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Welcome to the first episode of Morning Brew's new podcast Imposters! Drinking and alcohol are well-documented in the world of tech/startup culture, and for Twitch cofounder Justin Kan it was no different. Justin tells host Alex Liberman about his unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and how after 23 years, getting sober was the best thing for him personally, as well as his career.
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Full transcripts for all Imposters episodes available at https://imposters.morningbrew.com
Justin Kan: I had a star engineer at my company Exec quit, and I was super distraught about it. So that night I just drank a fifth of Jameson and I was fucking obliterated. I was lying on my floor, screaming and crying to myself about what a failure I was. So that's one way of dealing with your problems, but it's not a very healthy way. And it's ultimately, I think, drinking to avoid your experience just kicks the can down the road.
Alex Lieberman: Welcome to Imposters, the show where I talk to some of the most respected names in business and entertainment about their personal challenges and how overcoming them has shaped their careers for the better. I'm your host, Alex Lieberman, co-founder and executive chairman of Morning Brew. Today's guest is Justin Kan. Justin is best known as the co-founder of Twitch, the hugely popular livestreaming platform that was bought by Amazon in 2014. You might also know him from Justin.tv, his own personal livestreaming channel that ultimately inspired Twitch. These days, Justin is a partner at Goat Capital and runs the startup incubator Zero-F. He also runs a popular YouTube channel and hosts his own podcast, The Quest Pod With Justin Kan, which explores the personal stories behind leaders in business, sports, music, and beyond. And while Justin has had the kind of success that most only dream of, he's had his challenges, too. In March of 2020, Justin had to shutter his legal software startup Atrium after three years of hard work and $75 million in investor funds spent. Throughout all of these highs and lows, Justin has also dealt with a drinking problem, something he admits to have struggled with for almost 23 years that impacted both his personal life and his work. A few years ago, he got sober, a significant health and lifestyle decision that changed his relationship to his work.
Alex Lieberman: So you've tweeted a fair bit about this. You've even built a product around your sobriety and building new habits. I want you to talk me through just how alcohol has been such a large part of your identity for a lot of your life and just take me through kind of the journey of that.
Justin Kan: Sure. So I love drinking. I drank forever since I was a teenager, and I used it as a coping mechanism for myself. I mean, it was like drinking was a big part of my life actually in high school and then in college. I kind of threw a lot of parties. I wanted to be popular. I always wanted to be popular when I was a kid. So alcohol, for me, was a mechanism of becoming somebody who I didn't feel like I was in the world. I probably discovered it really when I was in high school and then really in college when I was drinking I was, "Oh, I can be the confident person that I always wanted to be." I was very shy. I was an extrovert, but I was shy when I was a kid. So when I first discovered alcohol, I was like, "Oh my God, this is incredible." Like I could just go and talk to people and be. It was, instead of being Clark Kent, I turned into Superman. And so I discovered drinking and like drank probably all through college, like four nights a week, five nights a week, something like that. I was like... been drinking a lot and that continued into my adult life. I graduated. I started my first startup. I was in the first batch of Y Combinator back in 2005. Started my first startup, and I continued drinking, and it became... It was also like a crutch. It wasn't just, "Okay, I'm going to go party." It was like, I feel upset about something, right. If something's not going my way in the world like companies failing or someone quit, or we lost this hire. And for me, drinking became this mechanism of being able to be avoidant from reality, right. Being able to escape the present like, "Oh, I feel upset. I feel guilty. I feel angry," whatever it was. It's like, "Oh, I'm just going to get fucked up." And that's a way to... it was a way unwind. It was a way to disconnect, right, from my present moment experience.
Alex Lieberman: Despite his frequent drinking Justin's career did take off. After making about $200,000 off of his first startup fresh out of college, Justin then went on to develop Justin.tv as an idea around 2007, a program where Justin literally livestreamed his entire life. Justin.tv wasn't a huge hit right away, but it was the foundation for what eventually became the immensely popular livestreaming platform Twitch, launched in 2011. Justin then sold Twitch to Amazon in 2014 for close to a billion dollars. Today, Twitch is valued at $15 billion. At the same time Twitch was taking off, though, Justin had another startup he'd founded with his brother called Exec, and it was failing. That was one of a number of challenging moments that led Justin to drink even more.
