Why Founders Feel Lonely and How to Cope With ItJul 01, 2021
My 80 employees stood in a semi-circle with glares fixed on my nervous eyes, hiding behind my Harry Potter-rimmed glasses as I surveyed the room. The tension would've knocked a bird from the sky. The blood seemed to rush into my feet as I heavily stood where I had delivered good news so many times in the past. This time, the company had underperformed, and the room knew it was different. Change was coming. At that moment, as the silence began to hurt, I realized no one is coming to save me.
Building a business is a lonely journey, no matter the success. But why? Aren't you chasing the dream so many don't have enough courage to pursue? Well, yes. Aren't you surrounded by a dream team of friends? Kind of. Don't a bunch of people look up to you for what you've built? I guess. You are living life in a way few understand, but many rely on. Elon Musk describes it like this,
"Running a startup is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends"
Here are 7 reasons you may feel lonely as a founder and how to cope with it:
1. Few understand the burden of your obsession
It's all you think about. Employees have an off switch. You have a meter adjusting from "on" to "obsessive." I can guarantee you've said, "I just can't turn it off." It is 100% true for me, and as a result of this relentless drive to solve a problem, provide value, make a living, or for some, have epic success, you are constantly thinking about it and willing to do whatever it takes to (morally - I hope) get there. The majority of people are not wired this way. They are content with their professional career in a business someone else started and look forward to getting security from the fruits of your creative entrepreneurial labor. At times, I find myself envious of that contentment. To cope with the misunderstanding, stop expecting others to understand, but don't alienate them. Learn from them. You need boundaries. Your friend who can take a calm stroll around the neighborhood or turn off her phone at 8pm is the healthy one. Don't chase financial peace at the expense of peace of mind. A well-rested, emotionally steady human is an optimal founder. You won't see any reward if you kill yourself before you get there.
"Don't chase financial peace at the expense of peace of mind."
2. The vulnerability of exposure is scary.
It's one thing to have the courage to create in darkness. It's a whole different level to show what you have made to the world. You're choosing to live stream your creativity, work ethic, dreams, and possibly catastrophic failure to everyone you know. Do you need to show it to everyone to grow it? Yes. There is a direct correlation between how many people know your product exists and its growth. Does that make you feel like you're on an island? Absolutely. Here is an article with some tips on sharing your startup idea with people close to you. As far as coping with the process, remind yourself that your worth is attached to your courage, not its outcome. Even if it fails, you did it. You sleep at night, knowing wishing they had your courage is what keeps them up at night.
3. You hire people close to you.
Part of starting a business is the fun of doing it with people you like. The launchpad of many companies is made up of people you know: the first investors, the part-time employees shipping goods, or the graphic designer friend. What an incredible blessing to employ people who trust you and have been there for you. However, it means your network of people to confide in or go to with your issues as a leader shrinks. I will always advocate for hiring qualified friends. At QALO, I hired people who I'd known for 15 years. It brings trust into an ecosystem you can't guarantee with strangers. However, the more friends you hire into your culture, the higher the emotional stakes and the more alienated your role as their leader will become. I've hired my closest friends. Suppose I go to them with company issues or leadership issues. If I do, it may indirectly lead to uncertainty about their role or unfairly bring them into issues a non-family/friend employee would never be exposed to. Honesty with employees is acceptable; venting to them is not. To cope with hiring friends, set boundaries and be transparent with them about those boundaries for the sake of your relationship. Create very black and white expectations, so it is never a subjective assessment of their performance dictating outcomes. Make sure you have friends outside your company that couldn't care less about ever joining your business. Pour it all out to them over a beer.
4. People rely on you, and you don't want to let them down.
I remember when we first hit over 50 employees at QALO. I was sitting in my office, formalizing our organizational chart, and it hit me. All of these people relied on the business we built to eat, pay their mortgage, send their kids to school, etc. - and I felt the weight of it cloak me like a fog. There are two sides to being in this position. What an immense privilege. And what have I gotten myself into? Even though it is a business, you care for the people who work for you. Even though you chose them, they chose you. There is camaraderie. In life, we all need someone to believe in us to get us where we need to go. You have a company full of people who, by accepting the role, have said, "I believe in what you have created and what we are building here." That is powerful. I will never shame you for not wanting to let them down. To cope with this feeling, wear it as a badge of honor and remember the best way to never let them down is to run a company with integrity that continues to employ them. Employees work for us because we pay them. It doesn't mean they don't believe in what we're doing. If you want to care for them, do everything you can to keep the lights on and lead with authenticity.
