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The life of tech entrepreneur, Chris Leigh

Stuart Scott-Goldstone and I paid our last respects yesterday to fellow Manchester Business School (MBS) MBA Alum and Greater Manchester tech entrepreneur Chris Leigh, after he took his life just over a week before Christmas. The funeral was also attended by current and past Sci-Tech Daresbury community including John Leake, Paul Treloar, Robert Wakeling (Wadaro), Michael Thomas (Peak42), John McGuire (ex-FreshTL) and Angus Matheson (ex-FreshTL).

suicide statistics

According to Samaritans, men between 45 to 59 years are the most vulnerable to suicides in the UK and Republic of Ireland. When Chris took his life, he was 48 years old (same age as me). About an year ago, Andy Duxbury, then CEO of Aaron and Partners who help me develop tech ecosystem in Manchester took his life. Most of us know one or more persons within our personal networks who have taken their lives.

Mental illness classify as the number 1 reason for suicides, yet it remains a taboo subject hardly ever spoken, especially by men. In my opinion, the non intruding nature of (stiff upper lip) Britishness does not help when it comes to suicide.

Manchester Business School

I first came to know Chris and Stuart when I started my MBA at MBS from 2002 to 2005. Chris and Stuart undertook the Entrepreneurship MBA  whilst I undertook Executive MBA. Ironically, I joined the MBA with the idea of transitioning from Engineering Consultancy to Management Consultancy. Little did I know, I would eventually take the entrepreneurial path upon completion.

Sci-Tech Daresbury (then Daresbury Innovation Centre)

In Feb 2006, I moved my first tech company, ebdex to Daresbury Innovation Centre then managed by Paul Treloar (John Leake joined later on). Either in 2007 or 2008, Chris rented an office there for his tech startup. At the time, Daresbury Innovation Centre with grant funding from North West Development Agency (NWDA) was the hotspot in the North West for tech entrepreneurs and their fledgling tech startups.

Failure of my first tech startup at the end of 2006 led to creation of Techcelerate, which took the responsibility to build the tech ecosystem in Greater Manchester and the North West, which Chris became a part of including almost everyone else mentioned in this post.

Real Time Race

Chris founded Real Time Race with Stuart, with a technology that was perhaps 10 years ahead of its time. Just like many others with ground breaking technologies ahead of their times, lack of technology advancement elsewhere prevented its full commercialisation. Lack of venture capital probably hindered growth potentials further (not uncommon with many tech entrepreneurs in the North West).

 Later on Roderick Kennedy who had his own tech startup Simul and was based out of Daresbury Innovation Centre joined Chris to continue development by creating iFlex and vFit. By this time, Stuart had left the company. Whilst the company continued for few more years, it never found a way to commercialise the technology the way Chris wanted.

Life after Real Time Race

In 2012, Chris joined accountancy firm, Cowgill Holloway to help them modernise their IT infrastructure. During this period, Chris became a champion of cloud computing including becoming certified in Xero. I left Sci-Tech Daresbury in 2011 and met Chris occasionally at Techcelerate tech entrepreneur events until I stop running them in 2012/13.

Re-connecting with Chris

Chris reached out in September this year requesting a demo of UnifiedVU. I then met Chris and Susan for a chat and a demo at Venturefest in Manchester on 21st September 2016. This was the last time I met Chris. Whilst Chris was proposing UnifiedVU for Susan’s forthcoming Art Gallery, we continued to discuss Xero and cloud computing over the Autumn and Winter months, as he continued setting up his new business Execos based out of Sci-Tech Daresbury.

Mental illness and tech entrepreneurship

Whilst unknown to me, Chris has been suffering from bipolar, which led him to take his life leaving Susan and his son. Whilst the press and social media highlights the success of tech entrepreneurship and their companies, building a tech company from a simple thought to a living and breathing entity with customers and employees is never an easy task. It is a hard and a lonely world where you make daily sacrifices for your own happiness as well as your family’s.

Whilst I have not suffered from mental illness, there are a lot of similarities between my tech entrepreneur journey and Chris’s. Bootstrapping tech companies is never easy. For the last several years, my advice for any wantrapreneur has been to not start a tech startup. Not many people speak about the hardships and the devastation startups cause especially to family life.

