Finding your tribe as a founder

" 'What a pity,' he said to me, 'that the painter, who has a certain understanding of color, doesn't draw better;' " - Artchive

Many of us are familiar with the Impressionism art style. Made famous by artists such as Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro, impressionist paintings draw crowds even 150 years later.

Water Lilies by Claude Monet; Source: learnodo-newtonic.com

Would it surprise you to learn that these paintings were laughed at when first exhibited? The term "impressionism" was originally an insult - critics claimed that these painters couldn't paint, only being able to make bad impressions of actual art.

Facing rejection everywhere, the artists had to group together to put up their own art show, since nobody wanted them. They continued doing so for more than ten years, the group growing and shrinking in size, before impressionism finally caught on.

Being a founder is like being an artist ahead of the times. Battling against the establishment. Creating something out of nothing. Often lonely.

We asked an experienced group of founders how they coped with the stress of being a founder, and came away with the following takeaways:

  1. Feeling lonely is normal
  2. Try changing up your environment
  3. Find a community and build a strong team that understand you
  4. Some found community through other founders
  5. Others found community through their product

1. Feeling lonely as a founder is normal

Don't just take our word for it, here's what other founders have to say about how isolating the founding journey can be:

"I felt lonely in the early days a lot […] I saw very few people other than my wife and it was honestly demotivating and very hard for me […] I would have meetings with external folks 1-2 hours a day but otherwise I was just writing (prose or code) and it was a grind." - Tristan Handy, Founder/CEO Fishtown Analytics

Being where the buck stops is a lot of responsibility:

"I am a solo founder and work in cellphone cybersecurity. So there isn't any one to lean on at times. You've to be right 100% and that itself has a lot of pressure" - Haseeb Awan, CEO efani
"I would say early in my career I tried to shield employees from all the "bad news" and that made the experience a bit more lonely. Later on I was very transparent and that helps quite a bit." - Immad Akhund, CEO Mercury

And this is something that many other founders go through:

"Looking back now and in talking with many other founders over the years, I’ve realized that most have had some personal doubts at one point or another." - Danny Olinsky, Co-founder Statuspage

2. Changing up your environment

Knowing that working by themselves is tough, some tried to change up their location to get more variety:

"I got a coworking space just to leave the house even though it was a very meaningful expense for the business at that point." - Tristan Handy, Founder/CEO Fishtown Analytics
"For the social interaction piece, I went looking for a co-working space to be able to interact with other founders at similar stages of growth" - Danny Olinsky, Co-founder Statuspage

3. The importance of community and team building

Founders also realised the importance of a strong community:

"Finding a community is important for most people going through a challenging experience, and entrepreneurship is certainly one of those." - Adam Wiggins, CEO Ink and Switch

And many of them found that by finding fantastic teammates and investors:

"I’ve hired the best people for my team and Deel. We are on an exciting journey. It’s one that people are sincerely interested in, and the more significant upside is I get to call them my team (and friends)." - Alex Bouaziz, Co-founder/CEO Deel
"as co-founders, we started scheduling week-long offsites at least once a quarter. To this day, we look back at the offsites as some of the best times we had in building the company." - Danny Olinsky, Co-founder Statuspage
"Hiring a CTO who is aligned was a big deal + getting good investors who support and chat with me as needed." - Nik Kotov, Founder/CEO Atomized

4. Forming a community by meeting other founders

Besides strong team mates, founders also looked outside to find community. These could come from groups like Y Combinator (YC), other founders, or friends of friends.

"For me the YC community has been transformative. I don't think I would have stuck with my startup through the rough times in our early days if I hadn't been surrounded by YC founders that gave me support and encouragement. I'd probably have given up without that." - Jared Friedman, Co-founder/CTO Scribd

The shared experience of founding something made it easier for founders to connect with each other:

"I definitely didn’t plan to have a bunch of good friends who were also starting companies, but looking back, it happened organically from surrounding myself with other startup-minded people for 10 years." - Danny Olinsky, Co-founder Statuspage
"A lot of [my close friends] are [founders]. It starts with meeting one person, and from there, it kind of snowballs. A never-ending escalator of networking, you could say." - Alex Bouaziz, Co-founder/CEO Deel
"Almost all of my friends are founders. Found them from YC or friends of friends here [in SF]." - Immad Akhund, Co-founder/CEO Mercury

5. Forming a community around your product

Some also found their customers to be the most supportive community for them. This could come in the form of creating an online forum, a Slack group, a Circle community, or some other way that multiple users could gather together and give feedback.

"We formed a community around our open source product, dbt […] Participating in this community as a member has been incredibly rewarding for me as a human and has been the single biggest cure for the loneliness that I experienced early on […] Really, that's what I needed: just someone out there in the world telling me that my work mattered to them." - Tristan Handy, Founder/CEO Fishtown Analytics
"Our tribe of supporters came in the form of early customers […] This allowed us to quickly form some bonds with other builders who were in similar phases of growth and facing similar challenges. They also were crucial in giving us product feedback, showing early social proof, and recommending us to other prospective customers" - Danny Olinsky, Co-founder Statuspage
"The communities that have been best for me were the Linux community circa 2000, the Ruby/Rails community circa 2007, Y Combinator circa 2008, the Berlin startup scene circa 2014, and the tools for thought space which I'm a part of now." -Adam Wiggins, CEO Ink and Switch

We know that being a founder is difficult. You don't have to go about it alone though, and finding a community has often significantly improved both the experience and outcomes of startups. Tactically, what you can do to find your tribe is:

  • Join startup accelerator programs that will gather many people together in the same environment with similar goals
  • Meet up with other founders and their friends, building that network over time
  • Launch community platforms for your user base to get them passing along feedback early on

At firstbase we also practice what we preach - we've started a community for all the people interested in building businesses together. You can join us here.

Thank you to all the founders and people that helped with this article - Jared Friedman, Tyler Tringas, Tristan Handy, Adam Wiggins, Danny Olinsky, Meltem Kuran, Tyler Bradley, Alex Bouaziz, Immad Akhund, Haseeb Awan, Nik Kotov, Sam Trautwein, Colin McDonnell

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