The agony of entrepreneurship

In November 2011 Ilya Zhitomirskiy, only 26 and one of the co-founders of Diaspora, the “open-source Facebook” which received notoriety after raising over $200,000 on Kickstarter (at that stage the most successful project on the crowdfunding platform) killed himself. His mother still believes that if he didn’t start the project he would be alive today. On January 11 this year Aaron Schwartz, a celebrated and much-loved hacker and activist took his own life. He was also 26. I never met Aaron but several friends were very close to him. One was his partner. Reading the tributes that poured in it was impossible not to be deeply saddened that someone so young, so talented and with so much to contribute had given up like this. The loss not only to his friends and family but to all of us is immense.

And just two weeks ago I read about the passing of Jody Sherman, co-founder and CEO of Ecomom. I didn’t know Jody either but he was also admired by people I admire. The initial reports avoided specifying a cause of death but he too had committed suicide.

As Jason Calicanus asked  over the weekend, should we talk about this?

Yes, we should.

Entrepreneurship is a really hard road, filled with rejection, misunderstanding and self-doubt. You pour yourself into a project only to see the world disparage or, worst, ignore it. You must deal with people telling you to get a real job, with the stresses of poverty and uncertainty, with the constant possibility, indeed the likelihood, of total failure. But your job is to project constant positivity, to always be selling your vision and product, to inspire people to join you on this mad mission.

You probably work long and unhealthy hours. You might struggle to find time for exercise, or to socialise, or to take time out to be alone and reflection.

In other words it can be a very unhealthy pursuit, not only physically but emotionally.

During the eight years I led Vibewire I had many dark days, days when I was so exhausted I was reduced to tears, days when I couldn’t see how we would continue. But then I’d go to a meeting with the Vibewire team or a potential funder or a media interview and I’d have to summon all my positivity and energy and pitch our programs and vision of the future, convince them all that there was a pathway to the future we sought.

After I left Vibewire in March 2008 my successor as CEO had an emotional breakdown just a few months later, crushed by the complexity of our projects and the constant workload and stresses involved in bringing in the funds required to keep them alive.

So how did I survive for the eight years before that? First of all, I didn’t entirely. By the time I departed I was utterly burnt out, and for the year prior to that I was just barely nursing myself through, on many days just focusing on the day before me and what I needed to do to get to the next one, like a prisoner in jail, desperately pushing myself to get what needed to be done, done to get the organisation to the point where I could walk away. Once I did it took me months to feel like I could be productive again.

I pushed myself through thanks to incredibly supportive parents, sibling and partner and a group of friends outside the world of social entrepreneurship, who cared about me rather than Vibewire, who valued me as a person, not just an entrepreneur. I would go out with them to parties in the forests which wrap around Sydney at least monthly and stomp my frustrations and stresses into the dirt dance floor until there was just the freedom and joy of movement and dancing and friendship, and my heart filled up with love, community and connection to nature. Being part of this creative, DIY community kept me balanced, with dancing allowing me to be in my body, not my head, and the friendships I formed giving me an identity outside of Vibewire, outside of entrepreneurship.

I don’t know what drove each of these innovators to take their own life. For Aaron an over-zealous prosecution and the threat of jail was clearly a unique and significant factor. All of them struggled with mental health issues at different times. But I do know that as entrepreneurs we are all prone to driving ourselves to breaking point and that one of the hardest but most important things we must learn is how to be personally sustainable, how to take care of ourselves, in the midst of stress and uncertainty and repeated failure.

One of the hardest things about entrepreneurship is that you can become your venture in the eyes of many people. People would often say in introducing me “Tom is Vibewire” and I would cringe, knowing that wasn’t what we were going for at all, that it was in many ways a sign of failure to build the broad base of leadership we needed to be successful but also that it was such a narrowing of me as a person. And it’s also true that in entrepreneurship, unless you are truly gifted or lucky or more likely both, you’ll have as many bad days as good ones, as many set-backs as successes.

