going it alone, together

and January 2, 2020

 

illustration by nilesh juvalekar

The perceived halo of success and enterprise, many a time, masks the true picture beneath—of entrepreneur loneliness. The reasons are: the unique scenario in which they operate, the decision-making responsibility they have to shoulder, and, most importantly, their not investing in meaningful relationships outside the boundaries of business success.

When we think about entrepreneurs, we tend to envision someone with incredible drive and a boundless sense of independence. They are heroic individuals, battling against the odds to create new businesses and transform markets.1 This image of the ‘go it alone’ entrepreneur is reinforced by the fact that many entrepreneurs embrace the image of autonomy, taking sole credit for the eventual success of their firms, justifying their individual sacrifices, efforts, and hard work.1 Academics further embed the image through a research emphasis on the traits and behavioral characteristics of individual entrepreneurs.2 The popular press also overemphasizes the myth of the ‘superhero’ entrepreneur when speaking about successful startups.3,4,5

However, when we look behind the façade of the self-made entrepreneur, the reality is far more complex than the popular image. In its latest report, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, which annually evaluates entrepreneurial profiles around the world, found one out of five businesses to be owned and/or managed by family members, not individuals. Additionally, the report shows a globally-skewed distribution of self-managed businesses around the world. A staggering 53 percent of all businesses in Brazil are operated by solo-entrepreneurs compared to the world average of around 10 percent.6

While perhaps not living up to popular perception, the solo entrepreneur is a business reality. And research shows that, for many, it feels like a lonely role. We explain this by discussing the sources of loneliness in entrepreneurship and offer ideas to help entrepreneurs discover the fact that they do not have to go it alone.

the real loneliness of entrepreneurs

Dr Fernanda Arreola is Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at École de Management Leonard de Vinci.

The loneliness of the entrepreneur, as studies show, has less to do with the way a business is started, and more about the conditions in which an entrepreneur operates and, more importantly, how the entrepreneur feels and relates to others.

Of the conditions necessary for operating an entrepreneurial venture, managing the financial, human, and social capital are key elements.7 Among these, social capital has an important nexus with the loneliness of solo entrepreneurs. Business success can hinge on the ability of the entrepreneur to develop social capital, which lies in nothing more than making and building relationships.

If an entrepreneur’s ability to develop a network increases the chances of success, and that success depends on relating with other people, then why is it that entrepreneurs feel lonely? The answer lies in the nature of the developed relationships. Entrepreneurs build social networks for their utility in fostering the success of their enterprise, which constrains the relationship to professional, not personal exchanges. Furthermore, building and maintaining business networks is time consuming, which limits the time available to create relationships outside of the business. The result is that entrepreneurs favor contacts who can advance the development of their venture, putting aside contacts who have no ‘evident immediate effects.’ Thus, relationships with friends and family suffer. Ironically, it is the emphasis on business network creation that gives the entrepreneur the feeling of loneliness. In reality, they are not alone; they have just deprived themselves of more personally enriching exchanges with people outside the scope of their businesses.

It is the emphasis on business network creation that gives the entrepreneur the feeling of loneliness. In reality, they are not alone; they have just deprived themselves of more personally enriching exchanges with people outside the scope of their businesses.

Dr Gregory Unruh is Arison Professor of Values Leadership at George Mason University.

A second source of loneliness arises from the nature of entrepreneurial decision-making. Entrepreneurs are responsible for the strategic decisions of their firms. Unlike managers in established organizations, entrepreneurs do not have a team or a chain of command for decision making and instead need to make decisions alone.8 Even corporate CEOs, who are the highest executives in the organizational chart, have a board of directors with whom to check the desirability of possible decisions. This responsibility creates not only the feeling of being alone, but also of being misunderstood. Because they cannot explain their choices easily to others, they are likely to feel critiqued or judged. This feeling of miscomprehension is burdensome because they cannot count on others to share the weight of an eventual bad decision.

A final source of loneliness is the difficulty most people have in relating to the motivations of an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are often seen as being ‘unfit’ for the traditional business environment. They are ‘unresponsive to authority’ and they are ‘naïve’ for believing they can succeed where others cannot.9 For people pursuing traditional careers, there is too much at risk to launch a business. This sense of not being understood by society intensifies an entrepreneur’s feelings of loneliness.

breaking out of entrepreneurial solitude

The consequences of entrepreneurial loneliness are worrisome. Studies show that entrepreneurs suffer from stress, depression, and poor health.10,11 Fortunately, there are some steps entrepreneurs can take to counteract the sense of loneliness and enhance both their professional and personal well-being.

schedule time for non-business relationships

For many entrepreneurs, the challenge of connecting with other people is nothing more than a matter of time. In reality, although many entrepreneurs work long hours, they have the unique advantage of organizing their own schedules.12,13 This means that they can schedule the time to talk and connect with friends and family outside the business. Engagement in times of stress can help diminish the feeling of being overworked, altering the entrepreneur’s perception of the situation. These exchanges can also bring them new motivation, helping them to think differently after a needed mental break. This can be done in person, by chat, or by phone, but entrepreneurs must prioritize it and put it in their agendas.