Justin Kan: When things were going poorly, that was... I drank more for sure. More nights, more times, but then also more quantity, right. I remember I had a star engineer at my company Exec quit, and I was super distraught about it. And I felt like, "Oh, this was..." We're trying to navigate a sale at the time. It was the wrong timing. And so that night, I just drank a fifth of Jameson and I was fucking obliterated. I was lying on my floor, screaming and crying to myself about what a failure I was. And so that's one way of dealing with your problems, but it's not a very healthy way. And it's ultimately, I think, drinking to avoid your experience just like kicks the can down the road.
Alex Lieberman: And I'd be curious. At the time, right, you had such a long history with alcohol, like you said, starting back in high school. I think that's the first time when I drank also, probably trying to look cool as well. When you were drinking during your career, I guess, how did you feel? Did you ever pan out and think to yourself like, "What am I doing right now? I'm not reaching my potential." Any of these things, or was it so much like you were sucked into basically making any feelings go away?
Justin Kan: Well, I felt normal actually, which is a kind of insidious thing that I think is true of society but changing some because, when I was in college... Actually, I had my first drink when I was 13. Actually, I remember very clearly. I was on my way to a school extended trip, overnight trip, right. And it was when I was in the eighth grade. The feeling was actually normal, right. It was in college. Everyone was getting fucked up. Not everyone, but the people I wanted to be like were all partying. They were getting fucked up. And that was pretty normal. I was probably more on the side of like... I don't think I realized at the time, but I was getting more fucked up than most people, more of the time, right. But it was pretty normal culturally. And then when I was in startups, it was kind of like, "Oh, well, we're working hard, we're playing hard." Right. So we're working all these hours, and we're like, our whole lives are revolving around these companies. And so all our friends are here, but then we're having drinks after work. And then it's once in a while, I'm getting completely obliterated, but often I'm just drinking lot, right. And that was just kind of the culture of work, I would say in a way, at least that I had experienced and then also startups and our startup particularly. And so it just felt normal. Not like there was pure pressure. It wasn't so much like people were like, "Oh, you have to drink," or whatever. But it was more just this is what it's like to be-
Alex Lieberman: Yeah. It's the culture.
Justin Kan: Yeah. In this, building a company at this age, at this phase of time, this place and time.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah. No, think that makes sense. And so, it almost sounds like there was two aspects here, right. There was the part that served some of your difficult emotions that you didn't actually have the toolkit at the time to be able to reconcile. And then there was the part that was just this is how the people that you wanted to surround yourself were behaving, so why not behave in that manner? So given it was serving you, right, while there were trade-offs of it, it was serving you for a while. At what point in time did you decide it was no longer serving you?
Justin Kan: Well, so alcohol... It was interesting, and it's like alcohol is like both. It was celebratory, and when things were bad, right. I was just watching this documentary with Juice WRLD, I don't know if you saw it, on HBO, and at the end of it, one of his friends is like, "Well, on a good day, we would drink lean, pop pills, and smoke weed. And on a bad day, we drink lean, pop pills, and smoke weed. And I felt kind of the same thing. It was on a good day. I'm drinking and celebrating. On a bad day, I'm drinking, and I feel like shit in the morning. It's kind of knocking out a substantial amount of my productivity, although, I'm pretty functional as a human being. I'm a high-functioning person. I think I'd learned to adapt and be able to execute pretty well, considering, and I wasn't getting fucked up at work during work hours or some like that, right. So it was just fine. But then, as I got older and learned some other coping mechanisms, I started to realize, "This is not healthy. It's not serving me anymore." When I really looked in the mirror, there was a health-wise issue. There was kind of me starting to realize I was just trying to escape from things that I... other issues that I hadn't really confronted or willing to face. And then there was just that random reverse lottery of once in an occasion I'd do something that was really horrifying. It was like, this is not the person I want to be.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah. It makes a lot of sense. And so you gave up drinking in 2019, right, when you publicly tweeted about it?
Justin Kan: That's right. 2019. So it was almost three years ago.
Alex Lieberman: Tell me, how was it for you? How hard was the process of not drinking anymore after a few decades of it being a very effective tool?