Some of the well documented tech entrepreneur suicides include:

Stiff Upper Lip

When I first heard about Chris taking his life, I posted about the shock I felt on Facebook without disclosing his name. Over 700 out of 1,208 of my personal network saw it, and over 40 of them reacted to it by either liking the post and/or passing their sympathies. Yet only two people asked who it was. When I enquired why others did not ask who it was given that I mentioned MBA and Techcelerate in the post, which were prompts from me to get them to ask privately through direct messaging who it was, “was being respectful for the person” emerged as the main reason. If we are too polite to ask who it was, what chances do we have of stepping in when we notice signs of someone going through a really tough time?

What can be done?

Brad Feld has written extensively about fighting his own demons. Among locals, Vikas Shah has founded Life + Fit to bring awareness to mental illness. Sick Festival confronts mental challenges of life and death through an international arts programme.

As tech entrepreneurs, showing signs of weakness goes against our trade of continuously projecting how great we are doing, both individually and company wise.

In my own opinion, what we need is trusted and close networks where, as tech entrepreneurs, we can discuss our deep issues openly without being prejudged or having to pretend everything is honky dory.

This is something I’ve discussed with Paul and Stuart. Without knowing what it might lead to, I’ve setup a Facebook group, Last Resort, perhaps as a place to gather ideas on how we can tackle our deep unspoken problems.

Please leave your own thoughts on Chris, especially if you knew him, and any suggestions you might have of how we could help each other.

Resources:

Published inTechcelerate
  • Was absolutely gutted to hear this, Chris was definitely one of the good guys.

    Sorry I couldn’t be there yesterday, I’ve not left the house since Christmas due to illness.

    I first met Chris in the early days of Ixis whilst we were also based in the Daresbury innovation centre, and built the public facing site for Realtimerace.

    I really admired how he was trying to do something different, and in such an interesting space. I imagine lots of us would love to be involved in a tech/motorsport startup!

    It was an exciting time seeing the early exposure on the BBC etc, and he even got to pitch the idea to Bernie Ecclestone.

    As Manoj says this startup was way before it’s time. 8 years on it still has potential, especially with the recent improvements in VR.

    Whilst I’ll never know what Chris must have been going through, I do get the sacrifices of being an ‘entrepreneur’ that you touched on after having a really tough year personally in 2016 (whilst trying to maintain the obligatory stiff upper lip also)

    I guess the various recent campaigns from Calm/#UOKM8 etc are further steps in the right direction, but the combination of stigma + founders (especially tech) not always being the best communicators / introverts etc doesn’t lend itself to getting help.

    I remember him telling me ‘how much of a twat I feel getting in and out of a lotus’ (bucket seats) and later on becoming a ‘Porsche wanker’, but as a fellow car enthusiast I thought he was cool as fuck 😉

    RIP Chris

    • Lisa Harding

      I met Chris a few times about 10 years ago but even now remember him as a charming, thoughtful man and certainly ahead of the game. I’m very sad to hear the news of his passing. A sensitively written piece Manoj that highlights the often hidden pain and battles main people have with mental illness.

  • Lisa Harding

    I met Chris a couple of times over 10 years ago and still remember him as a charming, intelligent and talented man who was ahead of the game which in itself can be lonely place to be. This is very sad news indeed.

    A sensitive piece Manoj, thank you for highlighting the often silent battles many people face at some point if not throughout their lives.

  • It was nice to catch up with so many people I knew in Daresbury, although it was one of the saddest days I have known. There must have been 300 + people at the church, which tells you a lot about Chris.

    I got to know Chris and Sue over the years since I worked in Daresbury and did quite a lot of photography for Sue – both family photos and, more recently, I photographed the opening of Sue’s new gallery in November.

    That was the last time I saw Chris and there was nothing to suggest that he was ill I think he had become very good at hiding the strain he was under.

    He will be missed by all those who knew him and our thoughts are for the family he has left behind.

  • John Leake

    Manoj – many thanks for this sensitive piece about Chris, his life and the challenges of mental health he had to deal with.

