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The lonely life of founders

LiveMint logoLiveMint 26-02-2017 Shreyasi Singh

Our social media feeds teem with achievements: books launched, mountains scaled, and marathons run in record time. On Facebook at least, post after post about the adorable things children say, photographs in Indian-wear that seem perfectly fashioned to be “like” magnets, and achievements elicit the greatest engagement. This often carries the perfect feel-good vibe: friends and family that encourage, motivate and are inspired by the accomplishments of their loved ones. 

Yet successful founders—whose social media updates are full of news of exciting products, media coverage and awards—say the public adulation and gushing comments hide the dark side of entrepreneurial glory. Friendships are hard to nurture and build. 

Take Kanika Tekriwal, for instance. Whichever way you look at it, the 29-year-old is on a high. Her three-year-old venture, JetSetGo, is a private aviation company that claims to have India’s largest private jet fleet. Tekriwal calls it the “Uber” of aviation. With a few clicks on their website, travellers can book private flights across India. 

The company, backed by investors such as cricketer Yuvraj Singh and industrialist Puneet Dalmia, is looking to finish financial year 2017 with Rs60 crore in revenue, Tekriwal claims. It’s a rapid spiral up from their Rs7 crore revenue in 2016. Net profit, she says, is about Rs5 crore now. 

Yet for all the adulation she gets from friends online, she says the harsh reality is that every new professional altitude has meant crashing several knots down, personally. It’s possible, she adds, that she has more awards than friends right now. 

For her, the last two years have been punishing at work. She has missed the weddings of close friends, hasn’t been able to make it to umpteen dinner engagements and has forgotten to return her best friend’s calls for days. Even close friends have become distant connects. Invitations and calls have stopped. 

It’s a combination of factors, Tekriwal believes. Even as she has prioritized a young business, her achievements have led to insecurities and judgements.

“Most of my friends probably think I am obnoxious. They’ve given up on me. But the truth is I’m usually fire-fighting at the office on the occasions when I’m unable to join them. It’s not that I don’t want to hang out with them, or feel like I am too cool for them because some newspaper and magazine has glorified me. There is usually some crisis at work, considering my business is so operations-heavy,” says Tekriwal.

It might sound like a cliché, she adds, but it’s true that it’s lonely at the top. “It’s more lonely than anyone can imagine.”

When it comes to friends, young entrepreneurs like her encounter other slippery slopes as well. A 32-year-old e-commerce entrepreneur says that he’s actually lost friends because he might be spending too much time with them. In what seemed like the perfect scenario for a cool start-up, he hired many of his friends in the early years. 

“I hired a lot of friends and now they are not friends. That dynamic has changed completely, and I can’t really hang out with them. Those you give jobs to might hate you because you are a tyrant at work,” says this Bengaluru-based founder. 

It’s a double whammy, he adds. “People’s expectations from you grow so much. Friends do expect you will give them business, or jobs. Or jobs to their friends and cousins, if they make those introductions. If you don’t, people aren’t just disappointed. It drives a rift in the relationship.”

Such comments, coming as they do from young and successful entrepreneurs such as Tekriwal, might sound like the unjustified angst of privilege. Yet, at a time when friends-like-family is a popular feel-good advertising slogan and urban maxim, it does point to a darker, grittier reality.

Surviving Start-ups focuses on the stories of the people (parents, siblings, spouses and friends) who make up an entrepreneur’s world. The columnist is the spouse of a start-up entrepreneur and draws from real-life experience.

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