Rocky Agrawal says hi

5/23/2023: I wrote the post that now appears after the jump of this page just over nine years ago, when I had a much shallower understanding of mental-health issues–among many other things. It didn’t take me long to start questioning whether my words had been of any help to the friend who I learned had been in the grip of a bipolar episode. More than once I’ve considered deleting the post, or at least adding an update so the story would not end where I’d left it on a Tuesday morning in Manhattan before rushing to get to a conference.

Two weeks ago, Rakesh shared his own testimony on LinkedIn and made a point there that I thought needed amplification: Not talking about mental health–shying away from seeking help if you might need it, assuming that friends are okay when maybe they could use that call or text, brushing off mental-health conditions as things that will never happen to you or somebody you care about–is not helpful or kind to anyone. So I asked him I could re-post his essay here, and he said that would be good.

Nine years ago, I had a massive manic episode that played out on a global stage. Shortly afterward, I was diagnosed with a bipolar condition. (Usually surfaces in ones mid-20s, I was older.)

This was definitely among the most significant events in my life. It cost me millions of dollars and several important relationships.

With treatment, it has been a non-issue. I’m the same person people have always known and loved.

Of course, some people and companies (Hi, Facebook!) can’t see past what happened nine years ago.

I’m 1/4 of the way through writing a book about mental health in tech. In the meantime, I highly recommend Burn Rate by Bonobos founder Andy Dunn and A Truck Full of Money featuring Kayak founder Paul English. Among the tech elite, they have been the most vocal talking about their experiences being bipolar.

Why am I sharing? It’s National Mental Health Awareness. It’s a good time to make people aware that people can thrive in the face of mental health conditions. The more people who speak out, the less stigmatized it will be.

If you are facing challenges, you can get help. There is hope. Treatment works and can make a huge difference in your life, as it has in mine.

There is a plus side to mania: bursts of creativity. I’ve launched several first-of-their-kind products in my career. Looking back, they might have been conceived during manic episodes.

Some of the most creative people in the world have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, including Richard Branson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Carrie Fisher and mathematician John Nash. His challenges were documented in the terrific movie “A Beautiful Mind.” There is some research that indicates people thrive in part because of, not just despite their conditions.

A big thank you to all of the people who have helped along the way. I’ve met some great entrepreneurs, VCs and others who have shared their own experiences.

And if you’re looking for a senior product exec, I’d love to talk with you!

I woke up Sunday morning to an unexpected e-mail from my Bay Area pal Rakesh Agrawal: Friday afternoon, he’d quit the high-ranking job at PayPal he’d started only weeks earlier and was starting a new company.

A quick check of Google showed that Friday night, he’d gone on some sort of Twitter rampage – a stream of tweets, many incoherent and some talking trash about his now-former colleagues, and of course somebody screen-capped them all before he’d deleted what he said were supposed to be direct messages. Saturday afternoon, PayPal’s Twitter account suggested he’d been canned, reporting that he was “no longer with the company.”

Monday morning, he got on a plane from New Orleans to Newark, after which the Twitter strangeness continued: a string of reports about a phone’s declining battery, veiled insults about former co-workers, requests for a new iPhone, some outright gibberish. After a few lucid tweets following a nap that acknowledged people’s concerns, the tweetstorm got hard to follow all over again. Mutual acquaintances, one of who’s known him much longer than me, started asking about his well-being. I had the same question in mind.

So I met him for dinner with no idea what to expect. I can report that contrary to the Hunter S. Thompson-esque persona he’d been creating, he seemed in command of his wits and confident in the ultimate success of his social-media strategy. In my experience, he has not been a dummy or a newbie on that subject, which has made all of this so confounding to watch. It’s… well, not how I went about publicizing my departure from my old employer.

We talked for a little while about people he’s liked at AOL, Twitter and PayPal and hiring and retention practices he didn’t like at those places–the kind of banter I’ve had more than once with other tech-industry types–and he invited me to record and post that conversation. Have a listen if you want, and please forgive the crummy audio quality caused by recording at a crowded bar:

Note that as he was saying a few nice things about PayPal president David Marcus (whom I met last year at Mobile World Congress and thought a pretty sharp guy), Marcus was posting a note on PayPal’s blog denouncing Rocky’s “mad rants.” My friend no longer seems so fond of his old boss, going by this a.m.’s tweets.

We also discussed the company he’s planning to start up–I can’t report much about that, owing to Rocky revealing so little–and for which he says he has ample funding. There was a vague job offer too. He does not have my answer yet.

10:27 a.m. Revising and extending my remarks to answer one question: So how do I know this guy? Rocky worked at the Post during some of its earliest and more awkward ventures into online publishing, although I didn’t get to know him all that well until years later. If management had listened to people like him who grok user experience and customer behavior (see also: being right about Groupon’s business-model weaknesses way before a lot of other people), my old industry might be in better shape. Don’t count the guy out, in other words.


9 thoughts on “Rocky Agrawal says hi

  1. Reading his tweets since last weekend, it seems pretty clear that Rakesh suffers from bipolar disorder, and he is currently in a deep manic phase. His outbursts may be entertaining to watch, but they are a sign of a real, diagnosable mental illness. I had an employee with this condition, and he exhibited the same signs as Rakesh (twitter outbursts that broke through social guardrails, delusions of grandeur, long periods without sleep – see which accelerated until he was eventually hospitalized. After some medication, the employee came out of it and sheepishly recognized how inappropriately he had been behaving. He went through several of these cycles, though, and eventually it took a bad end 😦 I hope Rakesh gets the help he needs from family or friends (it seems like his former employers won’t be doing so), and that he can eventually return to a productive career.

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  4. I don’t know Rocky, but I have dealt with mentally ill people before. They can be very intelligent and convincing, but something isn’t “quite right”. If you are thinking of investing or working for Rocky alarm bells should be ringing.

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