As Jess Lee, founder and CEO of Polyvore pointed out in a great recent blog post titled “Why are startup founders always unhappy?” even a successful growth pattern is wiggly, and as entrepreneurs tend to live mostly in the moment and also be very ambitious it’s easy to get depressed during a down phase even if you’ve experienced extraordinary success over the preceding period of time. And if you are your organisation, when the organisation is struggling you feel a failure personally.

Jess puts it this way:

Humans are terrible at understanding absolute values. We are best at understanding acceleration and deceleration, or rate of change. You are happiest when your growth is accelerating. When growth slows down, you start to become less happy. When you’re not growing, you are in unhappy territory.

This is why it’s so important to have a life outside your startup, to have an emotional floor that doesn’t undulate with your company’s fortunes. I am not trying to generalise the experiences of Ilya, Aaron and Jody. Each was unique. But I have been finding myself thinking about these issues repeatedly over the past few weeks as tragedy followed tragedy, about my own struggles and what it takes to survive as entrepreneurs and changemakers. Ultimately it comes down to balance, however you find that, to relationships, and community and love.

So please be good to yourself everyone, and give yourself what you need to be sustainable and happy and whole.

I like repetitive music

[youtube=] I was recently given some headphones for my birthday, the first decent ones I’ve had in…. maybe ever actually. I’m slightly shocked and elated and the effect they’re having on my music and I, but at the same time the realization that I’ve been listening to just a fraction of my favourite tunes for years, especially since I stopped going out and hearing music live as often as I used to, is a bit of a blow.

I like bass-heavy music but on the crappy headphones I’ve been using much of the depth and clarity was being lost, as well as the crispness that makes electronic music so immersive. These new headphones have literally added more joy into my day, every day. I’m excited to wear them, thrilled to listen to all my favourite albums again. Everything sounds so much better, so much more epic and exciting. And so life is more fun and inspiring. I can’t remember a new “thing” except maybe our first car, which made life so dramatically better.

As a lover of dance music and someone who has been attending events of various legalities in warehouses and forests for 12 or so years, dancing through the night or the day, with and without any assistance, I’m intrigued by the reaction some people have to dance music. For some, it’s barely recognizable as music at all, and the only way they can imagine anyone enjoying it is if they are intoxicated. “Is everyone on drugs?” I’ve been asked more times than I remember, and as recently as two weeks ago.

As someone who listens to bassy repetitive beats most days I can say that no, most people are not on drugs and do not need to be on drugs to enjoy music of this sort. We just really like it, y’know? And far from making us strange or difficult to understand, this enjoyment actually links us to most traditional cultures on the planet, to the most ancient of human artforms.

Dancing to repetitive music is the most ancient human cultural practice there is, a staple of traditional cultures the world over. The instruments vary, from tapping sticks in Australia to drums in North America, but the purpose remains consistent: to use sonic driving to help people enter a more trance-like state. Far from being a “you must be on drugs” music it is actually the original high on life music, where the music itself is designed to be intoxicating, to overwhelm the senses, to carry us away. Only our desire to make marks on walls has a similar longevity in the realm of human cultural and artistic expression.

The re-discovery of dance music in the West and its explosion in popularity from the 90’s onwards is part of a trend to bring more ancient knowledge and practices back into our lives, along with yoga, aromatherapy and the healing arts. Nowhere is this felt more strongly than at outdoor parties, one of my favourite cultural activities. Just like our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago we gather in clearings in forests to connect with our environment and each other through the stomping of feet into the ground, the releasing of everyday worries and concerns in the rhythm of the dance.

Dancing and dance music have always played a grounding and balancing role in my life. During the hard and relentless years of setting up Vibewire, overcoming intense disappointments and near-fatal setbacks along the way, going out into the bush and dancing with my friends was my main release valve, where I wasn’t in charge, wasn’t a “youth representative” or a “social entrepreneur”, where I could just play with my friends while listening to music we loved. It was incredibly liberating, inspiring and energising, fueled by contact with three of my great loves in life: music, friends and the Australian bush. The people and culture you find at outdoor parties is unique, a connected global culture which is a celebration of life, played out at 142 beats per minute.

