Bonobos founder who helped transform Walmart opens up about mental health struggles
The Burn Rate of a Startup: Losing your Mind and Launching It
Bonobos was Andy Dunn’s start up, and the company was in talks to be acquired by the retail giant. Walmart. It was a thrilling process, but the co-founder and former CEO of the online menswear brand knew it was time to disclose his secret: He had bipolar disorder.
The 43-year old entrepreneur shares his story in his book “Burn rate: Launching Startups and Losing my Mind.” Walmart’s $310 million acquisitionIn 2017, Bonobos came together. His lowest points include his stint in Bellevue Hospital’s mental ward, and the assault charges he received for a manic episode during which he attacked his former girlfriend and her mother. Dunn was able to seek treatment for the disorder and rekindle his relationship with Manuela, whom he eventually married.
Dunn was told by the retailer that Dunn had suffered from episodes. He also shared his struggles to overcome addictions and get well with medication and therapy. He was in charge of the expanding collection of Walmart brands which were launched online, and he also contributed to the firm’s expansion into the digital age.
Dunn left Walmart in 2020She also runs a social media startup called Pumpkin Pie
Walmart unveiled a new Bonobos Fielder brand extension in the early part of this year. It was lower priced than its predecessor. It marked the first time that Walmart’s website and some stores sold apparel under the Bonobos name — part of the company’s broader strategy to launch its own fashion-forward apparel lines and sell more general merchandise.
Dunn spoke with CNBC at his Chicago residence. For clarity and brevity, his comments were edited.
Andy Dunn Author
It is possible to have written the book about advice for entrepreneurs or Bonobos’ acquisition at Walmart. You wrote a book about mental health.
Before he became my editor, it was an excellent conversation. Then he stated it candidly, in turn email. He said: “If Andy is interested in writing a heart-pumping, self-congratulatory memoir on entrepreneurial success, then I am not interested.” If he is interested in a true, unfiltered story on mental illness that is told from the perspective of an entrepreneur then this could be an exciting project.
That’s exactly what I wanted to do. This is the type of person I would like to work for.
Why did you decide to revisit parts of your history?
After a devastating psychotic breakdown in 2016, I have had four years of therapy. Two times a week. All the support and love from my loved ones
While it is never easy to live with this diagnosis forever, I feel like I have a rare opportunity to tell you how I made it through the difficult days. It was too valuable to lose.
Andy Dunn credits his family including Manuela for his health. Dunn said that Isaiah’s birth has helped him to stay grounded.
You mentioned Tony Hsieh, a Zappos entrepreneur, who was battling mental illness. You are unsure why mental health is so taboo within the business community and in the worlds of entrepreneurship.
Tony’s caseIt is both tragic and sad. This is a story about a man who wrote “Delivering Happiness”, and who created a joyful energy-filled company. Zappos’ culture was well-known and widely studied. Zappos was the life and soul of the party, as well as someone who gave so much to the Las Vegas community.
To me, he was a hero. Evidently, he had also been suffering in private.
I think that’s a part of the typical entrepreneur archetype, someone who’s got that — a brilliant, charismatic spirit. That’s to be expected. It’s expected that you will do that each day.
A wider conversation has begun about mental health after the pandemic. Can the business sector and employers help combat stigmatization and increase access to health care?
First, create a safe space for people to share their problems. Leaders must model this behavior in order to encourage their team members to speak up.
Second, you need to create a community around your idea. In the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to meet with a lot of businesses. My conversation was great. [tech company]Carta as they already have a group of neurodiversity employees resource.
Third, investing in care is key. If you want to be able to access mental health professionals, your regular medical insurance won’t cut it. The reimbursement rates for mental health professionals are too low.
Only investment can change that.
These contrasts were striking in the book. Your situation is that you are being held in a psychiatric hospital and, soon thereafter, your negotiations with Walmart begin. Was it strange to hear that Walmart wanted Bonobos for its purchase?
My thoughts about doing a private equity transaction, where we stayed independent on our path to IPO, had changed into spending time with Walmart’s team, especially Mark Lore. [Walmart’s then-e-commerce chief] [CEO]Doug McMillon, and falling in love to the chance of being a part the digital transformation for Fortune One.
We reached a point in the process when background checks began to be required. When I realized that I was required to reveal it, I decided to take stock. [my diagnosis and arrest record]. I did not want to conceal it.
Andy Dunn is seen at the launch party of Bonobos’ Chicago store located on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. This was in 2016. Following its initial digital operation, Bonobos opened brick-and–mortar stores called “guideshops” where customers could shop for clothing online and pick it up at their homes.
Daniel Boczarski | Getty Images
In many ways, you helped to create the direct-to consumer movement. Many of these companies are not independent and profitable. Do you believe the DTC model is on the horizon?
It is difficult to operate a pure-play web business model. Direct-to-consumer founders — and I was one of them — kind of fall too in love with the direct-to-consumer potential of their brands, but ignore the parts of the legacy retail world that are still alive and well.
The long-term sustainability of pure-play internet business models is fundamentally compromised. Being a direct to-consumer founder is not easy. It’s also important that you are humble.
Is there a way you can find the right balance between your ambition for success and your need to be healthy?
It’s all because of my son, Isaiah. He is 20 months old and doesn’t seem to care much about me succeeding. It’s beautiful that he cares so much about his own success. For so long, I was so self-involved. It can feel exhausting to build a business.
My way of describing it would be to go from the middle of the solar system, to being on a planet around him. This creates an entirely new worldview.