Startup Life/Opinion/

Being in a room of people does not solve founder loneliness

Building a fast-paced business can be a lonely endeavour — even when founders are surrounded by a solid personal support network

Steve Coulson

By Steve Coulson

I wouldn’t consider myself a lonely person. I have a supportive partner, I just welcomed my first child into the world,and I have amazingly deep and meaningful friendships with people around me. 

So, when I say that on a daily basis I feel lonely, I don’t mean personally. But I can say that building a fast-growing business can be a truly lonely endeavour. And I’m not alone in thinking this — in the UK, where I’m building my company, founders are 5.5 times lonelier than the average person.

This became even more apparent as our team grew from 25 to 50+ employees at a rapid rate over a few months in 2021. Although growth means you’re surrounded by even more talented people, I often found myself feeling more isolated. I was wracked with the constant fear that everything could go wrong. The pressure intensified, my support networks vanished (they thought all was going great), and I was fighting the urge to quit. 

All founders will feel lonely on their journey. But there are ways to fight the feelings of isolation — here’s what I learnt.

Redefine what success looks like

The reason so many startups fail — and many founders quit — is the challenge getting from the idea stage to the first sale. When no one is buying your product, you have no external validation and no momentum. A recipe for feeling discouraged. 

The key is to create your own momentum and hack the quietness by creating your own noise. Redefine what success looks like for you at this stage by setting criteria around things you can actually achieve. Can you reach out to 100 people this week in an attempt to set up meetings, or meet with 10 people to better understand their needs and the pain points your product will solve?

“It’s also great if these goals are focused on human connection such as face-to-face meetings, because it can curb that early-stage loneliness”

Making sure that it’s measurable and achievable means that when you start ticking things off the list, you’re working your way out of what can be quite a difficult time mentally. It’s also great if these goals are focused on human connection such as face-to-face meetings, because it can curb that early-stage loneliness. 

Find and build intentional communities

Being a founder puts you in a niche. It’s a small segment. Often, that can mean you feel like you have nobody to talk to, because it seems like very few people understand what you’re going through. At the beginning of Kitt’s journey, I was fortunate enough to meet another founder by chance. He had just started an ecommerce business and was about a year into his journey. He had experienced all of the thoughts and feelings that I was having. He was a great help, and these catch-ups became regular during the early days of Kitt.

Having someone going through the same thing as you and being able to talk to them and share your thoughts and vulnerabilities is extremely valuable. 

The most honest conversations I’ve had with founders have happened when we’ve been face-to-face under the premise that we’re going to get together and share what’s really going on. It could be one person or it could be a group of people, but finding or building these consistent communities can tackle the root cause of loneliness as a founder. 

You think people won’t understand, but they do

For too long I made the mistake of thinking that because the people in my life couldn’t relate exactly to what I was doing, they wouldn’t understand. But after speaking to my friends and family about how I was feeling, it felt like a weight had been lifted. Being able to simply talk about what I was going through to the comforting ear of someone who supported me, relieved a huge amount of pressure. They didn’t need to have all the answers, they just needed to tell me that it was all going to be ok. I couldn’t work out why I hadn’t done this sooner.

Social media has given rise to the image of the bulletproof, genius, hustling founder — but the majority of the time that’s not the case”

Right now, founders’ mental health is particularly fragile due to the stress of the turbulent economic crisis and uncertainty around funding. Yet many of us are suffering in silence because we fear that talking about it will shred our credibility. We need to create a culture where founders can be honest about the fact that not everything is always fine. I now schedule weekly calls with friends to nurture those relationships and seek guidance and support from those who know me best.  

Social media has given rise to the image of the bulletproof, genius, hustling founder — but the majority of the time that’s not the case. But as founders, we need to appreciate and understand that success will be different for each and everyone of us, and be transparent about the peaks and troughs that come with running a business. If we can do this, then maybe we won’t feel so alone.

Steve Coulson is CEO and cofounder of Kitt.

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