy Dunn, on the wildly popular business podcast, How I Built This with Guy Raz. They unpacked how the business took off, the trials and tribulations and ultimately the acquisition by Walmart in 2017. It was a great interview, but after reading Andy’s new memoir — it felt like only half the story.
The title of his memoir was fitting: Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind. It’s a tour de force of the entrepreneurship — taking you behind the curtains of launching a business, raising capital, not raising capital, a gauntlet of leadership challenges, and decisions that make a Faustian bargain seem easy. Hearing Andy read his memoir felt like I was looking through a kaleidoscope coming into focus — layering in his personal struggles that may have in some way ignited the success of his company.
“You’re living the dream.”
Andy’s friend sent him this text shortly after his wedding and the sale of the company. Those four words couldn’t have been further from the truth. Admittedly, the Instagram-like exterior wasn’t reality, he told me during our interview.
The prior year, Andy’s struggle managing his bi-polar disorder type I, unfortunately resulted in a catastrophic manic episode when he struck his fiancé and her mother in their New York City apartment. He was hand-cuffed and eventually the judge dismissed the charges after six months of observation. The wounds eventually healed and his fiancé, Manuela, and her mother supported him as he sought treatment.
Andy had originally been diagnosed 16 years prior in college. One of the inflection points he shares in his memoir was when one of his friends dismissed the subject of his manic episode when he surfaced the topic.
“As if it were his burden to hear more than it was mine to bear. As if he was more ashamed by the memory than I was by my reality. By banishing the subject as taboo, after I had finally found some sliver of fortitude to talk about it, he solidified my desire to not bring it up with anyone ever again,” he stated in the book.
“He had no idea how important that moment was for me. We don’t know what people are dealing with. So the smallest thing, when someone opens up to you, puts you in a high stakes situation you may not be aware of. I had that vulnerable disclosure, but he didn’t know that I didn’t bring it up to anyone in two years,” he explained. On the receiving end, Andy suggests to provide the person instant affirmation with open reception.
“The first time I told someone and it went well my friend said ‘Oh it’s like you have a green sweater in your closet.’ She could tell it was a huge deal to me, but she didn’t make it a big deal. She knew how to say two things at the same time. This doesn’t change anything about our relationship, and also this is just one thing about you – this isn’t all of you,” he explained.
What’s helped Andy manage his mental health is a combination of finding the right medication and a healthy dose of therapy with his psychotherapist, Dr Z. (a pseudonym that Andy used for his therapist throughout the book). He said the book wouldn’t have been possible without the 1200 therapy sessions between the catastrophic manic episode in 2016 and the writing of it.
“I wouldn’t have been able to process all of the trauma and reconstructing my own psyche of so long having hid this thing. An unintended byproduct of all the work was the ability to write the book — with the benefit of having someone who held a mirror up to it.”
A major inflection point in the company was the tumultuous relationship with his co-founder, Brian Spaly, where he eventually asked him if he’d be willing to step down. In hindsight, could they have resolved it somehow to run the company together?
“I wasn’t ready at that time. The probability that two guys with really strong opinions were going to navigate through that was tough. Would I have done it again? One hundred times out of one hundred. It comes back to that saying — someday this bread will be useful to you. We needed each other to start this company and we learned so much from each other, even from the business partnership disintegrating. It’s only in retrospect that I imagine the scene in Hamilton where Aaron Burr’s reflection is that the world is wide enough for both of us. It really gets me because it’s so true. The world felt so small and the conflict felt so intense at the time,” he explained.
Throughout our conversation we often drew wisdom from the comparable of the lost horse which Manuela shared with him during a dark time. Is a seemingly good thing that’s happened to you actually a good thing?
“How do we harvest the good from our suffering? Part of the good is sharing and somehow I got through this maze. So the very least I can do is share it.”