I was meant to land back in Australia and head straight to the Regrowth Festival but with it postponed by torrential rain I have yet to make it out into the bush for a dance. I hope to sneak one in before the baby arrives, to reconnect with my home country and tribe, despite us heading into the wrong time of year for bush parties.

Meanwhile I’ve got some pretty rocking tunes keeping me company as I go about my day.

15 albums that live forever

My friend Keith asked me to list "fifteen albums you've heard that will always stick with you", spending no longer than fifteen minutes to think about it. I may have gone over the time limit somewhat as I found this a fascinating challenge, thinking about the albums that have been most significant in my life, which have stayed with me and remained relevant and listenable. Music is a repository of memory and emotion for me. Certain tracks make me go almost instantly misty-eyed as my mind jumps back to a festival, a live show, a relationship, a group of friends, a moment, a chapter of my life. Music is my great artistic passion and has played a significant role in my life. My primary friendship groups have often emerged out of the music scenes that I'm participating in, I spent five years organizing music events and I'm constantly listening out for new sounds and artists.

I don't tend to listen much to music older than the last couple of years. New music constantly replaces old music in my playlist. But some classics remains, or remain so dear to my heart that, even if I don't get them out and put them on often, if ever, they are powerfully nostalgic when I do come across them. They remain timeless.

Here, then, are my fifteen:

Midnight Oil - Blue Sky Mine Midnight Oil were my first "favourite band", a love of my early teenage years and the first live concert I went to, when I was 11 or 12. [youtube=]

My Friend the Chocolate Cake - Live at the National Theatre My Mum was given the MFTCC album "Good Luck" at work and despite it being nothing like what I was listening to at the time I stole it and began a love affair with the band. Something about David Bridie's voice and the at-times haunting and at-times soaring orchestral folk music really connected with me. As is the case with most good bands they're best live, and this is a live album which I listened to over and over again in the late 90's and still enjoy today. [youtube=]

Pulp - This is Hardcore I loved Pulp. I got into them after Different Class came out in 1995 but it went to a different level after 1998's This is Hardcore. When they toured in support of the album my friend Dylan and I camped out to get great tickets. Completely unnecessarily as it turned out as no-one else turned up until 6am. Ergo, we must have been the biggest Pulp fans in Sydney at the time. [youtube=]

Leftfield - Leftism Released in 1995 but still sounds cutting-edge today. At the time the blend of dub, breakbeat and techno was completely new and different. One of the greatest electronic albums of all time. [youtube=]

Various (mixed by DJ Nervous and John Ferris) - Plastic Plastic was the first club I went to regularly, near weekly for the summer of 99/2000, and am amazing summer it was. I don't listen to this stuff anymore but this was a really good time. The plastic sound, rocking, sometimes-cheesy uplifting trance, was the soundtrack of university for myself and many friends.


Freestylers - We Rock Hard When we weren't listening to the Freestylers that is. This was probably played at every house party I was at from 1999-2001. [youtube=]

Radiohead - Kid A When OK Computer was released I found it hard to imagine anything better. Then Radiohead released Kid A, so completely unlike OK Computer but to my ears transcending their previous sound for one more complex, chaotic, beautiful and beguiling. Also: I met my wife at a Radiohead concert which heavily featured this album and its immediate follow-ups. [youtube=]

Infected Mushroom - Classical Mushroom After their brilliant debut The Gathering Infected Mushroom emerged as the biggest psytrance act on the planet with the release of Classical Mushroom in 2000. As the name implies it infused classical elements with thumping, expansive psytrance grooves, overlayed with piano, guitars, sitars and science fiction samples. It infected many, myself included, with the psytrance bug and remains a unique and extraordinary album. [youtube=]

Sigur Rós - Ágætis byrjun I'll never forget the first time I heard Sigur Ros. I was lying on the floor of a darkened room as this strange, ethereal music washed over me, overwhelming my mind with its strange beauty. The lush contours of the music and incomprehensible-but-evocative vocals seemed to contain a dark secret, almost understood, majestic in its power. It still has that effect on me. [youtube=]

Coda - Calling Mission Mu I loved the "acoustic electronic" or "neo-classical" scene that emerged in Sydney in the early-mid 00's: bands that re-created electronica-inspired soundscapes with live instrumentation including xylophones, violins, guitars, drums, etc. Coda are the best example of this sound and Calling Mission Mu is a brilliant album.