Justin Kan: It was much less difficult than previous times when I had tried to stop drinking as much. I had tried to slow it down previously a lot, like many times. And I tried to... I was like, "Okay, I need to drink one drink only, or only drink beer or only drink on weekends," or whatever it was, but that never worked for me. And then I were times when I was, "Okay, I need to dry out. I got way too fucked up this month. I need to dry out. So I'm going to take 30 days off or a hundred days off," or whatever. And every time, I'd be white-knuckling it because I was kind of looking to get to the end. That sounds like a very addicted situation. So I quit. I just said, "I'll just put it on Twitter, I'll quit and tell all my friends, and then the peer pressure will keep me on the path." And that was part of it. But part of it, I think more of it was just knowing that there was no something to wait for at the end of the tunnel. It was just like, "Oh, this is the way it is. The new normal for the rest of my life. That was my commitment," made it way easier. So after a month or something, I didn't... I stopped thinking about it. And after two months it was, it's fine. And then I haven't really thought about it since then. So it's pretty easy for me, in a lot of ways, once I really committed to it.
Alex Lieberman: Let's pause for a quick break, but make sure you stick around to learn about the practices and tools Justin developed to help him move himself and his career forward. For Justin, having the public accountability of his Twitter announcement made it easier to quit drinking, but it wasn't just the commitment that kept Justin on track this time. He'd also been developing a number of tools that helped to manage his anxiety and emotions that previously he had used alcohol to cope with.
Justin Kan: For me, the coping mechanisms were more, I think, really is meditation and mindfulness practices. Being able to experience difficult emotions and sit with them and say like, "Oh, I feel guilt right now." And instead of immediately needing it to change and saying, "Oh, I need that experience to change that feeling of guilt." I mean, there's obviously people who have much deeper depression, or clinical depression or something, but I don't think I was in that state. So being able to just be with my emotions made it so that I wasn't so reactive to them, and I didn't need it anymore.
Alex Lieberman: Is there anything that's surprising to you that as you entered sobriety that you've learned, or you noticed that you weren't expecting by being sober?
Justin Kan: Well, there's a lot more hours in the day than I thought there were. I work out every day. I have spent time with my family every day. I have a lot of productive hours, many more productive hours and I think that's like... Before, I didn't realize I was wiping out a pretty substantial hours of my week drinking, so that's one thing. You can go out at night and then have a productive day the next day, which is incredible to me. I never thought that was possible. And then also just learning I can go and do stuff, have fun, and dance sober, which I never thought I'd be able to. It's like a confidence builder to be able to just be out there in the world of not be this crutch. So for me, I think all those things were very surprising.
Alex Lieberman: So much of what Justin is talking about are thoughts that have gone through my head as a co-founder. Thoughts like, you build a business, you have an exit. You don't feel totally happy right now. What's going on? What do you do next? Are you going to build another business because you genuinely want to, or are you going to build one because that's just what people want you to do? And how do you know if people want you to do it, or if that's what you actually enjoy doing? For Justin, when he starts to ask these questions of himself, there are things that he falls back on to guide him on his next steps.
Justin Kan: I think a lot of it is just thinking about what is my joy every day? What are the things that I'd love to do? And if no one was watching and it made me no money, and how do I just do those things every day as much as possible? And the ironic thing is, for me, a lot of things are the same things I was doing before. People saw me building companies and investing in companies. It's like, well, before, I was doing them from a scarcity mindset. I was, "Oh, I need to be somebody and make this company successful because if I don't, then I'm like, no, one's going to love me." And today, it's more from a... It's the same activities. Mostly. Although maybe I focus a little bit more on the things that I like to do, but same types of activities. And it's like, "Well, I love to mentor people. I love to learn new things. I love to do deals. I love to learn about new spaces and industries." So for me, incubating companies, investing in companies, that's like a vehicle to do that. And if I just focus on the reason coming from a place of joy, instead of coming from a place of scarcity, life's a lot better.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah. I love that. And so now just tell me you've been creating a ton of content, which seems like you really enjoy. You're actively investing, and you're starting this... You co-founded this new gaming NFT business, Fractal, which the product hasn't come out yet, but there's a ton of appetite and a huge community around it. Do you think in kind of this part of your life where you are now sober, where you haven't drank in two years, that you are significantly better equipped to build this thing?