    Chris will be very sadly missed at Sci-Tech Daresbury. He was part of our community for many years with 2 companies Real Time Race andearlier this year Execos Cloud. Chris always had an infectious, boyish enthusiasm for all he was doing and all he was learning. It was impossible not to be caught up with what he was doing. He had an insatiable appetite for learning new things and meeting new people. He was definitely someone who wanted to be thinking and working outside the box.

    The other thing that stuck out was the strong involvement of his wife Sue, in his business. Sue was regularly at Daresbury and often involved in meetings about Chris’s business. Clearly they were a great team in business as well as in their marriage. Chris was the “ideas person”, Sue helped
    ensure the good ones were implementable. A true partnership.

    Returning after New Year, the Innovation Centre is definitely a little emptier and little quieter without Chris but our memories of him and what he gave will not be forgotten.

  • Copyrights: The Times published an article on 9th Jan 2017 which included a discussion with me
    http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/business/the-elephant-in-the-room-that-can-crush-any-bright-ambition-w976dvx3s

    ————————————————————-
    Elephant in the room that can dull the brightest of sparks

    What is the most difficult skill that an entrepreneur in a growing company must learn? When to delegate, perhaps, or how to marshal investors, win customers or manage cashflow? According to Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm, it’s none of these, but something that is discussed far too little: the founder’s ability to manage their own mental health.
    With Mr Horowitz’s business having invested in some of the biggest technology successes of recent years, including Facebook, Skype and Twitter, he should know. “The first rule of the CEO psychological meltdown is don’t talk about the psychological meltdown,” is how Horowitz described the omertà that surrounds the issue in business in his book on the harsh realities of running an ambitious company The Hard Thing About Hard Things.

    “It’s a fantastic book,” says Timo Boldt, founder of Gousto, a company that delivers recipe boxes. “He talks about [running a business being an emotional rollercoaster with only two emotions, one being terror and one being excitement, both enhanced by a lack of sleep.”

    Mr Boldt was speaking a recent event desiigned to explore what James Routledge, a 25-year-old entrepreneur, describes as the “elephant in the room” — founders’ mental health. Thanks to the efforts of a handful of business people, not least Mr Horowitz and Mr Routledge, there are signs that things are beginning to change, especially in the technology industry, where there is a growing acknowledgement that the pressures placed on those running emerging businesses are rarely conducive with mental wellbeing.
    Last year, Mr Routledge opened up about his own mental health crisis, which coincided with the demise of a once-promising software company that he had established after dropping out of university. In a blog on the issue, he described running a start-up, which made website software and secured $1 million of funding. The problem was he wasn’t enjoying the experience, but felt he couldn’t admit it.

    “I lived my life as someone else in my quest to impress others,” he wrote. “You’re under immense pressure, from the outside and from the inside. Externally, you’re under pressure from shareholders, employees, customers and the friends and family who don’t understand what you’re doing. Then, internally, you put huge pressure on yourself to succeed. You compare yourself to the rockstar CEOs. You feel like . . . you’re not working hard enough or you’re not growing quickly enough.”

    Yet it was only after his business failed that the real problems began. “I piled my self-worth and identity into my business. When it was gone, there was nothing left. I was hit with severe stress, anxiety and panic attacks. It took me a long time, too long, to figure out that this wasn’t right, accept it and talk about it.”
    Mr Routledge says that the response to his post was overwhelming, comprising more than 500 personal emails thanking him for revealing the “dark side to start-ups”. He’s now running a business, Sanctus, that works with companies to promote mental health within their organisations.

    BGF, the bank-owned growth fund that is Britain’s most active equity investor in private businesses, has also acknowledged the need to raise the profile of mental health issues among entrepreneurs. Rory Stirling, partner at BGF’s ventures unit, says that it can be hard for founders to admit their fears and the psychological pressure they experience: “You can’t necessarily be transparent with your investors, board members or advisers, for fear of scaring them off. You can’t talk to your team because you need to motivate them. You can’t talk to your spouse, because you are probably not making enough money and don’t want to worry them. Too often, you just put your head down and keep hammering away.”

    A 2015 study of 242 entrepreneurs by researchers from the universities of California and Stanford found that the incidence of mental health concerns was “significantly higher” than a comparison group from a similar demographic who didn’t run their own business. The study did not suggest that running a company necessarily caused mental health problems, but rather that those more predisposed to them might be more likely to choose to be entrepreneurs. Not that there is much consensus on the issue. Other academic studies have found little difference in mental health between the employed and the self-employed.

