When I started my business I was 23. I built a team of like-minded individuals who I came to consider as my friends; until one of them jumped ship and joined the competition. I remember feeling shocked and betrayed. Call me naïve but I did not see it coming.
As the years went by and I faced different HR situations it became clear that my employees were people I trusted professionally and respected, but they could not be my friends. A certain distance was required to enable me to manage the team in a professional manner.
So over the years loneliness crept in. This might be difficult to understand if you have never owned a company or been the CEO of an organisation, but it is totally possible to be surrounded by people all day and yet feel totally and utterly alone.
It is lonely at the top. This might be a cliché but it is chillingly accurate.
Work is supposed to be the place where you meet people and form new friendships. You eat a sandwich with colleagues during lunch break or smoke a cigarette outside, gossiping about your team mates or bitching about the boss. However what happens when you ARE the boss? You can hardly participate in the tittle tattle, unless you want to lose any respect your team might have had for you. People are guarded when you are around, careful not to say anything that might prejudice their chances of career advancement. So you often end up eating your sandwich alone, simply to avoid an uncomfortable situation.
It is tempting to try to bond with people at work, talking about private stuff. A tiff with your husband, an argument with your daughter. It makes the workplace more human and alleviates the sense of isolation. However this can then create an awkward situation when it comes to managing the same staff. How do you transition from having a heart-to-heart about your husband forgetting your birthday to telling someone off for not completing an assignment on time or to the desired level of quality?
Entrepreneurs are supposed to be made of tough stuff. They are the risk takers, the go-getters. The pressure is on to appear invincible, so very few entrepreneurs will admit to feeling insecure or lonely. However the truth is that however accomplished, ambitious or successful an entrepreneur is, they are as human as the rest of us. They are just as prone to feeling insecure on occasion, to doubting themselves, to second guessing their decisions and last but not least, to feeling lonely.
The situation is made worse by the fact that often entrepreneurs work long hours and do not have much time for other interests. When I started my business I used to work from 8am to midnight every day. I did not have a social life. In fact I did not have a life other than the company, which totally consumed my thoughts and energy to the exclusion of all else. So the sense of isolation was complete.
What is interesting is that MBAs or courses for entrepreneurs and business leaders do not usually address this matter. I have never come across any lecturer who said, “Hey guys, this is a tough life. Get ready for many ups, but also for many downs. It’s the nature of the game and there is no getting away from it. This is how you can help overcome these obstacles…..”
What you usually get is case studies of success stories, perpetuating the myth that entrepreneurs are super heroes who have a strong backbone and can weather any setback or hardship. The emphasis is on topics like finance, marketing or technology – subjects that are indeed very useful for an entrepreneur but which do not in any way prepare him or her for the psychological impact of entrepreneurship.
What we should be telling entrepreneurs is that setting up a business is a tough process. There will be an immense sense of satisfaction, but there will also be times when things go wrong and when this happens they should not be ashamed of asking for help and support. Admittedly it is not immediately obvious how to set about getting such help. It would be great if one could have a mentor or friends who are going through the same situation, but connecting with such people is not straightforward and sometimes there is no way of putting such a support network in place.
In my case support came through my partner. I was very lucky to meet a wonderful man just a few months before I founded my company. He was very busy himself at the time, so my crazy working hours did not phase him at all. 18 years and 3 children later I still thank my lucky stars to have had him as my rock in the good times and the bad.
In the last few years of running my business solo I was also fortunate enough to meet a fellow entrepreneur who was in exactly the same position as me and felt the same way about it. We would meet once a month for lunch and swap tales about the trials and tribulations of owning and running our businesses, and that went a long way towards making me feel less alone. It was really encouraging to know that what I was feeling was normal and that other entrepreneurs felt it too. It is also one of the reasons I am writing this post. If you are an entrepreneur and you are feeling lonely and isolated, you are not alone. What you are feeling is normal and many people in your situation feel exactly the same.
So my advice to any entrepreneur and would-be entrepreneur is to not get totally sucked into the business. I know it is hard: trust me, I’ve been there. However I can tell you that investing in your personal life, your relationships and friendships, is critical for your sanity. There will be times when you will be hanging on by the skin of your teeth and it will be your relationships outside work that will help you through it.
When you are totally immersed in the challenge of setting up and then growing your business it is easy to lose perspective of what is truly important in life, so it is vital to have something other than work to keep you grounded. It can be a hobby, a sport, volunteering, or a group of mates who make you laugh. Just find something that works for you and invest the time and energy needed to make it thrive.
You may feel that any time not spent working is time wasted, but this is short-sighted. It is not only important to nurture your company, it is also important to take care of yourself. Don’t ever forget that.