Justin Kan: Yeah, I think so. I think I'm more... It's ironic because being able to be more in the state of like, I don't need the world to show up any kind of way. I'm just accepting of whatever's how happening. You'd think, I have a lot of friends who are like, "Oh, well, you lose your edge, and you're not going to work as hard. You're not going to care as much." I think it's different. It's more in that state I'm less reactive to the world, instead of the world coming in and being like something happening. Discord server goes down, we can't add people to the server or something like that. Or the product breaks the first day we got it, instead of the old Justin would've been screaming at the world and then like, "Fuck. This is like, everything's breaking. It's not going to work." And spinning myself up about how I'm doing the wrong thing, or I'm not good enough or should quit or whatever. And today, I think I can just be like, "Oh, well, that's interesting." That's obviously a detriment to us being successful, but what can we do to make it successful? And we're just going to try our best. And maybe it won't work. I don't know. Maybe it won't work, but we're going to try our best and see what have happens. And it's a lot calmer. And I think it's like, it makes me want to give up less or put myself in situations where I'm like, "Oh, I need to be doing something different because it's so stressful or toxic or tough." And for me, it's a better approach.
Alex Lieberman: Well, it also just sounds like when you were drinking, when you were also younger, you just potentially were more reactive.
Justin Kan: Yeah.
Alex Lieberman: A little bit more emotionally volatile. And I think what you even mentioned there is people perceive that as a necessity in order to feel a sense of urgency. Because if you don't feel urgency, you're not going to will your business into existence. And it sounds like what you're saying is you don't have to be emotionally reactive to build a really good business. You can actually process the emotions and react to them and have urgency without being kind of a loose cannon.
Justin Kan: Yeah. I think, I mean, that's my hypothesis. We'll see if it is true. I don't know. I don't know if you know about conscious leadership. But there's this group, conscious leadership group, and they... Diana Chapman wrote this book of The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. I love that book, and it outlines their hypothesis for what a conscious company is and its 15 values, right. And I remember we got a coaching seminar from her, and I asked her, "How do you know this works? Or why is this better?" And she was, "Well, the old way of creating a company from being fear-based, right, like creating a, I don't know, Wall Street bank or something like that, right, where it is a fear-based culture. And everyone's motivated because they're like, "I'm going to get fired, or I'm not going to get my bonus." Or they're coming from place of scarcity. She was like, "That works. It works. But we find that when people adopt these conscious values, then usually they just enjoy it better. They like their life a little... They like it better, and I thought that was a very honest answer. And my answer is, to some extent, maybe I don't think it's the case, but it could be the case of being super wound up about your company is what's going to work best, but I'm not going to live that way. So we're going to run the experiment and see if this works.
Alex Lieberman: One other thing I was just thinking about, and you talked about this before, and I'm personally interested in this, which is, you were like, "I assumed when I was... one of the reason I drink is I drink because I... to have a good time at parties, I assumed I had to drink. That was connected to my experience, and being sober and dancing I didn't equate as, like, that wouldn't be fun." Just tell me from your experience, what it's been like to go out, whether it's with people from work, whether it's Fractal or Goat or Quest or any of your other businesses or just personally and engage in social situations without alcohol, what is it like?
Justin Kan: It's fine for me. It's great. I don't get pure pressured into drink. I mean, I'm old now. So I don't get peer pressured into drinking, right. People aren't trying to be like, "Oh, you got to take a shot or whatever." But then it's also just instead of leaning into like, "I've got to get twisted to enjoy myself." I just like lean into like, "Oh, what are the things that are enjoyable about this moment?" I think I connect with people a lot more deeply and more genuinely. I'm more curious about people. I like to learn about people. That's one of the reasons I like entrepreneurship. I love to learn about people. And so I just really lean into that, and it's great.
Alex Lieberman: I'm just interested, like your perspective, right. I do agree that a lot of startup culture, there's a fair bit of just work hard, play hard. And I personally experienced this. At Michigan, it was very much the mentality of the school. And then even... We built our business in New York City, so I can only speak to that. But there's very much a culture of just like working a lot and then going out with startup people, eating a lot, drinking a lot, and doing it at bare minimum, Tuesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night. Still, hundreds of, thousands, millions of people doing that and, I guess, many of them being effective in building their business. But if some of them are considering taking some semblance of the path you took to either... whether it's the 50-day break or it's sobriety in general, what are thoughts you would have for people who are considering not drinking anymore after doing it, and it being a way of them building their business and living for the last decade?
