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6 Ways Running a Business is Harder Than Running for President

Perhaps the biggest lesson about entrepreneurship from this presidential campaign is that it's a lot easier to succeed when you don't have to outrun the bear.

There are approximately 27 million small-businesses owners in America, and only one president of the United States. Yet, I'm realizing that it might just be easier to get elected president than it is to launch and build a great entrepreneurial venture.

Think I'm crazy?

Well, of all things, here's what suddenly put this notion in my head. The other week, Jay Pharoah took over as the new Obama impersonator on Saturday Night Live. This is from the transcript of his first sketch:

Obama: Election day is near and things aren't great.  ... But, I'm not worried. ... I'll tell you why: Our campaign has a secret weapon, and that secret weapon is speaking right now ...

Romney:  Hello, I'm Mitt Romney, I understand the hardships facing ordinary Americans. For example this summer one of my horses failed to medal at the Olympics. So, I know hardship!

Obama: Isn't he great?

Like a lot of things in life, we laugh because it's funny and we laugh because it's sort of true. Unemployment is still greater than 8%, the federal debt is ginormous, and we're still at war in Afghanistan. And yet, recent swing-state polls notwithstanding, this election is neck and neck.

It's as if neither candidate can get knocked out of the running no matter how badly he messes up. Lousy jobs report? Doesn't seem to matter. Insult 47 percent of the electorate? Doesn't seem to matter.

Starting and running a business is hard. Really hard. In fact, there are at least six ways your job as an entrepreneur is much more difficult than is that of either Obama or Romney.

1. You have more competition.

There are only two real contenders for president now (unless you think Roseanne Barr really has a chance). It's like that old joke about outrunning the bear, or else that Henny Youngman line where he's asked how his wife is and replies, "Compared to what?"

Running for president, you don't have to be the best. You just have to be the best among the tiny pool who are actually running.

Now, granted, to become president you first need to win a major party's nomination. But even there, the competition isn't extremely varied.

In 2008, for the Democrats it was really just Obama vs. Hillary Clinton (Former Senator John Edwards ran, but his staff had a doomsday plan to scuttle his chances if he won the nomination, so we won't count him.)

And as for the GOP primaries time around: Really? Let's just say the outcome was never really in doubt.

2. You have no safety net.

Al Gore lost. Now he has a television network and sits on the board of Apple. John McCain and John Kerry lost. They went back to the U.S. Senate. Sarah Palin lost, and she landed a bunch of book deals and a television shows. Heck, half her family had their own shows by now.

When politicians run for office and lose, they wind up with speaking gigs and cushy chairs on corporate boards and at think tanks. But in your world, if your business fails, you're back at the drawing board--if you're lucky.

3. You have to come up with brand new ideas.

If we wanted to sum up how to succeed in business, it's by coming up with a compelling and unique solution to a real customer problem. There's almost always an element of innovation to that equation.

But, that's the opposite of what politicians do. Virtually every element of either presidential nominee's agenda has been around for years. (And that's to the extent that they're even willing to be pinned down about what they'd want to do if they win.)

If they're serious, political candidates don't really come up with new ideas. They repackage older ones--the ones they know won't turn off quite so many voters that they'll have no shot at winning.

4. You're on your own.

Entrepreneurship can be a lonely road. But imagine if it were different. Imagine, instead, if when you launched your business, there were billionaires who weren't really connected to you, but who were willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to support you and tear down your competition.

Welcome to the world of SuperPACs, the new form of political action committee that can raise and spend unlimited money in presidential and congressional races (provided they don't actually coordinate with campaigns). As of last week, SuperPACs had spent $228,363,178 on the 2012 elections. For what it's worth, more than three-quarters of that spending was in favor of Romney or other Republicans (or against Democrats).

5. You don't start with nearly half the market.

Mitt Romney's semi-recent gaffe about the 47 percent aside, it's true that nearly half of the population will support President Obama, no matter what. It's also true that nearly half will support Romney, no matter what. Presidential elections hinge on a tiny number of voters in just a very few states.

Imagine if when setting out you already knew that four in 10 consumers would choose your product or service. It sure would make it easier to focus on the small number you need to get more than half the market, wouldn't it?

6. You have to be profitable.

Campaigns raise money and spend until there's nothing left. The one thing they're never asked to do is turn a profit. 

In fact, they're often technically bankrupt at the end and forced to ask donors to give more money to campaigns that have already lost.

It all sounds like a political version of the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. If you were to do that with your business, however you're at the least be out of work, and possibly even on the hook for your company's debts.

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Last updated: Sep 26, 2012

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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