The fluctuating social lives of startup founders

Chucking everything you know to become an entrepreneur is anywhere from exhilarating to depressing depending on the moment—and it fluctuates quite a bit.  Today I’m going to talk about one of the hardest parts: friends and family.


In The Before Time…

I’m a reasonably social person who enjoys a lot of activities.  Before I became an entrepreneur I would attend probably two big events per month, and I’d dance and climb with friends multiple days a week.  I threw jam sessions once every month-or-so.  I had weekly low-key engagements with a couple friends on the nights I wasn’t out playing.  My family are all far away, but I would visit for a week or two every year and spend quality time with them.

Before my cofounder and I decided to create something together, I was on a self-imposed sabbatical.  I had quit my previous job and decided to be funemployed for a while.  I took a month or two to get things done around the house and relax, then set off on travel adventures for the summer. In the fall I took online courses, attended a great conference, made things, worked on skills, and thought about what I wanted to do next.

During all this time off I also socialized like crazy.  I hung out with friends during the day, at night, on the weekends.  We went on adventures, we stayed in, we talked, we played.

I never said no.  My friends got used to me being around and available.

How to Shave a Cat

Why yes, of course I’ll help you shave your cat!

…And Suddenly, Startup Foundership

When I agreed to become a startup founder, and the only full-time employee, I had trouble convincing my friends that I couldn’t do things anymore.  Technically, I was available at any time, but I still had a lot of work to do, a lot of stuff to learn, a lot of things to plan, and just a ton on my mind.  Every interruption necessitates extra time to get back into the previous context before you can proceed.  When I visited family I found I had to explain daily that “I have to work every day” means “I have to work every day.”

 I was becoming overwhelmed, but I didn’t want my friends and family to feel betrayed by my sudden change in availability.


Social Time Management

Being me, I created a method to ramp up my unavailability that allowed me to provide reasons my friends would accept, or at least understand.

I started to come up with arbitrary but helpful rules for when to say no, with very reasonable starting points.  Just say no:

  • If I already had a social engagement planned for that day, at any time;
  • If they didn’t give me more than half a day’s notice;
  • If I already had a social engagement planned with that person during that week;
  • If I already had 5 social engagements planned for that week.

And I prioritized mitigating circumstances when I could multitask my social events:

  • If it included exercise;
  • If it included errands;
  • If it included a meal and no extra time;
  • Occasionally, if it encouraged me to pursue a hobby, for which time had been dramatically reduced.

Over time, and depending on the stage of my startup, I continued to decrease my availability until I had only the minimum social obligations to keep me sane.


Aside: The 24-hour No-Work Dictate

I originally thought I would have to stop throwing my monthly jam sessions.  The event itself was pretty optional for me, though several of my friends really loved it.  But over time I found that it was absolutely necessary to my sanity, because it was the only way I could make myself stick to taking an entire day off every month.

For all you startup founders, I highly recommend finding a way to convince yourself to take one 24-hour period completely off from work each month.  There are a lot of tips and tricks for avoiding burnout.  Very few startup founders are able to take proper weekends.  We get so used to doing at least some work every single day.  Many of us have flexibility to schedule fun/social stuff whenever we want, so we take it for granted that we need to stuff work into all the nooks and crannies in our schedule.  We overwhelm ourselves with the intense focus, with the context switching when we’re not focused, with the guilt when we’re having a good time not working, and in many other ways.

Make sure you take a long, uninterrupted break from work at regular intervals to refresh.


The Hardest Stages

From a few weeks before the Alpha release, through the Beta release, to a few weeks after the public release, I withdrew from all but the bare minimum of social obligations.  That’s more than 6 months when most of my friends didn’t see me, many close friends barely saw me, and some close friends only saw me because they made fabulous offers to cowork or co-errand.  (You guys rock!!)

Toward the end of this time I was receiving pleas every week from friends I hadn’t seen in months.  When will you go dancing again?  Please come to my game night!  I know you want to go climbing!  When’s your next jam session?  Why haven’t you gotten back to me?  I’m visiting your town tomorrow night only!  Are you going to that party?  I haven’t seen you in ages, what gives?

Every week I had to apologize to at least one person and assure them it wasn’t personal and I would emerge from my voluntary isolation…in a few months.


“Hi, you’ve reached Megan. I’m not available right now, but if you leave a message I’ll try to get back to you in 3-5 months.”

Moving forward

I’ve only recently emerged from this, only to spend most of my non-work time looking for a new place and packing.  My move is imminent, though, and unpacking is a delight for me, so I expect to start reclaiming my life in a couple weeks.  I’m already slowly and tentatively increasing my social availability, but I’m a little worried about offending or bumming out the friends I can’t get around to in the first month or two.  My near term social schedule is likely to be based on who pings loudest, most recently, or most frequently, combined with which logistics are most convenient for me.  I want to see everyone!!  I don’t yet have the time and energy to make that happen, but eventually I will.  I’m really looking forward to it!

But I’m also a little apprehensive.  I’m not sure how many of my friends really understand why I’ve disappeared, and I suspect some never will.  It is a choice.  I did prioritize my work over my friends for a while.  But it wasn’t personal.  I just really had to try this startup thing, and I really think my startup can help a lot of people.  I think the vast majority of them understand that on some level, and I’m very grateful for their understanding and support.  (Seriously, you guys rock!!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.