Ott - Hallucinogen in Dub Everyone should own this album. It's that good. British psydub producer Ott deconstructed and reconstructed the sounds of Hallucinogen into a truly brilliant dub record.


Shpongle - Nothing lasts, but nothing is lost I found it almost impossible to choose just one Shpongle album, they're all so strong and so individually unique. Their music is a crazy brilliant mix of ambient, world, psytrance and dub. I chose Nothing lasts... in part because it reminds me of a beautiful morning at a festival headlined by Shpongle following the release of this album, listening to this enveloping and inspiring sound while watching butterfly's float in rays of morning light shafting through the trees above our heads.... Just about as perfect a moment as you could imagine. The 20 "tracks" on this album flow together seamlessly so hearing one in isolation doesn't do it any justice, but regardless:


Son Kite - Colours When I started going out to psytrance parties I was all about the full-on morning sound. Initially I found the more progressive side of things a bit lacking in excitement, but over time this longer-form, more subtle variant began to really work for me. Son Kite was one of the first progressive artists I listened to a lot, especially this album.


Lost Keys - Faerie Spell In 2006 our flatmate Len brought home a demo from a young producer up the North Coast of NSW, a friend of his teenage cousin. It was four tracks of fantastically well-constructed psytrance with great samples and inventive melodies. It was a hell of a lot of fun and instantly became high rotation in our house. Two years later this finished album came out and we're still listening to it regularly now. All killer, no filler. And this track has a Dark Crystal sample! What's not to like?


Eddie Vedder - Into the Wild Soundtrack K and I saw Into the Wild during our frantic final few days packing up our lives in Newtown and preparing to embark on our big overseas adventure. It's a beautiful film, perfectly accompanied by Eddie Vedder's brilliant soundtrack. Every time I hear this album it makes me think of travel and distance, the rawer edge of life's journey and the people you meet along the way.


Musical discovery this week: Save the Robot

My favourite new act discovered this week: Save the Robot. Really fun and creative full-on and progressive psy Save the Robot is a collaboration between heavyweights Alien Project and Quadra. I only found them this week but they've got two albums out already on the TIP World record label - 2005's Battle of the Mind and last year's Love Machine. Follow those album links to have a listen, here are a few stand-out tracks:

Love is always free (Open Air Remix):


Battle of the Mind:


Communicate (epic remix of Coldplay's Talk):



I'm kinda proud of this mix, the first I've properly put together, which I played on NYE. It was planned for two hours, which is the length of the mix posted here, but ended up being almost three hours on the night, with me extending it with additional tracks, mostly by Protoculture, given the lack of anyone to play after me and the presence of people still dancing. I hope you enjoy it, there's some seriously rocking material here. It's starts and ends a bit silly but in-between it travels from deep electro to tech house and into a solid hour of psytrance via an obligatory "New Years Day" remix. BPM goes from 125ish to 146ish. My advice: put on some good headphones and listen to it the whole way through. NYE 09-10 Mix

Track list:

1. French Emotions - Peter Godwin

2. Really awesome track from a mix my friend Morgan put together that I don't know the name of UPDATE:  Mr. Dry - Tim Green

