Entrepreneurship can be a lonely and stressful journey.
As a founder, you perpetually race against the clock to keep your organisation afloat. Your employees look up to you for advice; therefore, you can never let your hair down. Showing signs of weakness results in a loss of morale and confidence in your abilities from your employees. To top it off, your investors are constantly breathing down your neck to ensure they get their financial returns.
Between ensuring their startup stays afloat and balancing their personal life, founders go through many emotions that do not get processed. This superhuman jugglery comes at a price. Founders are at higher risk of burning out and are perpetually on edge. Elon was right when he said that “Running a startup is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss.”
My experience working at the Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM) showed me first-hand the emotional problems entrepreneurs face. And I was keen to remedy them.
So when Varun told me about the possibility of creating intimate spaces for entrepreneurs to talk to each other about their battle scars and process their emotions, I jumped at the opportunity.
What if I could create a space for like-minded founders to meet and feel safe enough to let their hair down? A safe space where they could remove their mask and not feel judged for what they reveal. A circle of people who share experiences, resources and feedback on opportunities and challenges. Creating a less lonely environment for founders in an increasingly “connected” world sounded like an exciting challenge. I didn’t realise how hard it would hit me.
We decide to name the program the “Founders Circle” and hit the ground running to create our first Circle.
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The hypothesis is simple. Founders understand fellow founders better than anyone else. They can relate to the struggles and challenges that fellow founders face. The ability to relate deeply facilitates nuanced discussions around their problems and creates a space where founders can tap into the collective wisdom of a Circle.
It was important for us to create a circle of founders who could relate to each other but not have any vested interest in the success or failure of other founders. That would deter founders from sharing what's on their minds.
After creating the “operating system” for the Founders Circle (Click here to access it), I ran a test circle with founders on the build3 team. Abhimanyu, who founded SLII — a water purification startup, Lamat, who owns a cafe in Arambol; and Sahaj, who ran his own incubator.
While the ideal Circle would have between 5 and 8 members, we decided to move ahead with our group of 3. I wondered how things would play out but decided to play it by ear and be iterative throughout the journey. Now we needed a powerful but gentle moderator who could keep the meetings tight but relaxed enough to allow enough time and space for meaningful sharing to happen while staying on the clock and being mindful of everybody’s time. I was lucky enough to find that person in Samvedita, who has been moderating forums for many years.
With the participants and the structure set, it was time to drop anchor and set sail with the first session.
A week before the meeting, members wrote about the most significant events that occurred in their lives over the past month on their “5% Introspections” sheet. The sheet helped them take stock of their lives and prioritise the most pressing challenges they wanted to address during the session. Members then shared the sheet among themselves so that each person could come prepared to share their experiences related to their Circle mate’s challenges.
The meeting started with a confidentiality statement around sharing what gets discussed within the Circle to outsiders, which goes — “Nothing. No one. Never”. This easy-to-remember framework ensures there is no ambiguity when it comes to confidentiality within the Circle.
Next comes the “check-in”. We went around the table, and everyone described how they felt at that moment using one word. If you’re like me and sometimes struggle to find the words to express what’s going on inside, we’ve got you covered with a “feeling inventory”, a list of words that help you pinpoint what you’re feeling.
We then moved on to the 60-second response, where every member gets 5 minutes to share what they’ve written on their reflections sheet verbally, and all the other members take 60 seconds to share what resonated with them from that narration. Think of this as sharing the “headlines” for each person.
After a short break, we then head into the Collective Exploration. The exploration allows members with the most pressing problem to share their struggles in detail. A designated coach from within the Circle helps members process by laying out the exact issues, the options available to them, and the pros and cons of each. Once the member is done sharing, the Circle takes a minute to gather their thoughts and, one by one, begins sharing their own experiences related to the issue. It is important to note that members will only speak from experience and not seek to provide advice, and a member doing the Collective Exploration will infer from it what they can. The difference is subtle but essential. You can say, “You should drink more water,” or “Drinking more water helped me feel better throughout the day.” This ensures that the person receives verified, first-hand information. A good moderator can distinguish between the two and step in whenever someone begins sharing from a “you should” perspective instead of “I did.”
We do two Collective Explorations every meeting and close out with some housekeeping at the end, where we schedule the next meeting, think about topics for the next one and any other operational matters that need to be addressed.
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When the meeting started, I had no clue what would happen. But by the end of it, everyone was blown away by the outpouring that had taken place during the meeting. Folks felt lighter. I noticed a camaraderie that had begun to form. A type of camaraderie that is only established when a group of people have been completely vulnerable with each other. I was so pumped from the session that I immediately took a long walk on the beach to process what had just happened. And it was then that I realised how powerful these sessions could be.
I realised that I wanted to create a space where even the most tightly wound entrepreneur could come in and leave feeling a lot lighter. An environment that was accepting and non-judgmental. One which forged deep bonds among its members over time and reassured founders that their Circle had their back.
As for founders, I hope it will help them become more familiar with opening up, not just within their Circle but also to their loved ones outside of it.
If you’re a founder and Founders Circle sounds like an environment you resonate with, head over to our page to discover how to create your own Circle.
You may also contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!