Founding a startup is an experience like no other. Like a teenager who is still trying to come into his or her own, running a startup is like navigating that awkward period of adolescence. It’s a daily whirlwind of rapid learning, carving out an identity, desperately trying to fit in and be cool, and making more than a few mistakes.
When I jumped into this world I was accustomed to the managed chaos of working at a large company: weekly 1:1 meetings with my boss, annual performance reviews, team projects, and let’s be honest, expense accounts and health care.
Leaving the corporate environment behind and working as the sole full-time founder at my company was not only hard, it was isolating.
Over the next two years I tried working from several different co-working spaces — collaborative work places in Seattle that skew heavily tech, reflecting the city’s startup community at large. All offered great environments, other people, and amenities like good coffee, happy hours and professional services.
But I still didn’t find many people in the same boat as myself. Most were much younger, male, and in the case of the tech startup world, programmers of some sort. My feeling of isolation was compounded by a feeling of difference.
Working at a startup is stressful. Being a startup CEO is stressful in its own way. If the idea of being "the boss" sounds glamorous, believe me, it’s not. Being the face of the company, the constant voice of reassurance, the overseer of accounting, legal, payroll, hiring (and firing) culture-setting, business strategy, sales and product development is downright overwhelming.
No one else shares your perspective or carries the same onus to keep everything together all the time. You can’t go on vacation and ask your boss to cover for you. You can’t punt on tough decisions and at the end of the day it has to be your call.
Being a woman in tech can be isolating. Being a woman CEO in tech even more so.
I was frustrated and at times insecure. What was I doing? Who could I talk to? What model should I follow? I didn’t quite know, but I slowly began surrounding myself with people I could empathize with, share experiences with, and lean on.
One of those people was another female CEO, Sarah Blankinship. Introduced through a mutual friend -- specifically because of our "uniqueness" as women CEOs -- we quickly became friends and, more importantly, allies in the battle to diversify the male-dominated startup world.
It became increasingly apparent to each of us that being a female founder was -- to our friends point -- quite unique. While there are many “women in tech” groups, and “women in business” groups, there are very few female CEOs. 5% of Fortune 1000 companies are led by women; among tech startups the number is only 3%.
CEOs are doers, and we decided to form a Women's CEO group comprised of the (few) women in our respective networks, who had founded or were leading their own companies. Our goals from the beginning were intentionally vague: gather together and share experiences, determine if we benefitted from those gatherings, and go from there.
What I learned surprised me. Not only was this incredibly helpful in providing the support network I craved, it helped my business as well.
Over monthly drinks, often extending into dinner, the conversations between women CEOs and founders seamlessly flowed between stories about our businesses and personal lives. Through our CEO WATTAGE network, I’ve made business connections, customer contacts, and earned invaluable advice.
Most importantly, I found my cohort.
There’s a phenomenon among CEOs to focus on the upside, portray a sense of calm and control, and view setbacks as opportunities. But that doesn’t paint the entire picture. And for other CEOs who hear those polished stories it can feel isolating and terrifying. I would often be in formal presentations or networking events hearing those accounts and wondering, “Am I the only one who doesn’t know this? Who didn’t do it that way? Who made a major mistake?”
The CEO WATTAGE group provided a safe space to let my guard down. Speak freely with others. Reveal my weaknesses and, often times, brainstorm solutions to my problems.
If this seems trivial, it’s not. Having women like me, who share the same responsibilities, challenges and frustrations share their experiences and, most importantly, expose their vulnerabilities was exactly what I needed.
In the early days of running my first startup, I often felt there was a “best” approach, a template that should be followed. Through my cohort and the honest and revealing discussions we shared, I realized there may not be a perfect template. It is okay to do things differently.
This network of women leaders helped me be different, while helping me leverage what makes me different as a founder and leader, into success.
I often ask myself, why did I start this company? My response has changed over time. At first, it was “to learn and be successful.” Now, it is “to enjoy the experiences and adventures along the way.” I have no idea what will happen with my company, however I look forward to sharing the trials and tribulations with the valuable connections I have made. It’s tough to be different, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Note: full post originally published on Medium