Burn Rate

Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind

About the Book

In this “gripping” (TechCrunch), “eye-opening” (Gayle King, Oprah Daily) memoir of mental illness and entrepreneurship, the co-founder of the menswear startup Bonobos opens up about the struggle with bipolar disorder that nearly cost him everything.

“Arrestingly candid . . . the most powerful book I’ve read on manic depression since An Unquiet Mind.”—Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and host of WorkLife


At twenty-eight, fresh from Stanford’s MBA program and steeped in the move-fast-and-break-things ethos of Silicon Valley, Andy Dunn was on top of the world. He was building a new kind of startup—a digitally native, direct-to-consumer brand—out of his Manhattan apartment. Bonobos was a new-school approach to selling an old-school product: men’s pants. Against all odds, business was booming.

Hustling to scale the fledgling venture, Dunn raised tens of millions of dollars while boundaries between work and life evaporated. As he struggled to keep the startup afloat, Dunn was haunted by a ghost: a diagnosis of bipolar disorder he received after a frightening manic episode in college, one that had punctured the idyllic veneer of his midwestern upbringing. He had understood his diagnosis as an unspeakable shame that—according to the taciturn codes of his fraternity, the business world, and even his family—should be locked away.

As Dunn’s business began to take off, however, some of the very traits that powered his success as a founder—relentless drive, confidence bordering on hubris, and ambition verging on delusion—were now threatening to undo him. A collision course was set in motion, and it would culminate in a night of mayhem—one poised to unravel all that he had built.

Burn Rate is an unconventional entrepreneurial memoir, a parable for the twenty-first-century economy, and a revelatory look at the prevalence of mental illness in the startup community. With intimate prose, Andy Dunn fearlessly shines a light on the dark side of success and challenges us all to take part in the deepening conversation around creativity, performance, and disorder.
Read more

Praise for Burn Rate

“A brave and candid new memoir.”—Tony Dokoupil, CBS Mornings

“[Dunn’s] story . . . might just save another life. . . . Gripping.”TechCrunch
“A humble, honest and brave look at the author’s struggle with bipolar disorder . . . Not only does the book humanize this affliction, which affects more than three percent of the population, but it offers a rare look back at where things went wrong, what could have been done differently and also provides a template for families worried about a loved one. So many things are extraordinary about this story.”—Lee Woodruff, Book Marks

“There is nothing typical about this extraordinarily brave memoir. The result is a long-overdue unveiling—a reckoning with rampant mental health stigma that is especially pervasive in the business world.”—Susannah Cahalan, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Brain on Fire and The Great Pretender

“Many leaders and founders struggle with mental health, but few have the courage to open up about it. Burn Rate is a must-read not only for entrepreneurs but for anyone who has ever hesitated to seek help and support.”—Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and host of WorkLife

“I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to learn more about the important link between mental health and achievement as well as the crucial role a great support system can be to the healing process.”—Mardy Fish, former U.S. #1 tennis player and captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team

“A brave, powerful, smart, and darkly funny journey into the heart of edgy entrepreneurship and the timeless challenges of mental illness.” —Patrick J. Kennedy, founder of the Kennedy Forum and New York Times bestselling co-author of A Common Struggle

“A riveting and soulful expression of the entrepreneur, Burn Rate blows away the haze of American dream myths to reveal that, often, there’s a destructive mania that drives success in this country.”—Ev Williams, founder and CEO, Medium; co-founder, Twitter

“Dunn’s raw and honest look inside his own head—and heart—will make all of us reassess how we’re really doing.”—Marc Lore, serial entrepreneur; co-owner, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Lynx

“A beautiful and stigma-shattering account . . . I finished Burn Rate in a day.”—Ariela Safira, founder and CEO, Real

“For anyone coming of age with big ambitions, Burn Rate is a real reminder of the learning curve of self-understanding and care that is critical to success.”—Jennifer Fleiss, co-founder, Rent the Runway

“A page-turner written by a masterful storyteller, this book serves as inspiration to anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life in the face of anxiety, depression and mood swings.”—Justin McLeod, founder and CEO, Hinge
Read more

Burn Rate

Chapter 1


In Hindi, there are at least ten words for “aunt” or “uncle.” Your mother’s sister, mother’s brother, father’s sister, father’s brother, mother’s sister-­in-­law, mother’s brother-­in-­law, and on and on: they all have different names. The most affectionate term of all is masi, reserved for your mother’s sister. For my sister and me, our mom’s family was the strongest force in our childhood. Our mom has four sisters, so I have four masis; it was a profoundly and proudly matriarchal upbringing. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would one day spend thirteen years building a company named for a species of matriarchal chimpanzee.

Mom’s parents, Prakash and Dhian, were born in Rawalpindi, a city in Punjab State. In 1947, the British split Punjab in two, creating a Pakistani side and an Indian side: Muslims over here, Hindus over there. My grandparents, a Hindu and a Sikh, had to leave in the middle of the night with their two daughters. The region was thrown into chaos, with an estimated fifteen million people displaced, and at least one million killed.

Usha Ahuja, my mother, was born in this context, in a refugee town called Kurukshetra, during her family’s multiyear journey from Rawalpindi to New Delhi, where they eventually settled. My mom’s mom, our Badi Mummy (Prakash), was a child bride, not educated beyond the sixth grade. She lost two children in infancy before she turned eighteen. Then she had seven kids: five girls and two boys.

My mom and her sisters adored their father, and they feared him, too. The level of his expectations for their success was daunting. He was an enterprising building contractor, a chain smoker, and an alcoholic. He instilled in his daughters a progressive message, ahead of its time in 1950s and ’60s India: “You don’t want to be dependent on a man like me.” His vision for his children was for them to get educated and make it to the United States. By the time he fell ill with emphysema, my mom had graduated college and been shipped first to Canada and then to the United States, to live with my Ashi Masi, by then an obstetrician-­gynecologist. My aunt would go on to deliver both my sister and me.

