C-level executives usually feel lonely.

They tend to feel it much more than managers, analysts, plant workers. Although we generally imagine how glamorous it is to be there, it is a place for few, where a limited amount of affection, trust and joy is shared. Decisions that cannot be openly discussed. Even when they impact hundreds, thousands of people. And to make things worse, family and close friends are not always the best people to listen and understand what they are going through.

But I think this is nothing compared to start-up founders.

Yes, we have supported founders, especially with money and tools. Acceleration programs, funding, awards, mentorships, training, public policies and incentives. From governments and private sector. Everything to stimulate entrepreneurship and say “come on, it is great here, we will help you, you can do it!”. It does not reach all founders, for different reasons. But even for the ones who have some help, there is an aspect being neglected.

We have been supporting them only on growth.

We can challenge them, suggest, mentor, put money on it. We expect them to follow the journey, from pre-seed to series A, B … Z. Will every start-up make it ? No, and we are ok with this. The model is clear: many will fail, a few will succeed, very few will be a huge success, like a funnel.

But in a sales funnel, we treat the not converted leads. Shouldn’t we do the same with founders who haven’t succeeded yet? When we simply don’t look at them, we are throwing plenty potential away. Solutions that were almost there but didn’t make it. People who have invested some years of their lives and are giving up. They have already learned a lot; they could be successful entrepreneurs in other business. They could fit in other start-ups teams.

My question is: how can we support founders in other moments rather than scaling up, growing?

Are these people condemned to continue their business because we are all telling them about resilience and advising that maybe pivoting once more could fix the problem? To make my point clear, I brought three real stories, heard from the founders themselves.

Founder 1

has been building and testing a solution for more than one year and has won a start-up competition. The prize is twice the money he thinks it is necessary to launch the product. Good problem, right? But still a problem. And if you consider that, two years ago, he was in a totally different career... He has no clue of what do first. If he should hire one more programmer and a growth person, or two programmers, or if now it is time to have someone in charge of finance etc. He is the CEO of a start-up, which means, he is learning how to be a CEO of a future company, but he is not there yet. On the job training, learning while doing. Yes, it really works. But it is hard. And the more tools or training he receives, the more he feels like he will not make it. Because it is not about what he knows. It is about if and how he thinks he is capable of making it happen. The fund that invested in the company doesn’t help; they don’t care. Maybe they see this start-up as the money to be lost, maybe the prize was just one more branding action.

Founder 2

has just decided to shut down operations. He is feeling miserable. He knows all about fail fast, he follows some entrepreneurship gurus, he knows that an entrepreneur with a fail story has something to tell etc. But he was raised in a different model. Success meant getting As, going to a good university and not disappoint his peers, his relatives and himself. Although he knows failure is not the end, he doesn’t know how to restart. We all understand, he has bills to pay, it may be a reasonable decision to quit and get back to a corporate job. For him personally. But not from the perspective of the ecosystem. So, if he decides to make it, we need him to be confident that he may and should start a new business whenever he wants to.

Founder 3

is running the business. She has started it and has been the CEO until now. Company is doing well. Not skyrocketing, but a good and healthy business. But she doesn’t want to do it anymore. She is tired. She feels like someone could be the CEO. Maybe she could stay as an advisor. She is unhappy but she needs to respond to clients. She used to love the business when it was about designing and testing, programming and testing. The first customers, the first goals achieved. Maybe she could sell the company. But how? To whom? Where to find a buyer? Maybe bring a new partner? How could she find this person?

A few decades ago, entrepreneurship was not that glamourous. It was rare to see people leaving their jobs to start a business. Or a student thinking of MVPs, valuation, growth strategies. Now, successful entrepreneurs inspire the next generation. But the 90% who will fail, if they don’t have at least a reasonable experience, they will spread the word.

The negative testimonials will make the potential new entrepreneurs think twice.

If it gets so hard and lonely, many founders may prefer going back to their old job. Not so glamorous but a well-known territory. With ups and downs, but much less lonely and with some structured support.

In established companies, talent is managed. If a person is not performing, maybe it is a matter of fit. So, let’s find a better place for this person. And it works. I’ve seen frustrated and underperforming employees flourishing in a different job inside the same company. It happens every single day.

Founder 1 is anxious; Founder 2 is miserable and Founder 3 is exhausted.

There is no acceleration program, reality show, award or policy to help them.

They are all alone.

These founders might never start anything else again. And they will not inspire anybody else to do it. They lose and so do we all.

Originally published in https://blogcintiamano.wixsite.com/cintiamano