Justin Kan: Well, I think that one of the things I always love to do is question my assumptions and break my context. And so, for the longest time with regards to alcohol, I had a set of assumptions like, "Oh, this is what you do if you're cool. If you're a founder. If you're a man. If you're like... want to be the whatever, center of the party." I had all these assumptions, and I never questioned them. And I think, finally, I kind of reached this breaking point where I was, "Oh, this isn't working for me," which forced me to. But I guess I wish that I had... I mean, everything happens the way it happens, right. But I think I would've benefited from probably questioning my assumptions earlier in my life. And so if you're in that mode where you think, "Oh, this is the way it's supposed to be." I don't know. Maybe it's something you want to ask yourself if that's really true.
Alex Lieberman: I have one last question for you, which is when you were building Atrium, I can't remember the exact timeline, but when you were building Atrium and then when you closed down Atrium, had you given up alcohol yet, or were you still drinking?
Justin Kan: Yeah, I quit. I quit drinking midway through.
Alex Lieberman: So tell me, I mean, I'm sure it was really an incredibly, emotionally tolling process, right. How did you work through that when you didn't have the vice of alcohol in the stages of deciding to close it down, telling investors that all of the things that suck about shutting down a business?
Justin Kan: Yeah, well, simultaneous to stopping drinking I also starting meditating a lot. And so I think I had that practice of like, "Oh, I could just be present with my emotions. Oh, I feel really sad. I feel guilty." And then just being able to be with that. And I think that's the most powerful skill I learned, I would say, is being able to be present with my experience and not needing it to change. And by doing that, I was able to lay off 180 people and tell a bunch of people I lost millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars and be okay and know, "Oh, this is going to pass. And I'm okay with it. And I mean, it sucks right now. This experience is difficult, but I can... it's very survivable." And it was, it turned out.
Alex Lieberman: The failure of Atrium and its timing was the ultimate test of a new set of tools Justin had accumulated on his path to sobriety. Shutting down a failing business is an incredibly painful reality for any entrepreneur to face. But instead of breaking down and getting drunk, like he would have in previous years, he had finally learned how to handle intense emotions. Instead of trying to drown them out, Justin now accepts them. Justin's meditation practice has also allowed him to recognize that difficult moments will pass. They all do. It is still so commonplace in many industries and even in society as a whole for drinking to be the thing that we default to, to celebrate, to network, and to connect. Like I said in my conversation with Justin. It was very much a part of the culture at my school in Michigan and in New York City where I was working to grow a Morning Brew. But I love that Justin gives us reason to pause and really evaluate that decision. Maybe to your own surprise, you may find yourself feeling more confident at the next social event, even without a drink in your hand. Maybe, you'll learn that you're more capable of dealing with your emotional state than you realize if you just let yourself sit with it, or maybe you'll simply become more aware of your own coping mechanisms and whether or not they're truly serving you. Now, it's time for our self-care practice of the week. Justin taught us a lot about the benefits of meditation in terms of what it can do for us when it comes to handling stress and heavy emotions. Another great mindful practice to use the next time you're unexpectedly caught feeling anxious is box breathing. Box breathing is a method that has its roots in Indian Ayurvedic breathwork but is so effective at calming anxiety that even Navy SEALs use it. And it's as simple as this. I'm going to demonstrate. Take a slow deep breath in for five seconds. Hold that breath for five seconds. Slowly exhale for five seconds, And then hold your now empty lungs for five seconds and repeat the box. It's important to remember to breathe in through your nose and make sure you're breathing into your diaphragm. This kind of breathing can help you relax because of its regulating effect on the parasympathetic nervous system. It's easy to do, easy to remember, and studies have shown it can improve your attention, focus, and cortisol levels. So give it a try next time you feel your body going into fight or flight mode at home or in the workplace. Imposters is a production of Morning Brew. Imposters is produced by Micaela Heck. Our executive producer is Brian Henry, and our sound engineer is Dan Bouza. Alan Haburchak is the director of audio at Morning Brew. Sarah Singer is our VP of multimedia. Our theme song is by the Mysterious and Pseudonymous Breakmaster Cylinder with other music from Breakmaster Cylinder and Dan Bouza.