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The Lonely Reality of Being a 21-Year-Old CEO

From Mark Zuckerberg to Evan Spiegel, the media makes the young CEO lifestyle look amazing: the freedom, the status, the influence, the money. But nobody tells you how lonely it can be at the start of those journeys, especially when you’re young.

Within 8 months of graduating Cambridge University, I had launched my company, WOAW. I thought I was prepared – I’d generated over a million views on my YouTube channel, patented a Facebook project that exceeded 2.5 million monthly views, and consulted on a number of businesses to improve their social strategy – all while attending daily lectures and submitting weekly essays for my degree. But the reality of starting a business from scratch completely took me by surprise.

The problem is, when people talk about young CEOs, they focus on the big wins or big losses. They never focus on the more mundane space in between. They never mention the lonely, frustrating, and agonisingly tedious amount of rejection that plagues any company in the early days of their journey.

Perhaps the toughest challenge is the isolation. If you found a business, you, and only you, are responsible for maintaining it. Nobody will encourage you to get a new client. Nobody will set deadlines for you. Nobody will be as in-tune with the operations as you are to be able to act as a soundboard for ideas. If you mess up, there’s nobody to blame but yourself. A permanent cloud of doubt and worry hovers over everything you do.

I spend the vast majority of my working day alone and, even though I have mentors and friends to talk to, none of them are as invested in the company as I am. All the pressures, demands, and decisions are on my shoulders, and can often make my head feel incredibly claustrophobic.

Starting a business is always tough, but no one explains how much tougher it is when you’re young. You might find a potential client, only to be muscled out by a bigger, more established company with more case studies and greater capacity. You have to be the most available, the cheapest, and the fastest – all while being the rookie 21-year-old competing against the big dogs.

Then, of course, there’s the rejection. Behind every deal, there are 15 deals that didn’t go through. For every one of those, there is a face-to-face meeting and a follow-up call, and for every meeting an hour commute. Ironically, even though I work in tech, the majority of my time is spent dashing around London on the tube chasing leads.

You may be shaking your head as you read this seemingly ignorant piece about a privileged guy that you’ve never heard of before. The truth is, I’m absolutely obsessed with the lifestyle I live. My goal of writing this piece is to inject some honesty into the misleading narratives surrounding young entrepreneurship. It’s not all fun and games, it’s bloody difficult, and you’ll never appreciate how hard it is until you try.

Despite this, the question remains: would I encourage other young people to start a company? The answer is – as I’m sure any start-up fanatic would tell you – a resounding yes. If you’re ready for the challenge, you’re the only one standing in the way. Go.

Joe Binder

Written by Joe Binder

Joe is the 21-year-old founder and CEO of WOAW, an online marketing company. During his time at Cambridge University, Joe founded ‘Students Of’, an international media project documenting the lives of students around the world. He recruited and managed a team of 20 students to grow it from 0 to 2.5 million monthly hits within 6 months, and later created a YouTube channel documenting his life, which now has over 1.3 million views and 17,000 loyal subscribers.

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