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How to combat the solitary side of the startup life

Larimer Square in Denver, Colorado
A snapshot of Denver, Colorado.

While the daily grind of entrepreneurship can be isolating, a strong, purposeful community can create needed connections.

To see it on television, the entrepreneurial experience can appear quite glamorous, filled with great ideas, world-renowned investors, and gobs of cash flying around.

Furthermore, in vibrant small business communities such as Denver, where I’m based, startup weeks attract an abundance of attendees drawing encouragement and inspiration for their dreams, designs, and plans.

While aspirations are a valid part of any founder’s wide-angle thinking, the day-to-day reality is a grind. And it can be very lonely.

Consider Niyati Kadakia. After years of moving her family around the world, chasing jobs for either herself or her husband, Kadakia sought the independence that starting a business provides by establishing Nulern, an online clearinghouse for expert instructors and students of all ages.

As a first-time entrepreneur, Kadakia expected to face a number of business challenges as she sorted out her offering, marketing, building traction in the marketplace, and ways to grow smartly.

What she didn’t anticipate, however, was how the isolation of the entrepreneurial life could interfere with all of the above. Although she co-founded the business with her husband, Niraj Desai, Kadakia said the singular focus on Nulern proved grueling at times.

“Entrepreneurship can be a very lonely place, especially for someone like me who has always been surrounded by teams and managers and others telling you what to do,” she said. “That is such a targeted and linear existence that it’s very easy to check that box starting in college and keep going to that first job and the next. But on your own there’s no one to tell you what you might be doing wrong or to pick you up. Many times, it’s sheer willpower.”

Like many of the entrepreneurs that I’ve talked to, Kadakia initially assumed that internal fortitude was the only solution to riding out the loneliness of starting a business. While such an approach may work, it can also erode the passion and stifle the enthusiasm of a founder to the point where they give up prematurely.

For those of us who support the entrepreneurial community, it’s essential that we aid in building a support network around founders to reduce the sense of isolation – a desperation that could unfortunately lead to talented entrepreneurs prematurely stepping away from promising ventures.

How can ecosystem builders do that?

1. Promote programming that builds a strong integrated foundation for founders.

Entrepreneurs in metro Denver have numerous options for such training, with different programs offered by organizations such as the Commons on Champa, Colorado Lending Source, the Denver Metro Small Business Development Center, and Mi Casa Resource Center, as well as the local SCORE chapter.

While each of the entrepreneurial programs address the basics of converting an idea into a concept and growing it into a business, the communal aspect is just as valuable. Frequently, attendees discover that they aren’t alone in contending with startup issues and form incredible bonds over their shared struggles.

Furthermore, most programs invite founders who are a few years into their ventures to visit classes and share the realities of the startup life firsthand.

Melanie Avjean is founder of Shell Creek Sellers, which markets stainless steel straw kits in clever canvas bags. Her company’s first two products – fun, customizable pillowcases and soft, snuggly children’s hats – saw modest success, but her true inspiration came from a CO.STARTERS visitor.

“Niki Koubourlis, the founder of Bold Betties (an outdoor experience company for women) told me that I’m not alone,” Avjean said. “She made an offhand comment like, ‘Oh, yeah, nobody gets paid for the first three years’ and that validated me so much. I thought, ‘OK, I’m not an idiot, this is what the journey’s like.'”

2. Foster strong networks built on the values of giving back and sharing.

The entrepreneurial experience doesn’t end one or two years into a venture. Nor does the sense of isolation.

Consider the perspective of Kendra Anderson, who opened Bar Helix in a trendy Denver neighborhood in 2017 after more than a dozen years of juggling catering and wine consulting businesses with a full-time management consulting job.

“The loneliness and need for peer support is palpable, particularly if you’re a solo operator,” she said. “If you have a business partner, it’s not as lonely, but if you’re the person in charge of everything, then you’re on the decision making, the ideation and the execution. It all comes down to you, so how do you combat that? How do you fortify yourself and support yourself?”

The loneliness and need for peer support is palpable, particularly if you’re a solo operator.

Kendra Anderson
Founder of Bar Helix, Denver

Anderson’s solution? Carve out time to revisit the entrepreneurial community, go hear other people speak and offer to share her experiences with fledgling entrepreneurs hungry for first-hand insights. After that hour of give-and-take, Anderson said that she truly appreciated the chance to step back and think more holistically about her entrepreneurial experience, despite the work she knew was piling up back at the club.

Such gratitude is almost universal from our guest founders, who frequently don’t even realize the therapeutic nature of opening up in front of a small group until they’re into it. Whenever you meet an entrepreneur, consider the value they could add in a room full of entrepreneurs. If they’re earnest, frank and authentic, they’ll likely be a good fit. Plus, since they’re busy themselves, it’s an opportunity to give back without the sense of commitment that a mentorship program entails.

3. Make it easy for the connections to occur.

Founders literally have dozens of reasons to skip a community event – most likely every day of the week.

Therefore, offerings should be tailored to a broad spectrum of individuals. Develop compelling and useful content in a variety of formats – panels, workshops, speaker, and how-to sessions that are heavy on Q&A to name a few – and hold them at a variety of times during the week. The folks who can make a breakfast session may never attend a late-afternoon gathering, while an entirely different group will find that a lunch-and-learn session best fits their schedules. And always allow time for attendees to mingle – it might be the only time that week that affords them an hour to engage with fellow entrepreneurs.

Ultimately, ecosystem builders might not be able to cater to every entrepreneur in a community, but by mixing up the offerings, it raises the likelihood that they’ll make the time to connect with entrepreneurial peers and colleagues.

To help the ties endure, technology can help immensely. Facebook or Google groups allow for the conversations and support to continue. Our CO.STARTERS program uses Facebook’s Workplace platform to ease communication within each cohort and each group is migrated into a broader alumni group upon completion of the course. That’s where H. Alix Laraque-Two Elk, who finished the nine-week session in the fall of 2018, recently shared with the alumni community that he had found a home for his personal fitness business.

As with many social networking platforms, however, remember that connecting entrepreneurs virtually can reinforce ties, but can’t replace the benefits of face-to-face contact, especially for an issue such as isolation.

To push through the everyday highs and lows of running a business, most founders tap an abundance of passion and drive. When it comes to an emotional matter such as loneliness, however, hearing relatable perspectives and pragmatic support from fellow entrepreneurs is invaluable. By incorporating such opportunities into community practices, we help lay the foundation for an enduring entrepreneurial ecosystem.

As for Kadakia, she’s eager to help fellow entrepreneurs – especially other women and immigrants – understand that yes, challenges abound, but they’re not alone.

Kerby Meyers facilitates CO.STARTERS sessions at Denver’s Commons on Champa and is a certified Ice House Entrepreneur Development instructor. He’s the author of “Persistent Grit: Candid insights into the startup journey,” an e-book available on Amazon.