It’s no secret that small business owners wear multiple hats. Managing product and service offerings, marketing and sales, as well as looking after a team of employees. Combined with a global pandemic, and it’s no surprise that the stress levels on owners and founders is taking a serious toll – in May the ACCA and The Corporate Finance Network SME Health Tracker found 89% of practitioners say their small business clients had reported feeling more stressed than usual and not sleeping, 78% had a worsened mental health condition, and 56% were unable to cope.
SME Technology Guide recently spoke to James Sutcliffe, Founder of The Founding Network, a collaboration platform for small business owners and high growth entrepreneurs to network and learn how to accelerate their company’s growth.
Tell us about The Founding Network – how did you get started and what do you do?
The Founding Network is a platform which connects mentors and high growth founders. I felt there was a gap in the market to bring together individuals that truly care about their business and industry as a whole – founders, and that was something that could have real impact.
I’d already seen the huge potential of collaboration through my previous role with The Marketing Society – connecting senior leaders at household brands. That, combined with the network I’d already built up, gave me the confidence that it was something that would resonate with the business community.
We have over 600+ high growth founders who come together to learn from leaders to better their businesses. We then have a group of 50 hand picked Founding Members who really collaborate by sharing challenges, advice and support.
While founders tend to have natural talents and a skillset, they can’t be an expert in everything – so we created a community that is. Whether it’s securing funding, understanding marketing and sales, or managing a high-growth team, we connect business vision to the expertise around tactical execution.
Staff wellbeing is very much on the radar, but do you think small business leaders forget to manage their own mental health?
Definitely – it’s a key issue our members want to hear about, and particularly important when you’re running a high-growth business. You need to have both your ‘founder’ and ‘manager’ hats on.
As part of our platform, we recently hosted an event specifically on the topic for our members. We spoke about how our younger team members spend so much time looking at social media that they ‘compare and despair’.
The challenge is that as founders we do exactly the same thing – it’s just at a different level and on a different platform. Our Linkedin feeds are full of people with exciting new products, incredible growth and the next big exit. This isn’t the reality of life as a founder – not all the time anyway.
The expectations of a founder are often unrealistic. From being an expert in every aspect of the business to transitioning seamlessly from a founder to a CEO as the company grows. All while balancing loneliness and external pressures. A recipe for disaster when it comes to mental health if not managed correctly.
As founders, we have to make sure that we look after our own mental health in order to offer the right support for those around us whether that be our teams or those in our personal lives. We find that simply sharing experiences on our network can really help people feel better. Not only do they know that they are not alone they can also learn coping mechanisms from founders who have been in similar situations.
Those starting and running businesses have a unique but often lonely role within their business – do you see technology as key to changing this?
In the early days, technology changed our business on an operational level – getting up and running was easier than ever. However, now what we see is that platforms help business founders connect and grow from a strategic point of view.
Technology has completely transformed the business world, which is why accessing the network via a digital platform has been central to our approach. Online networks give on-tap access to videos and other content from leading CEOs and founders, as well as in-person events.
Today’s founders and CEOs operate in a different world from 10 years ago – traditional networking events and groups no longer provide the right environment for entrepreneurs to quickly get the skills and contacts they need.
Scroll through any social media feed aimed at entrepreneurs and you see a lot of talk about ‘hustle culture’ and constantly working, is that negatively affecting founder’s mental health?
The problem with social media is that there are so many myths around founding a company – from the stories that billion pound companies started in garages with no money to the tradition that you have to work yourself to death to be successful. These myths are perpetuated by people who fetishise ‘hard work’ and ‘hustling’ with performative posting on places like LinkedIn. In many cases they celebrate working yourself to death as a virtue in of itself and make it clear that being a successful founder means being a multi-millionaire.
Believing this nonsense can be so detrimental to new and potential founders. It creates unrealistic expectations and feelings of guilty or inadequacy. Listening to the experiences from a broad range of seasoned entrepreneurs can help form a more well rounded and grounded view on how they should spend their time.
However, the truth is that no one should tell you to work in a certain way. Hustling 24/7 may be right for some people, because they enjoy it and it gets them results. But for others a good work life balance might be what makes them perform and is ultimately what they want out of being a founder. There are a million ways of working and founders have to find out what’s right for them.
What advice would you give to small business owners wanting to make the most of collaboration platforms to start, run and grow their businesses?
Share your own journey and challenges as a founder, you will be amazed at how many people are currently facing similar issues and how many people are willing to help by offering advice, connections and support. You will also be surprised at how much advice you have to offer once diving into the challenges others are facing.
You can progress by making use of technology to learn the basics, but you can achieve so much more by leaning on the experience and expertise of others.