3. Poor Leno (Silicon Soul remix) + There is a light that never goes out (acapella) - Royksopp + Erlend Oye

4. Good sluts factory (let it CIA mix) - Kiko and Ginos

5. Strip Joint Mathematics (Jet Project remix) - Deepchild

6. Love is going to save us - Benny Benassi

7. New Year's Day (Paul Oakenfold remix) - U2

8. Born on Mars - Mr Peculiar

9. Ain't Talkin Bout - G-Light

10. Inside the Sound - Ananda Shake

11. Hear the Noise (Quadra remix) - Alien vs The Cat

12. Slayer - Toast3d

13. Dismental - Raz

14. Radio Trance - BBP

15. The Frequency (feat Nomad) - Talamasca and XSi

16. Analog - Planet B.E.N. vs Didrapest

17. Illusion - Exordium

18. I Wish (SKAZI remix) - Infected Mushroom

19. Becoming Insane - Infected Mushroom

20. Take Me Home (Benza's Philthy mix) - Phil Collins

Burning Man Karaoke Statistics

As part of our Oasis 47 camp at Burning Man a group of our friends from San Francisco who go by the name Deadly Muppets built the Caveman Caraoke, a caveman-themed, dragon-pulled, karaoke-focused mutant vehicle. A member of the gang just compiled all the statistics and in the interests of future research into the karaoke preferences of Burning Man attendees vis-a-vis the population at large, and what this says about our culture and community (tell me there's not a PhD in that!) I am posting it here.

We had 3817 songs available, of which 214 different ones were sung. 58 were sung more than once, for a total record of 274 karaoke performances. That comes to just over 20 hours of singing, or 4 hours per night. Here's the breakdown of songs which were sung more than once:

7 Janis Joplin- Me & Bobby McGee 6 Grease- Greased Lightning 5 Aerosmith- Walk This Way 5 Journey- Don't Stop Believing 4 Scissor Sisters- Flithy Gorgeous 4 Eddie Money- Take Me Home Tonght 4 Peter Gabriel- Sledgehammer 4 Davd Bowie- Space Oddity 4 Neil Diamond- America 4 4 Non Blondes- What's Up 3 Guns 'n' Roses- Welcome To The Jungle 3 Abba- Dancing Queen 3 Madonna- Die Another Day 3 Crash Test Dummies- Mmmm 3 The Doors- Touch Me 3 Red Hot Chilli Peppers- Scar Tissue 3 Abba- Gimme Gimme Gimme 3 Aha- Take On Me 3 Madonna- Like A Virgin 3 Joan Jett- I Love Rock N Roll 2 Buddy Holly- Oh Boy 2 The Stray Cats- Rock This Town 2 David Bowie- Life On Mars 2 Carly Simon- You're So Vain 2 Jet- Are You Gonna Be My Girl 2 Four Seasons- Big Girls Don't Cry 2 Frank Sinatra- My Way 2 Neil Diamond- Sweet Caroline 2 Elton John- Sad Songs Say So Much 2 Duran Duran- Hungry Like The Wolf 2 Cardigans- Lovefool 2 New Order- Blue Monday 2 The Kinks- Sunday Afternoon 2 U2- One 2 Talking Heads- Road To Nowhere 2 Tears For Fears- Everybody Wants To Rule The World 2 The Lovin' Spoonful- Daydream (What A Day For A) 2 The Doors- Light My Fire 2 Smashing Pumpkins- Perfect 2 Roy Orbison- Crying 2 The Darkness- I Beleve In A Thing Called Love 2 Marvin Gaye- Sexual Healing 2 Wham- Careless Whisper 2 Dusty Springfield- Son Of A Preacher 2 Carly Simon- You're So Vain 2 Pat Benatar- Hit With Your Best Shot 2 Depeche Mode- Just Can't Get Enough 2 Guns 'n' Roses- Paradise City 2 Gorillaz- Feel Good Inc. 2 Billy Joel- Big Shot 2 Barry Manilow- Copacabana 2 Jimi Hendrix- Purple Haze 2 Wham- Last Christmas 2 Queen- Killer Queen 2 Def Leppard- Pour Some Sugar On Me 2 Pixies- Monkey Gone To Heaven 2 Donovan- Sunshine Superman 2 Duran Duran- Reflex

Deadmau5 at the 9:30 club

Last night K and I went out to see Canadian tech-house producer Deadmau5 (pronounced "deadmouse") play. Deadmau5 is another internet-fueled superstar, blowing up on Beatport last year to be their number 1-selling artist and now, to my amazement, selling out the relatively massive 9:30 club on a Monday night.