    However, in an environment where sleep, eating properly and exercise all go out of the window, perhaps it is inevitable that mental wellbeing can come under pressure. Manoj Ranaweera is a Manchester-based entrepreneur who runs UnifiedVU, a small business software company: “For several years, my advice for any wannabe entrepreneur has been to not start a [business],” he says. “Not many people speak about the hardships and the devastation start-ups cause, especially to family life.” Mr Ranaweera has lost three friends from the Manchester technology scene to suicide in recent years. The reasons for someone taking their own life are complex and can rarely be attributed to a single cause, such as the pressure of running a business. Nevertheless, Mr Ranaweera says that losing a friend made him want to highlight the responsibility of businesses and founders to take the issue of mental health more seriously, and to be more willing to step in and support each other.

    Mr Ranaweera says he was upset that when he wrote an online post about one of his friends recently, people wrote to him to offer their condolences but were too afraid to ask who he had been writing about. “Nobody asked who it was. If you don’t even ask, what chance do you have when someone is doing really badly, of reaching out and saying: ‘How are you doing mate? Let’s go and have a chat.’ I don’t blame any individual, but I’m very angry this approach is part of our society.”

    Others in the Manchester business community got in touch with Mr Ranaweera to admit privately that they, too, had considered suicide. “I was really surprised. But, as entrepreneurs, you are under a lot of pressure. You see a bunch of companies getting investment and you’re not getting it, so you think you’re doing really badly. You might be struggling to pay salaries, your product might not be getting traction, but you can’t say to anyone: ‘I’m feeling crap, we’re not doing well.’

    “You have to show a brave face. When you pretend day-in, day-out, it starts to get very tiring. But we still don’t go and talk.”

    Nancy Fechnay, a partner at Flight Ventures, a venture capital firm, runs events where founders can discuss challenging issues. She says that things are beginning to change: “Mental health used to be a scary topic, something that people did not dare to discuss, especially in the UK.

    “The more we demonstrate that mental health is something one out of three people battle with, the more people will recognise it within themselves, accept it and seek help.”
    ‘There were weeks when I didn’t even leave my apartment’

    Nancy Fechnay is a partner at Flight Ventures, a venture capital firm (James Hurley writes). Having experienced severe depression while studying for an engineering degree at the University of Virginia, she now campaigns for businesses to take mental health more seriously.

    “There were weeks I didn’t leave my apartment and only saw the light of day when I opened and closed my front door to let my dog out. I didn’t brush my teeth, go to the store or shower because I was so low. My life was saved by a friend who forced me to face reality that I needed help.”

    Nancy Fechnay has used her experiences of depression while at university in her career
    She runs a group, The Inspire Movement, where founders can discuss challenging issues. “I believe mental health is and will be one of the biggest issues we as a society face over the next ten years. It needs to be addressed. People need to know how and where to get help, and to know they’re not alone.”

    Formal “coaching” has become a popular way to find a formal, independent outlet for their concerns.
    Emma Rapoport, a former Google HR executive, is now a leadership coach. She says that acquisitions of companies are a classic period when her services might be called on: “[At Google] we ended up assigning coaches to the founders of companies we acquired to help them through the process of change and to help their teams through it. They’ve come into a massive company with a strong identity and they are losing theirs, so it’s like dealing with a loss.”

    However, people should not have to dip into their pockets for a sounding board, according to Manoj Ranaweera, a Manchester technology entrepreneur. He says that co-founders and friends should be taking it on themselves to step in. “I set up a group on Facebook as a reaction to losing a friend [to suicide] and people said to me: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about this, it is for the professionals.’

    “But at an early stage of someone feeling down, it is about saying: ‘Come on, let’s go out for a drink.’
    “We have to be nosey and ask the question rather than waiting because people don’t generally come to you and say: ‘I need help.’ ”

  • David Ashworth

    I was very saddened to hear of Chris’ death. I’d only just got to know him towards the end of 2016 and we were planning to collaborate on a software project in the New Year, when he was ready. After our first proper meeting, I told my wife (and fellow director), that I had met a “force of nature”. I like that memory of Chris, so I think I’ll keep it.