Founder Loneliness: The Hidden Challenge of Running a Startup
Today’s culture glamorizes startups.
Movies and TV shows often depict the shinier aspects of startup culture – the foosball tables, the fancy parties, the awards and newspaper articles.
But what outsiders don’t often see is how difficult the road can be to get there. That’s why 80 percent of startups don’t make it past the first 18 months. And after 10 years? Only four percent startups make it that distance.
As a startup founder, the numbers are stacked against you. To have a chance at success, you may have to work incredibly long hours, risk financial ruin and make other personal sacrifices to get your business off the ground.
Entrepreneurship is tough road. And sadly, it’s one not many people can understand unless you are in it or have been through it.
It’s Lonely Being a Startup Founder
After quitting my job four years ago to invest fully in Blue Kite, it was a bit of a transition for me.
I’m an extrovert and going from a career-long office environment to running a virtual, work-from-home company was a stark transition for me. Even though the quiet allows me to be intensely focused on my work, I lacked the social interaction that I craved.
I was lonely. Isolated. Unhappy.
My husband noticed. When he came home from work every day, I talked to him non-stop after being bottled up all day in silence.
But, it wasn’t just the social interaction (though that was part of it).
I felt like there were few people I could really talk to about my experience starting and growing a company. After all, most people don’t understand what it’s like to be completely responsible for providing for your income and that of your employees.
Ultimately, you are responsible for your company’s success (and failure).
The burden is yours. And yours only. And that is hard.
The Realities of Running a Company
In social situations, when people learn I started a company, I usually get this response:
“Oh my gosh, you’re SO lucky! You can work whenever you want!”
And while that is true, what they don’t understand is the flip side. Taking off early to get your haircut might mean you are working later that night or over the weekend to keep things moving.
As the saying goes, entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours a week so they don’t have to work 40 for someone else.
Or, the other issue is that people routinely want to know how business is going. No matter how good or bad it is, the answer is always the same – “It’s going great!”
There’s no way you can possibly divulge everything or share the struggles of growing a business. It’s too complex and personal.
How to Cope with Founder Loneliness
So, what are founders to do? How do you overcome the loneliness of starting a business?
There are no right answers because everyone is different.
But, I can share a few things that have dramatically improved my personal well being and improved how I run my business.
1. Join a Entrepreneur Group.
One of the BEST things I have done for myself and my business was to participate in Catalyst, an 18-month program through the Nashville Chapter of the Entrepreneur’s Organization (EO). The program offered a four-month class, followed by yearlong small group forum led by a mentor.
Our forum met monthly and it maintains strict confidentiality, so you can feel comfortable sharing what’s really going on in your personal and professional life. And the forum gives you the opportunity to get feedback on decisions and ideas, which can be incredibly valuable if you’re a solo founder.
Even though the Catalyst program has ended, my forum continues to meet regularly because value the trusted network we have created.
Consider joining the EO or a similar program in your city. And if that isn’t an option for you, create your own forum of fellow entrepreneurs to meet with regularly. Having a trusted network of fellow entrepreneurs is incredibly valuable.
2. Hire a coach.
The top athletes in the world have coaches who work with them to sharpen their skills. Shouldn’t entrepreneurs have the same thing?
A coach is a valuable asset to help you tackle challenges, hold you accountable and serve as a sounding board for your ideas.
I worked with a coach for two years and she was been valuable in helping me work through ideas and calling me to task when I slip into bad habits. She has helped me become better and stronger. Hiring a coach is a smart investment.
If you can’t hire a coach, consider finding a mentor instead. Either one can help you combat the isolation of working through issues alone.
3. Join a coworking space.
If you’re like me and crave social interaction, consider joining a coworking space. I have been a member of The Skillery in Nashville for the past couple of years. And for the past seven months, our team has had a dedicated workstation there.
Not only does it give our team a chance to collaborate more in person, but it has put me around other business owners and company founders.
Being surrounded by like-minded people every day gives you a renewed sense of energy. Not to mention, this network can provide a great level of support and resources that can be valuable to your business.
4. Consider a cofounder or partner.
Before starting Blue Kite, I walked away from a previous business thanks to a failed partnership. The scars run deep from that experience so I never thought I would consider that for Blue Kite.
However, in the past few months, I have explored this idea with a trusted colleague. As we’ve been testing out this relationship, I’ve already found it to be incredibly valuable for me and for Blue Kite.
We have talked through difficult issues together and we each bring different perspectives, strengths and experiences to the table, which has made our work stronger and more efficient.
Most importantly, it’s a LOT less lonely and WAY more fun to run a business when you have someone in the boat with you. When things are good, you can celebrate together. When things are challenging, you’ve got someone to help you bail water out of the boat.
And, not to mention, it gives you someone to help shoulder the burden so you can each take time off and maybe even go on vacation!
Although partnership can be incredibly tricky, it can be incredibly valuable if you have a trusting and transparent relationship. Don’t let people scare you away from the idea – especially if you have someone who can help you advance your business.
5. Practice transparency.
In recent months, we have adopted a posture of transparency at Blue Kite – both internally with the team and externally with clients.
I am open with the team about what’s happening with the business and our clients. We have regular team meetings to discuss issues and challenges. And we use Slack for internal communication to keep our discussions transparent throughout the organization.
Because I trust my team and I value their input, it has been helpful to have an open dialogue with them about the business. That helps me feel like I’m not shouldering the burden alone.
In addition to being more transparent with my team, I’m also opening up more with my closest friends. It feels good to be more honest and authentic about both the challenges and joys of running a business. I’m willing to bet the people who really care about you want to know the real story too.
How to be a healthy entrepreneur
Loneliness can be a huge detriment to you and your business. It can suffocate your creativity and suck away your energy.
Founder loneliness is a real thing and it’s important to address it.
If you want to combat loneliness and improve your mental well-being as an entrepreneur, here are a few more ideas to consider:
- Attend meetups and events. Simply getting out and attending events or meetups can be a great way to combat loneliness.
- Keep your friends close. Because founders work so much, the tendency can be to withdraw from your friends. Don’t do that! Spending time with your friends and family can keep you grounded and shift your focus from the business. Breaks are good!
- Explore your interests. Find a hobby you enjoy. Sometimes the best ideas come when you’re not thinking about work.
- Exercise. Don’t underestimate the power of exercise. It’s a great energy booster. And, if nothing else, it can be a great way to get you out of the house or away from your desk.
You are not alone
The important thing to remember is that you are not alone. Not really.
There are thousands of other people out there just like you and knows what it’s like to be in your shoes.
You just have to find them and be willing to open up about what you’re feeling. I promise that doing so will make you feel a whole lot better. I know it did for me.
How do you cope with founder loneliness? Share your ideas in the comments. I’d love to hear what has worked for you. And, if you’re still struggling with it? Share that too. Because you’re not alone. I’d love to help.