The Lonely World of a Startup Founder

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:

  1. Anxiety: a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. I would not say that I suffer from too much anxiety but I am constantly thinking about various outcomes and strategies to increase our odds. Often I am a bit anxious to get the platform out there because I do not want to keep customers waiting. Losing these customers because of our inability to launch our platform would be incredibly frustrating.
  2. Chronic Insomnia: a sleep disorder that is characterized by difficulty falling and/or staying asleep. Chronic insomnia is by far my biggest challenge. This summer I started sleeping 7–8 hours per night, but I wake up 5+ times a night, despite falling asleep in under 10 minutes. I believe this is related to my physical health, which I will mention later on.
  3. Stress: a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. While I was never depressed, stress was heavily a part of my life since June. I always denied that I was under stress, but it definitely existed. Often I would have to take a deep breath or relax due to being overwhelmed. My stress was not at what might be deemed unsafe, but it definitely hindered my progress at times. In the last 12 months, I have probably gained 15–20 pounds, and I believe this to be a result of stress.

Physical Health

  1. Physical injuries: in 2009 I broke the growth plate in my left knee due to a stress injury. Three months later I broke the right side. I was on three soccer teams and two baseball teams. Sports were my life and I went from playing 7 days a week to 0. I was going to physical therapy, but I was still playing sports due to playoffs and stretching was not a common practice. Until today I have been in excruciating physical pain daily.
  2. Sleep: before 2009 my sleep was fine. I believe my chronic insomnia is a result of my physical injuries. When my body feels fine, I sleep well. Good sleep makes me unstoppable.
  3. Vegetarian: in June of 2016 I had food poisoning for the 7th time and decided to finally switch to being vegetarian. I also have diabetic gastroparesis, which basically gives me a daily upset stomach and no appetite. Since switching to a vegetarian diet, I not only have an appetite, but my immune system is stronger and I rarely become sick.

Taking Action on my Health

  1. I finally took charge and went to a physical therapist with a new mindset: actually listening and focusing on the source of the problem, and not where the most pain exist. My first physical therapy appointment was 10/23/17 and since then I have done yoga nightly + the PT exercises, which are all focused on breathing. Magically, I am not in excruciating pain every day — for the first time in eight years.
  2. Becoming vegetarian means I no longer eat meat, but I was not eating as healthy as I could have. Now my diet is switching and I aim to go back to my normal weight. I want to both be and feel healthy. Plus, I really don’t feel like buying new clothes, and I am definitely not going to a gym.
  3. Every night I go for a 30 minute walk to not only relax but hit my daily goal of 10,000 steps. While on this walk I call family members and friends to catch up.
  4. Now that my physical health is improving, my sleep quality has been enhanced. With this amount of energy, I cannot be stopped.
  5. The various breathing stresses have relieved a lot of my mental stress, as well as the physical stress via tight muscles. I can actually touch my toes now, my body can move freely, and I am able to focus on my work rather than pain.

Result

  1. Momentum is crucial to success. By allowing yourself to be healthy and continually improve, you will prosper. Momentum is a hidden power that helps you subconsciously create 2x or higher results.
  2. Capacity is something everyone needs to know how to manage. Some days you will be able to work 14 hours, some days only 6 or 8. If you begin to feel burnt out trust your body and relax. My favorite thing to do is work for 6 hours, take an hour nap, eat, and go back to work. Know your body.

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.

Tips:

  1. Eliminate bad habits out of your life one at a time. My latest one is not watching Twitch.tv. I was on one of the top Call of Duty teams in the world, so watching video games is nostalgic for me.
  2. Every time you get stressed out, go for a walk.
  3. If you are tired, take a nap. Four highly productive hours is better than eight hours of average productivity.
  4. Spend one hour a night doing whatever you want. This is a time where Twitch can be watched, I can play Settlers of Catan, watch a documentary, or whatever I want to.
  5. Join a group of other solo entrepreneurs so you have a group of people to rely on.
  6. Do at least one event a week with a group. Mine is Sunday soccer and pasta with my housemates.
  7. Learn how to say “No.” A lot of people will try and waste your time.
  8. Life is finite. Live every day like it is your last and you will be both happier and more efficient.
  9. Be vulnerable and express your problems with those you trust. The result could be solutions, or sometimes you can answer your own question by simply saying it out loud.
  10. Smile. Something as simple as expressing a smile can brighten up your day.
  11. Start your day with 15 minutes of sunlight. I eat my bowl of cereal in the backyard. Call me crazy — because I am.
  12. Be willing to live like a peasant so you can later live like a King or Queen. Being a startup founder requires sacrifice but hard work can create a lifestyle worth pursuing.
  13. Get off social media. It’s that simple.
  14. Discover what your “Learning Sprint” is in order to help you once again be productive.

If you have any questions about the article or Shelfie, feel free to contact me at brendan@shelfiechallenge.com

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