Engagement in times of stress can help diminish the feeling of being overworked, altering the entrepreneur’s perception of the situation. These exchanges can also bring them new motivation, helping them to think differently after a needed mental break.

become part of a community

Studies show that entrepreneurs really benefit from interacting with people like them!14 This means purposely connecting with other entrepreneurs, something that can be achieved in several ways. One is to locate their office space in a co-working community where other entrepreneurs operate. This is effective when the entrepreneur makes an effort to attend co-working events and connect with the community. If you are an entrepreneur, then consider asking a fellow entrepreneur how he or she feels, and you might find it eases the feeling of being misunderstood and alone.

Second, entrepreneurs can join an incubation or acceleration program, which will force them to connect with other startups in a similar situation as their own, including size, growth stage, speed, and so on. A number of groups and associations around the world gather entrepreneurs in formal communities with high-level networking opportunities (such as the chambers of commerce) while other, less formal networks (such as Facebook groups) are great assets when seeking answers to day-to-day questions or just plain old moral support.

seek help to ease the decision-making process

One of the key sources of solitude is the feeling that an entrepreneur must make all choices by himself. But help comes in many forms when it comes to being an entrepreneur. Finding mentors is a powerful way to share the sense of burden that comes with the responsibility of decision making. Talking decisions through with a trusted adviser can bring a more objective perspective to the process and ease the sense that the entrepreneur is alone. Acceleration and incubation programs can also provide some of this support, but a trusted mentor is invaluable in framing decision-making processes.

work on the self

Mental, spiritual, and physical health are vital for everyone but can be foundational in the quest to becoming a better entrepreneur. Studies show that playing sports, developing a spiritual practice (whether through religion, self-reflection, or meditation), and seeking ongoing doctor’s care are fundamental in creating better entrepreneurial equilibrium. All three of these practices are shown to help manage stress, which is correlated with entrepreneurial feelings of loneliness. Again, these have to be prioritized and scheduled into the entrepreneur’s agenda.

going it alone, together

It is undeniable that the path of entrepreneurship can be a lonely one. But entrepreneurs, if they prioritize their social needs and actively schedule the building and maintaining of relationships beyond their business networks, as well as with other like-minded entrepreneurs, can find a way to go it alone, together. 

 

 

 

01 Øyhus, A. O. (2003). The Entrepreneurial Self-Image: Lonely Rider or Social Team Player? Comparing Entrepreneurs in Tanzania and Indonesia1. The Journal of Entrepreneurship, 12(2), 201-223.
02 Kamm, J. B., Shuman, J. C., Seeger, J. A., & Nurick, A. J. (1990). Entrepreneurial teams in new venture creation: A research agenda. Entrepreneurship theory and practice, 14(4), 7-17.
03 https://issuu.com/ccfgb/docs/info229_entrepreneurship
04 https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/252232
05 https://www.businessinsider.com/10-traits-entrepreneurs-share-with-superheroes-2012-4?IR=T
06 https://www.gemconsortium.org/report/50213
07 Aldrich, H. E., & Martinez, M. A. (2007). Many are called, but few are chosen: An evolutionary perspective for the study of entrepreneurship. In Entrepreneurship (pp. 293-311). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
08 https://shift.newco.co/2018/05/28/beware-of-loneliness-as-you-manage-and-lead/
09 Sexton, D. L., & Bowman, N. (1985). The entrepreneur: A capable executive and more. Journal of business venturing, 1(1), 129-140.
10 https://www.inc.com/magazine/201309/jessica-bruder/psychological-price-of-entrepreneurship.html
11 Fernet, C., Torrès, O., Austin, S., & St-Pierre, J. (2016). The psychological costs of owning and managing an SME: Linking job stressors, occupational loneliness, entrepreneurial orientation, and burnout. Burnout Research, 3(2), 45-53.
12 https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/10/10/do-entrepreneurs-really-work-60-hours-a-week/#57ef43a47e55
13 https://tech.co/news/entrepreneurs-startup-work-hours-2014-08
14 Jack, S., Moult, S., Anderson, A. R., & Dodd, S. (2010). An entrepreneurial network evolving: Patterns of change. International Small Business Journal, 28(4), 315-337.