Are most entrepreneurs just plain broke? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Peter Lynch, Private Equity Investor, on Quora:

However unlikely, I have always enjoyed the career path parallels between a stand-up comedian and bootstrap entrepreneur. It is an illuminating and often entertaining analog as it relates to the work required to reach a tipping point. Comedians constantly refine their craft until a loyal niche is identified, or somewhat magically, content written appeals to all and celebrity status is achieved. I would add that comedy takes it a step further; whereas capital raised may provide more resources to grow a business, it will not make you funny.

Louis CK recently commented, "I have been doing stand-up comedy for thirty years..." applause from the crowd "...and it has been working out really well for the last four." Whereas comedy lends itself to the retelling of misery endured, success in business often condenses the failures leading to a break through. An exaggerated example from Wikipedia follows:

He left IBM in 1962 to found Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in Dallas, Texas, and courted large corporations for his data processing services. Perot was refused 77 times before he was given his first contract. EDS received lucrative contracts from the U.S. government in the 1960s, computerizing Medicare records. EDS went public in 1968 and the stock price rose from $16 a share to $160 within days. Fortune called Perot the "fastest, richest Texan" in a 1968 cover story. In 1984 General Motors bought controlling interest in EDS for $2.4 billion.

There are exceptions, but I find narratives detailing the lives of successful entrepreneurs often focus on the incredible talents possessed by these unique individuals as they pursued their brilliant vision. It's a story told with the benefit of hindsight. In my opinion, most entrepreneurs are stumbling in the dark with an idea that is ever-evolving. And that is the story comedians tell. With entertaining narratives, the most successful delight audiences with anecdotes of the pain endured to stand in the spotlight before them: often dumbfounded by their own success.

Page one of Steve Martin's incredibly successful autobiography, Born Standing Up, opens in similar fashion to Louis C.K.'s comment: "I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success." The details that follow chronicle a life committed to magic, comedy and live performance from an early age. Like his first job at Disneyland:

I stood behind a counter eight hours a day, shuffling Svengali decks, manipulating Wizard decks and Mental Photography cards, and performing the Cups and Balls trick on a rectangle of padded green felt...

My weekends and holidays were now spent in long hours at Disneyland, made possible by lax child labor laws and my high school, which assigned no homework.

As an investor in largely founder-CEO companies for the last eight years, I have heard many stories that share similar time horizons and success. An example that comes to mind is the founder of a sports-enthusiast racing company who spent months camped outside a public library in a tent reading about high octane fuels (this was pre internet). Had you counted his "tent days," and he certainly did, then he had invested nearly two decades to build the business and gain the attention of the investment community.

There is a silver lining to it all. I recently spoke with an individual responsible for alumni donations at a prestigious university. He mentioned that for the first ten years, the lion's share of donations come from the alumni that went to work in financial services. "But then there's a consistent reversal." About ten years out, the alumni that he has not heard from in years start responding. As the years of refining and stumbling in the dark transform an idea into a business, the balance tips in favor of the entrepreneurs.

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Published on: May 17, 2017