The Lonely World of a Startup Founder

Brendan Barbato
Nov 3, 2017 · 9 min read

The media constantly glorifies entrepreneurship and markets it as a luxurious lifestyle. One where you are your own boss, you make the rules, and life is wonderful. However, this is not remotely close to what being a startup founder entails. It’s a lonely world where those who are successful make sacrifices, work 16+ hour days, and constantly struggle.

While many of the entrepreneurs we know are seen as an overnight success, that is never the case. It is also crucial to note that no one has succeeded on their own — there is ALWAYS multiple people who help you along the way.

Today I want to talk more about loneliness as a startup founder and the stigma that surrounds it. We can only solve problems which we openly discuss and actively try to solve, and the more people focusing on an issue, the higher the likelihood of success.

My Journey as a Solo Founder

In May of 2017, I graduated from undergrad and made the choice to move to San Francisco the day before graduation. I spent the summer in SF in 2016 and visited every two months since leaving. It was a second home to me. Being the first person in my family to graduate from college was interesting, but I still question if the $100k in student loans was worth it. The amount of stress caused to my family and myself due to debt has been quite a bit overwhelming.

Maybe I wasn’t also a solo founder

Many who know me will express that I take calculated risks often. Building a startup with $100k in student loans, as my Dad has put it, is irresponsible. However, I have calculated that from mutual funds and such, we are able to pay off at least 4 years of loans, and I have enough personal money to survive until June of 2018. This level of scarcity is making me work even harder on building my startup Shelfie, which creates fundraising multimedia campaigns for nonprofits.

This June is when Shelfie truly started and even though I had two employees for the summer, they both had to return to school in the Fall. We made a lot of progress but they were both software developers, and since they were no longer full-time, the platform stagnated. Neither owned part of Shelfie and I was ultimately the only decision maker. It was difficult not having teammates I could routinely discuss problems with.

From September 20th — October 1st I went to Europe. One week for a startup event, and one week of traveling and relaxing. This trip changed my life. Once I came back to SF, my life as a solo founder ended.

A Team at Last

Up until 10/18/17, I was the sole owner of Shelfie. We have interests from over 100+ nonprofits with revenues ranging from $200k — $2B. We are beyond excited to launch our product and we needed a solid team around us to take Shelfie into the world.

In the past, I have constantly made mistakes with teams. Giving too much flexibility, delaying projects, not giving clear enough guidelines, not laying the fundamental goals and vision, and more.

Having learned from these mistakes and the many not mentioned, I now feel like an actual CEO. The goals, plans, and vision are laid out. I emphasize accountability, flexibility, and transparency. My passion for what we are doing is at an all-time high. Team morale is great and our communication is top notch.

An example of my schedule. Often work weekends and do not always schedule my tasks

Now that I have a team that I can depend on, and they can depend on, our development has accelerated dramatically. We constantly speak about current challenges and either find a solution or contact people that can help.

When moving to SF I noticed something: failure on the east coast is seen as weakness, while on the west coast— as long as you learn from it — is absolutely fine. I love this. The east coast often felt toxic to me.

While things are now continually improving, I want to explore my mental and physical well-being from when I was a solo-founder.

Mental Health

Anxiety, chronic insomnia, and Depression are incredibly common in startup founders. Fortune Magazine has a great article on some of the stories of founders who have experienced any or all three of these issues. Here is my take on all three:

Physical Health

Taking Action on my Health


Furthermore, there are four things you need to learn how to manage when being a startup founder: your mental health, your physical health, your momentum, and your capacity.

Final Word

Entrepreneurship is full of highs and lows and you have to accept this. The difference between an entrepreneur who succeeds and one who does not is how he or she handles both. Do not let the highs inflate your ego and allow you to stop working hard. Do not let the lows bring you down and make it difficult to regain composure and momentum.

There are euphoric days and days where we find ourselves sitting in one position and constantly thinking about the same problem. When the latter happens, go for a walk and clear your head.

Whenever I get down, which often happens on a Saturday,— possibly because I never stop working and on Saturday’s I am on my own — I watch documentaries that excite me. Often I will watch documentaries about technological advances, current issues in our society, or on historical events such as WW2.

Learning is one of the most exciting parts of life and each time I do a “Learning Sprint” I become more excited about the work I am doing. While this will not work for everyone, there is typically a version or something in a different discipline that will help you.

In closing, being an entrepreneur is not easy, but nothing worth having is. Take the leap and create your own future.


If you have any questions about the article or Shelfie, feel free to contact me at

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

Brendan Barbato

Written by

Twitter = @barbatobrendan. Brand Community Team@ Lime

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

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