I took a video on my new phone but haven't worked out how to get it off yet so here's another one from YouTube. It's very shaky but gives an idea of both the music and the truly spectacular light show. The production was the best I've seen at the 9:30 Club by far, with a super high-resolution digital screen at the front and 24 LED poles scattered around the stage, all sequenced to produce some fantastic visuals.


It was a lot of fun, and great to have a good dance, even if it has made today harder than it would otherwise have been. It did give rise to a few thoughts though:

1) Monday night, really? How far down in order of importance does DC have to be to get stuck with that? Or is it simply that he was so confident of his popularity here (he previously played here in March) that he knew DC would come out for him even on a Monday night?

2) Whatever happened to good electronic artists headlining parties? Now it seems as soon as a producer has any sort of success they go straight into "touring band" mode, playing gigs at concert venues rather than parties at clubs. I call lame.

3) Looking around at the (pretty young) crowd it's amazing how many girls make no attempt at dancing other than rubbing their arses against their boyfriends groins. Bust out a little! Dance for you, not for them. I blame video clips and the insipid form of "sexiness" they promote.

4) Judging by audience reaction Deadmau5's most popular track is by far his worst, a terrible, derivative uplifting house number that sounds like something Kylie Minogue would put out. Go figure.

Australians! - Deadmau5 is touring later this month as part of the Stereosonic Festival.


Burning Mushroom Part II

I've been meaning to write up my Burning Man experiences but it's harder to do than it sounds. Meanwhile, let me just update you on my excitement to see Infected Mushroom at Burning Man. And boy was my excitement fulfilled; it was one of the most adrenalating, annihilating, wildly surreal dance music experiences of my life. Infected Mushroom were set left on a stage with a projector screen behind them, two lasers arching overhead and a flamethrower directly in front of us throwing jets of fire thirty feet up as ten thousand people stomped and shook and screamed their passion into the night air. It was dance music at its best, as a return to a more tribal state, a giving of yourself to the ancient human pleasure of pounding the earth with our feet, finding unity in repetitive music and motions. It was madness, glorious madness.

Here's the video I took. The sound quality is awful but hopefully you get a sense of the setting. Check out the fire at 2:36.


Here's another good vid of them playing Cities of the Future, one of my favourite Infected Mushroom tracks and very apt for the setting:


Radiohead and Banksy, together at last

Radiohead are one of the great music innovators of our time and one of my favourite bands. Banksy is an iconic artist from our generation, the most famous street artist in the world whose work I love. So it's brilliant to see Radiohead's latest video featuring Banksy's work: [youtube=]

20 Random Tracks

This is another Facebook meme, to whit:

(1) Turn on your MP3 player (or  iTunes). (2) Go to SHUFFLE songs mode. (3) Write down the first 20 songs that come up--song title and artist--NO editing/cheating.

I don't normally bother with these sorts of things but this one was right up my alley so I couldn't resist. I wanted to post the list here so I could add links to tracks and video clips for your listening and viewing pleasure. Also I'm pretty proud of this list, it's a great cross-section of what's on my MP3 player and all pretty damn fine if I do say so myself. Not a single track I'm ashamed of.

1. Jagiya – Shen

2. Wide Open - The Crystal Method

3. Nice Weather - Lemon Jelly (great filmclip)

4. Scientific Reality – Astrix

5. Forever and Ever – Fatali

6. Dail an Error - akin

7. Magg Daan – Daara-J

8. Born on Mars - Mr Peculiar

9. Open Up – Leftfield

10. Hydropoetry Cathedra - Aural Planet

11. Booster – Fatali

12. Rocking Horse – Coda (great filmclip)

13. Strivin' – bluejuice

14. The Mayans, Incas and Aztecs - 1200 Mics

15. We Came Along This Road - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (live video)

16. Retro Inversion – Capsula

17. Feelin' Electro - Rob Mooney

18. The Slow Way To Go Down - My Friend the Chocolate Cake

19. Night Vibe (Outbeat) - Mushroom Lab

20. Morning Bell – Radiohead (live video)


Tracks from Australian artists: 6

Tracks from Senegalese artists: 1

Psytrance: 6

Chill: 5

Folky: 3

Hip Hop: 2

Radiohead: 1.