For solo founders, not having a partner alongside you – who’s experiencing the same pressures, and making the same sacrifices – can feel very lonely.
It’s an all too familiar problem for Lu Li, founder of women’s network Blooming Founders. As a solo founder herself, she understood the challenges of running a business alone. She launched her business to fill the gap in networking aimed at female entrepreneurs in London.
‘I came to London about four years ago and I didn’t know anybody in the city. I put myself out there because I wanted to build my network, but whatever events I went to, the majority of people there were men,’ she says.
Lu launched Blooming Founders, in August 2015, as a network for female entrepreneurs like herself – modern, active and ambitious – who couldn’t relate to anything out there already. Having worked previously as a self-employed consultant, she knew the challenges of operating alone. ‘You have to research and educate yourself and learn about things to compensate the areas that you don’t know about, and you make mistakes,’ she says.
According to research published in the government-commissioned Self-Employment Review by Cambridge Satchel Company founder Julie Deane, the number of self-employed women has increased faster than men. Since 2009 women have accounted for over half of the overall growth in self-employment.
‘I thought it would be really powerful to bring those [women] together because more of us were working on our own,’ says Lu. ‘If we can learn from each other, we can save time, money and build more emotional connections to support each other through the journey.’
Knowing that she was solving a real problem, that she had encountered personally, has helped Lu stay motivated. ‘I get a lot of positive feedback from the community and that feeds the energy and the mission,’ she says.
The review also found that loneliness and isolation was cited as a problem for 30% of self-employed people. ‘Over time I have built up a strong network myself of emotional support at least, so I experience that problem less now,’ says Lu. ‘There are a lot of women that I can talk to if I’m struggling with anything.’
However it’s still hard to switch off. Lu says she’s working pretty much from the time she wakes up through to the end of the day, which leaves little room for anything else. ‘From the outside my life looks quite one-dimensional,’ she says. ‘I make time for my friends and family, but nothing else. I don’t have any hobbies, I don’t really have time to go to the gym, it’s easy to neglect everything else that is not business related.’
Going it alone has its implications for the day-to-day running of a business, too. Ask any founder of a young business about their to-do list, and they’ll describe a never-ending churn of admin, making payments, marketing activity, meetings with suppliers or potential customers, briefing or training staff.
There’s only so much one person can get done, which means outsourcing and bringing on new people, both of which cost time and money. ‘If you’re a solo founder, you just have to be aware that everything will take two times longer and three times as much money as you think it would take,’ says Lu.
‘People are expensive. And you have to get used to the fact that not everybody operates at the same intensity or speed that you do; just because you can do something in two hours, doesn’t mean another person will.’
Finding the right people to staff the business hasn’t been easy, she says. Her staff turnover rate is higher than she’d like, which she believes is down to candidates finding that the reality of working in a new business doesn’t always match the expectation. ‘I think a lot of people are interested in what I’m doing and they buy into the mission,’ she says. ‘But on a daily basis it is hard work. It’s a lot of admin; it’s not glamorous, and when people realise that they decide to move on to something else.’