My mom’s mandate was to get trained as an X-­ray tech and send money home, living with her sister so that she could pass on 100 percent of her income. With her father ill, they desperately needed the money, and my mom—­a most dutiful human—­answered the call to the sublimation of her own possibilities. Any dreams she had of becoming a doctor, like two of her older sisters, were subsumed by that short-­term need in the late 1960s. She never complained about it. She never complains. Money was so tight that when my grandfather died, in January 1969, my mom couldn’t afford to go home to New Delhi for his cremation. It haunts her still. She has never gotten closure.

Mom’s sisters built the clichéd Indian American immigrant family, filled with doctors and married to them, too. Ashi Masi’s husband is a radiation oncologist; Shano Masi, an internal medicine physician, married a surgeon; and Dolly Masi, my mom’s younger sister, is a physical therapist. My dad’s side of the family is smaller, but also filled with medical professionals.

As I was growing up, doctors were everywhere. My older sister, Monica, and I felt invincible—­there was always medical help ready for any issue we faced. 

Except, of course, for the one that came.

For Monica and me, Mom was a hands-­on cultivator of empathy, a self-­awareness developer, and, like her own father, a setter of high hopes and expectations. She was a rare mixture of caring—tough, compassionate, and candid. She was the same at work: in her twenty years of leading a team of a dozen women in a hospital ultrasound department, no one ever quit.

“You have to love the person behind the person that works for you,” she’d say.

In my childhood home we had paintings from Mackinac Island, in northern Michigan: gulls, pine trees, windy skies, rocks, and bluffs. There is a gray-­blue hue where the horizon meets the lake. My dad’s eyes are that color. At six feet two inches, Charles Dunn, my father, seemed to me a gentle giant. “I love you” rolled off his tongue easily; unique, perhaps, for midwestern dads of his vintage. As a parent, he was a watchful protector, a role model for how to treat your wife, the answerer of all questions, and an ascetic who abstained from all forms of hedonistic consumption, save for ice cream. He was a walking encyclopedia. On a trip to Madrid, in 2003, I was three years out of college. Dad and I headed into the Museo Nacional del Prado. I asked if he wanted to get the tour-by-audio headset. “I’ll provide the audio,” he quipped. And then he did.

Dad’s family is multigenerational Irish, Danish, English, Norwegian, and Swedish American. One of three children, he was raised as an evangelical Christian, a Swedish Baptist. His father was adopted, so tracing the lineage becomes hazy: picture some Danish immigrants on a farm in Wisconsin, a Swedish bartender and his Irish bride, and you start to get the idea. His family moved nine times in twelve years before landing on Chicago’s West Side.

Before the mood swings and all the moving, my paternal grandmother, Alva Georgina North (Nana), was a World War II hero. Nana was born in Chicago. She was a surgical army trauma nurse who arrived on the beaches of Normandy on day ten, treating frontline soldiers’ wounds on the march to Berlin and Victory in Europe, or V-­E Day. She was present for the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Back in the States, she had treated an airman named Charles Willard Dunn II, my grandfather (Dada), who would win the Distinguished Flying Cross as a pathfinding navigator on a B-­17 Flying Fortress, leading bombing raids over Europe. They exchanged nine hundred love letters on the European front, which Dad discovered in a trunk in the basement after his parents were gone. He spent ten years writing the story of their wartime romance, titling it The Nurse and the Navigator.

Dada dropped out of Harvard, but after the war eventually made it to medical school and became a psychiatrist. Nana became, informally, one of his patients, and he started medicating her. In an unpublished appendix to Dad’s memoir, he writes of his grandfather: “Dad’s decision to become a psychiatrist was made with the expectation that his resulting expertise would mitigate the effects of Mom’s disorder. But it also gave him dark powers that could be wielded against her.”

The treatment plan included barbiturates, tranquilizers, at least two institutionalizations, and frequent moves to avoid the “embarrassment” of Nana’s difficulties. One of Nana’s commitments was a few weeks long, another a few months. When my grandmother returned home, in true Scandinavian spirit, it was swept under the rug. My dad writes of his siblings and himself: “During the good times, Jane, Bob and I—­taking our cue from Dad [my dad’s father]—­always pretended that everything was okay. Indeed, during the good phase, Dad himself always proceeded as if there was no reason to be concerned that the bad times were going to recur, although they always did.” In a theoretical world, my grandmother’s psychiatric issues and my grandfather’s career as a psychiatrist might have prepared us for what was to come. Instead, the family tradition did the opposite: it prepared us to bury it all. 

From my vantage point, they seemed like normal grandparents, sending us money on our birthdays and taking us on trips to Marshall Field’s, where Nana, doused in perfume, would buy us Frango mint chocolates. According to Dad, by the time Monica and I met them, they had transcended the turmoil, though they bore little resemblance to the war heroes he later encountered in those letters.

Even a decade after my own issues emerged, it never occurred to me to wonder if, or how, mental illness runs in a family, let alone how shame and stigma compound generationally. A house filled with ghosts.

About the Author

Andy Dunn
Andy Dunn co-founded the ecommerce-driven menswear brand Bonobos in 2007 and served as CEO through its 2017 acquisition by Walmart. As an angel investor and through his venture capital firm, Red Swan, Dunn has backed more than eighty startups, including Warby Parker, Oscar, and Coinbase. Dunn serves on the boards of Monica + Andy, an organic baby-apparel company founded by his sister, and the tech nonprofit Raised By Us. Named to Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list in 2018, he is a graduate of Northwestern University and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He lives in Chicago with his wife and their son. More by Andy Dunn
Decorative Carat