5. "My spouse can't empathize with me."
The person closest to me in the world doesn't understand what I am going through. I don't always get to clock out at 5:00 pm and shift my focus to my role as a husband or dad. This means she can listen, which she does so well, but sometimes you want to speak to someone who understands the burden. My leadership obligation created a chasm in our marriage, resulting in an added element to work through together that others may not need to have. There was a wall between us that I had built brick by brick since the day my business launched. It was my fault we were distant. You can imagine entrepreneurship is rarely a positive contributor to marriage. To cope with this, let them in. Just because they've never run a successful company is not a good reason to not share what you're dealing with. We can't support people if we don't know where they need it. My wife has become my most vital sounding board, and she's even better at telling me when I'm overthinking life...which is often.
"We miss life around us changing as we try and build a life-changing business."
6. It is emotionally draining.
You need to take your emotions seriously. According to research from this Forbes article on science and loneliness, "Humans rarely experience such extreme social isolation, but studies have shown that even in normal life, increased loneliness has a negative impact on physical and mental health. One review of the science of loneliness found that people with stronger social relationships have a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival over a set period than those with weaker social connections. Other studies have linked loneliness to cardiovascular disease, inflammation, and depression." You give your business so much of your emotion that you find yourself removed from what is life-giving. Family, friends, relationships, key moments for your kids, working out... whatever it may be. Unfortunately, we remove the most valuable, life-giving priorities in exchange for the dream of building a business. We miss life around us changing as we build a life-changing business. To cope with the emotional drain, write down what in your life fills your emotional tank and create a consistent pattern of doing it through accountability.
7. You make difficult, unpopular decisions.
You choose a strategy few would choose. Everyone had an opinion on the decision you had to make. You fire people other people like. Peers don't judge one another based on performance as much as they do on whether or not they get along. A massive gap between you as a leader and the people you employ is context. Your behavior is judged through the lens of context they have. It makes them right based on the knowledge they have. The leader's job is to be transparent with reasoning, but that does not mean providing full context to everyone, often out of respect for the person fired. You haven't experience the true sacrificial nature of leadership until you've protected the character of the person you've fired while having yours questioned by the employees that remain. It is easy to form opinions and criticize when the outcome has no effect on you. As a founder, the outcome affects all of you. To cope with this challenge, set a standard of what is okay and what isn't and religiously follow those guidelines yourself. Continue to cherish discernment in every situation through counsel and stand by the work you've done before making your bold decisions. They won't always be correct, but you can't lose the courage to make them.
"You haven't experience the true sacrificial nature of leadership until you've protected the character of the person you've fired while having yours questioned by the employees that remain."
The best advice I can give is to understand what the true priorities are in your life. Any time you find yourself sacrificing those for your business, immediately start eradicating that behavior. My business will never give me what my wife and children already have. It's not even close. Find people going through what you are. Meet with other entrepreneurs or find a group to meet with so you believe you are not alone. There is a great community of founders on social media platforms like Twitter or Clubhouse. If you want to jump on the Solving Hollow slack channel and discuss business problems or issues I'm here for you. We are all dealing with the raw emotion that comes with the journey. You can fight the loneliness of leadership through focus, fellowship, and a clear understanding of what gives you life beyond your business.
I delivered the bad news that day. It hurt people. It hurt me. It was a reflection of my leadership. It was a reflection of my competency. I walked back to my office, discouraged and disappointed. Feeling the weight of the role. I sat down at my desk, thought about what I had just done, and appreciated the moment. I realized the only way to grow is to be in a position where no one is coming to save you. It was the job I had due to what I had created, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Creator of Solving Hollow
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