We own our own companies and are on top of the world, right? We have worries, sure, but basically, things are fine. Except, maybe, for our relationships with our families, our optimism about our businesses, and our sense of progress
For 15 years I owned and operated a publishing and trade-show company. For the first 8 years I had impeccable credentials as a prisoner of my business. I felt as if I was on an emotional roller coaster that never stopped. Sales were up, I was up. Sales were down, I was down. The light at the end of the tunnel seemed to follow some perverse speed-distance equation: basically, the closer I got the farther away it was.
In the beginning, of course, was the intoxicating start-up. It was all-consuming. Socially, I became boring as hell. I could suck the oxygen out of a room as I talked about the most inane details from my day, which I, of course, found endlessly fascinating. At parties I actually found myself saying things like, "So, then I said to the Xerox man," or, "So, I could go with four-point or six-point type on my business cards. . . . "
As the business grew and became more demanding and complex the trap became deeper and imprisonment seemed permanent. Friends and family found me even more useless at any event that required social interaction.
Collectively, we are quick to acknowledge that we're prisoners of our companies. After all, it's a badge of honor. It's another way of saying, "Hey, I own my own business; I'm a member of a fraternity not everyone can belong to." Eventually, though, I came to understand that our problems go way beyond "if I could just take three weeks of vacation instead of two, I'd be a happy chappy." Or "if I could just find a terrific sales manager, I swear to God, I'd never complain about another thing."
At the heart of the matter are at least five core symptoms. Unless we're willing to understand them, our chances of ever changing and getting out of prison will be substantially reduced.
Symptom number one. Despair over the loss of closeness in important personal relationships.
We're talking about a breakdown in the relationships we value most. Here's the pattern: We start our business. We're excited, nervous, and yet optimistic. It's hope, it's opportunity, it's personal and family fulfillment. Our spouses, mates, or significant others are right there with us, backing us all the way. We know and they know that in the beginning it's going to be tough and time-consuming, but that's OK because once the business gets to a certain point everything in the relationship and family will return to the way it was or the way we want it to be.
Of course, the business, this complex entity with seemingly a life and mind of its own, never gets to that certain point. We keep promising that with the next big deal, the next big year, we'll finally be there. And our spouses, mates, or significant others eventually stop listening to us. They've seen the movie and heard the song too many times already. We're angry that they don't understand or empathize with how hard it really is to own and operate a business successfully. They're angry that we're not there both physically and emotionally.
Symptom number two. Unshakable anxiety that in spite of all that has been accomplished, doom is just around the corner.
I once listened to a friend who was highly agitated because his profits and sales had grown for the seventh consecutive year. He sounded less like the successful, seasoned business veteran I knew him to be and more like a new recruit who had just dodged another bullet.
"It won't last forever," he said, wringing his hands.
I could only empathize. For years, every time a customer called with a complaint, no matter how innocuous, I would get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that it was just the tip of the iceberg and that the whole business was on the verge of sinking.
"You know what would really make me happy?" my friend asked, beginning to brighten. "If I could develop a product that was so ingenious that it could never be duplicated."
For a moment we both relaxed, imagining what that would be like.
Symptom number three. Anger, passive or aggressive, toward family, employees, and customers.
Personally, there was a long stretch there when I was always angry. My anger was directed toward my employees. That's because my wife is half Italian, half Greek, and, let's face it, against that Mediterranean blood I didn't have a fighting chance. I know some people who have daily roaring battles with their customers, but I didn't have the guts for that, either. (See symptom number two.)
Instead, I took it out on my employees. Basically, I was angry at any employee who couldn't or wouldn't be like me. As in, "Why can't you have my work ethic, be worried when I'm worried, be happy when I'm happy?" I also confess to engaging in more than my fair share of scapegoating. Doesn't it feel great when something goes wrong and you can find someone else to blame? I mean, it can put a positive spin on what was shaping up to be a lousy day.
Symptom number four. Frustration that the lack of significant progress in our current business is preventing us from going forward with other ventures.
Isn't it revealing that we get more excited talking about new ideas than about our current enterprises? Creating new ideas is an integral part of our being. It's what separates us from the pack.
The Guinness Book of Records doesn't have the category "Most New Business Ideas," but if it did, I believe I'd know the record holder. A friend of mine who owns a real estate company has a computer file titled New Business Ideas. At last check he had 760 listings, each one a minimum of two paragraphs in length. My favorite: tuna fish with mayonnaise in the can.
Add up symptoms numbers one through four, and you get --
Symptom number five. The paradox itself: you own your own business and you don't enjoy it.
This one is the worst of all. Inherent in it is the sobering and depressing realization that what we want and value most is out of our control.
So what's going on here? I mean, we've read all the books, taken the right courses, and read all the business magazines. Why, then, are we prisoners of our businesses?
Why do people who are successful managers of other people's businesses struggle when they own their own businesses? Why are some of us comfortable with taking on debt, while others of us refuse to ever have any debt? Why do some of us trust consultants and some of us don't? Why do some of us like to sell and some of us don't?
Because of the intangible -- or maybe, to use a more appropriate term, wild card: ourselves.
Look, I'm not a psychiatrist and I have absolutely no desire to psychoanalyze anyone. However, I do believe that we're all saddled with emotional baggage. I call it the Samsonite Syndrome. Some of us have a 12-piece set; some of us may have a more modest 4-piece complement. Unless we're able to jettison it or at the very least have an awareness of what we're carrying with us, we'll always feel as if we're being held prisoner by our companies.
Once I understood that -- the way I came to that understanding is another, longer, story -- the notion of having my own business and not enjoying it became personally unacceptable. No reward was worth the risk of giving up what was really most important to me: a rich, rewarding relationship with my family and contentment in my work. I tell you, it was a hell of a revelation. It was so powerful, I did something that I rarely did, because I believed I had not earned the right: I took the afternoon off to buy my wife a birthday present.
I even took myself out to lunch. When the waiter brought the check, I inadvertently put down my corporate card but quickly replaced it with my personal card. While I waited for the waiter I thought about how I always made sure I used only my business credit card for business, and never for personal use the way everyone else in America did. But wait a minute -- I owned my own company. What was the big deal? As the waiter grabbed the check, I said, "Hang on a second," and switched credit cards.
That, I figured, was the least the company could do for me.* * *
In 1993 the acquisition gods decided to shine upon Todd Logan, and he sold his company, Sportscape Inc. Publications, in Winnetka, Ill. This column is from his book-in-progress, Help! I'm Being Held Prisoner by My Own Business.