Why startup founders feel lonely but aren’t alone

What I am about to tell you is a true story.

I got fired. It was the strangest thing. The company was my own.

One hour earlier I had put on my headset. Connected to the wifi in my hotel room. I had a board meeting. I reported from my business trip. I had met with a big potential client. He had even invited me to his home for dinner. I would go after the board meeting. It was a good sign. I was proud and excited. Then it happened. At the end of the agenda. Under Other.

Our chairman said: You are fired.  Budgets weren’t met. Again. He explained there would be a staff meeting later. The team would be informed. A new CEO had been found. He was there. He said Hello on the call.

The beginning of a long and lonely journey

Some years earlier I had co-founded my startup with two friends. We talked about everything.

Then one of them got another opportunity. He didn’t talk about it. He knew we wouldn’t like it. So he kept it to himself. One day I found out. I forced him to leave. We stopped talking.

But I still had my other friend. We got funding. Then roles. Then performance salary. We stopped talking about the salary part. Then about other things too. It felt awkward.

I hired people I liked. One of them was a really great guy. He could be my friend. But I was his boss. He threw parties with the other employees. I learned when they shared pictures and laughed at the office. I told them to laugh in their spare time.

My parents often called. They preferred I took a normal job. I never complained. I didn’t want them to worry. So I showed them our offices. I made sure everyone was there. Even interns. They felt better. It seemed like a real company. They stopped worrying.

I attended startup events. I met a lot of founders. We shared information. But everyone was doing great. Most conversations stopped there. I never met a founder who didn’t do great. Maybe only we struggled.

The journey ended. Alone.

One day I went on a business trip overseas. I was meeting the customer of a lifetime. The CEO of a big company. The meeting went perfect. He showed pictures of his family. He invited me to his house the same night for dinner. I accepted, knowing that I would have time for the board meeting in the meantime. I had great news.

I don’t remember the last part of the call. But I remember when Skype closed down. The hotel room was dead silent. I was desperate to talk to someone. I grabbed my phone. I stared at the screen. I had no idea who to call. Everyone seemed like the last person I wanted to tell. Then I couldn’t breathe.

My phone vibrated. It reminded me about the dinner invitation. It was in thirty minutes. I decided to go and tell the CEO.

He opened the door with a smile. His kids and wife came to greet me too. They served dinner. Since the board meeting my stomach felt like it had twisted inside. I couldn’t eat. The CEO told me that they had big plans with our software. He said he trusted in me. He toasted to a long and fruitful partnership. His wife toasted too. She said it was an honor to have me as guest. I left without telling the truth. There was no good time between the toasts.

The poker faces of founders

After becoming a mentor and investor in startups, I sometimes get phone calls late at night. When the founder has no one else to talk to. But it’s just tip of the iceberg.

The real problem is this: Startups are partly “a fake it till you make it” game. And founders play this game against everyone else.

When founders tell their family, they calm them with good news. Mothers prefer safety.

When founders hire employees they paint a glamorous picture. They can’t compete on salary.

When founders pitch investors they downplay the risks. They know investors hate risks.

When co-founders talk to each other they position for power. They know the media will only choose one darling.

The faking means that founders deal with difficulties and worries themselves. Successful bluffing requires not letting anyone know. Any poker player knows this.

But behind the “things are great”, most founders have tried this: Not knowing if they can make payroll next month. Been turned down by every investor in their area. Being so far of a milestone they have no idea how to reach it. Having taken devastating critique by investors in a board meeting. Had key clients churning. Having lost important team members to competitors. Having the product break down and not being able to identify the problem while support tickets are flying in. Expanded to new countries and not making a single sale two months in. Hired friends that don’t perform. Having been betrayed by a co-founder. Declined class reunions because there is nothing to show for yet. Lost romantic partners because they always came second.

If you are a founder, know that you are not alone. Everyone experiences this. Even those who are really successful. I hope that we can learn to be more honest about the hard things.

I will end with an old proverb. It says: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Conclusion made:

  • Entrepreneurship is partly “a fake it till you make it” game
  • Founders even fake it among each other
  • Founders face things they don’t share with anyone
  • Everyone would benefit if we could be more honest about the hard things

Check out Accelerace. We invest in tech startups.

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