Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing Your Mind
Andy Dunn’s start-up, Bonobos, was being courted for an acquisition by retail giant Walmart. It was an exciting process, but the co-founder and former CEO of the online menswear brand knew it was time to reveal his secret: he has bipolar disorder.
In his new book, “Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind,” the 43-year-old entrepreneur explains how his personal life fell apart shortly before Walmart acquired Bonobos for $310 million in 2017. He shares some of the low points, including his stay in a psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital in New York and assault charges following a severe manic episode when he punched his then-girlfriend and his mother. The charges were later dismissed as Dunn sought treatment and repaired the relationship with his girlfriend, Manuela, whom he later married.
Dunn joined Walmart after speaking to the retailer about episodes and his efforts to improve with therapy and medication. He oversaw Walmart’s growing collection of brands that started online and helped push the company into the digital world.
Dunn left Walmart in 2020 and has a social media startup, Pumpkin Pie.
Earlier this year, Walmart launched a new, less expensive extension of the Bonobos brand, Bonobos Fielder. It was the first time Walmart’s website and select stores sold clothing under the Bonobos name – part of the company’s broader strategy to launch its own fashion-forward clothing lines and sell more general goods.
Dunn spoke to CNBC from his home in Chicago. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Andy Dunn, author
Courtesy of Brian McConkey
You could have devoted the book to advice on entrepreneurship or Walmart’s acquisition of Bonobos. Why did you decide to write a book about your mental health issues?
It was a great conversation with my editor, before he officially became my editor. He said it in a blunt way, which was in a rejection email: “If Andy wants to write a self-satisfied memoir about entrepreneurial success, I’m not interested. But if he wants to do an unvarnished story about mental illness, told through the lens of an entrepreneur, then this could be a really exciting project.”
And I thought to myself, yes, this is what I want to do. He’s the person I want to work with.
What prepared you to relive parts of your past?
Four years of therapy, twice a week, and having really done the work to treat, metabolize, and rebuild myself after that devastating psychotic break in 2016. And all the strength of the loved ones around me
It’s never over with this diagnosis, but I thought I had a unique opportunity to share how I got through at least a few really tough days. I didn’t want to spoil this.
Andy Dunn thanks his family, including his wife, Manuela, for helping him recover. He said the birth of his son, Isaiah, also helped keep him grounded.
Courtesy of Andy Dunn
In the book, you mentioned another successful entrepreneur who fought a very public battle with mental health, Tony Hsieh of Zappos. Why do you think mental health is such a taboo subject in the business world, and really, in the world of entrepreneurship?
Tony’s case is so sad and tragic in itself. Here’s a person who wrote a book called “Delivering Happiness,” who built a business steeped in joyful energy. Zappos had long been known and studied for his culture. He was known to be the life of the party and someone who did so much for the Las Vegas community.
He was a hero to me. And then, of course, he had suffered in private.
I think that’s part of the typical entrepreneur archetype, someone who has that – a brilliant, charismatic mind. And that’s expected, right? You have to show up with this every day, and it’s inhuman to expect anyone.
The pandemic has started a broader conversation about mental health. What role can business and employers play in trying to improve access to care and fight stigma?
The first thing is to create a safe environment for disclosure, so people can share what they’re dealing with. It is up to leaders to model this behavior to show their teams that it is safe for them to show up.
The second step is to create a community around it. I’ve had the chance to speak to a bunch of companies over the past few weeks. I loved my conversation with [tech company] Carta because they already have an employee resource group on neurodiversity.
The third part is really investing in the care people need. Regular medical insurance is not doing the job in terms of being able to find mental health professionals. Reimbursement rates are often too low.
The only way for this to change is for there to be investment.
The contrasts in the book were truly striking. You stay in a psychiatric ward and soon after are in talks to make a deal with Walmart. What was it like when you heard Walmart was interested in buying Bonobos?
I had gone from thinking we would do a private equity deal where we stayed on the independent path to going public, to spending time with the team at Walmart, especially Mark Lore [Walmart’s then-e-commerce chief] and [CEO] Doug McMillon and truly falling in love with the opportunity to be part of Fortune One’s digital transformation company.
As I went from “independent on the moon” to “joining forces with Walmart would be amazing”, we came to a part of the transaction process where the background checks were coming. About time I thought where I should divulge it [my diagnosis and arrest record]. I didn’t want to try to hide it.
Andy Dunn attends a launch party at a Bonobos store on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in 2016. After operating digitally only, the direct-to-consumer startup opened physical stores called “guideshops,” where customers could try on clothes. and order it right to their doorstep.
Daniel Boczarsky | Getty Images
You helped start the direct-to-consumer movement in many ways. But many of these businesses did not become independent, profitable businesses. What do you see as the future of the DTC model?
The pure Internet model is difficult. The founders of direct-to-consumer – and I was one of them – are also falling in love with the direct-to-consumer potential of their brands, but ignoring the legacy parts of the retail world that are still quite alive.
Pure Internet models are just fundamentally questioned on long-term profitability. It’s important to be humble as a direct-to-consumer founder and realize that even though the e-commerce side of the home is growing very rapidly, there’s still a lot of revenue that comes through the brick and traditional mortar.
How did you finally find a better balance between your drive to succeed and your desire to stay healthy?
My son, Isaiah, is a big part of that. He’s 20 months old and he doesn’t care about my success. He cares about himself and I think that’s a beautiful thing. I felt so involved for so long. Building a business can be a self-centered business.
The way I would describe it ranges from being at the center of the solar system to being a planet orbiting it. It just creates a fundamentally different view of the world.