I often liken the entrepreneurial journey to parenting; no matter how much you study it, observe it in others, ask for advice, prepare for it, or convince yourself you're ready for it, there is simply no substitute for doing it. And as with parenting, you soon realize you can't imagine not doing it, because it's simply part of who you are.
Each stage of entrepreneurship, from the inception of an idea to the day you let go of the company you've built, is filled with unexpected challenges, sacrifices, and rewards. And while you can convince yourself you're ready, you never really are.
But, you're OK with that, right? I mean, the risks, challenges, detours, and ultimate glory are all worth it, correct? As someone who's spent nearly all of his adult life on that path, you'd think my answer would be an unequivocal and emphatic, Yes!
Not so fast. There are some important caveats.
There is a part of entrepreneurship we rarely talk about. And, if I'm to be honest with you, and with myself, it's not easy to talk about because it involves exposing a very deeply rooted fear of failure that fuels every entrepreneur. But first, some context.
You idea is worthless.
We all want to believe our ideas have value, that they can change the world. After all, it's ideas that spark the entrepreneurial journey. Wrong. The world is not lacking ideas. There is no greater commodity. In fact, their abundance makes ideas pretty much worthless. "Sacrilege," you say, "ideas are the foundation of every success story!" I'm sorry, not true. Because the moment you have a great idea, it is simultaneously occurring to, or has already occurred to, millions of other minds. More to the point, I've yet to meet a successful entrepreneur whose final company or product did not pivot many times, departing far from the initial idea he or she had. An idea alone is worthless. Accept it.
What's far more valuable, to an entrepreneur, than a good idea, is their commitment to execution. They will endure any hardship to bring their idea to market and prove it has merit.
And that's where the unspoken truth lies.
You see, the level of commitment to execution means everything else takes second place--often a distant second place. While we love to talk about life balance, mindfulness, making time for what's important, taking care of your physical and mental well-being, the reality is I've yet to meet a successful entrepreneur who has not made sacrifices that are (at least for some reasonable period of time) diametrically opposed to those ideals. Ignoring that reality offers an incredibly naive view of what it means to be an entrepreneur. If it were that easy, nobody would be reading Inc.
"...when you are building a business the priorities of the business will always come first."
Before you go all Deepak Chopra on me with the importance of striking a balance between mind and body, taking time to silence the noise, and finding inner peace, let me just say I agree those things are important--except that when you are building a business the priorities of the business will always come first. No matter how well-intentioned you are about striking a balance, when push comes to shove, the business always holds the trump card.
A little uneasy with that? I said this was an uncomfortable truth.
Look, this doesn't mean you will spend the rest of your life doing nothing but getting your startup off the ground, working 16-hour days, and eating three-day-old pizza that your co-worker forgot in the back of the fridge, but it does mean you will spend a significant chunk of it pretty much doing just that, obsessed with little else but your business.
The reason is utterly simple. Unless your business exists in some sort of vacuum, or government sanctioned monopoly, you will have lots of company from other folks trying to do exactly what you're doing. It's called competition, and it's ruthless, with no concern for your work/life balance. Markets are like evolution: heartless gatekeepers to the future.
You're obsessed with success.
Second, there's the fear I talked about earlier.
Entrepreneurs have only one end game, success. They are not driven to succeed, they are obsessed with it, it's part of their pathology. These are the people with whom you can't have a conversation, game of chess, or a friendly wager that does not turn into a take-no-prisoners competition. But that's a good thing for an entrepreneur, right? Yes, if you win.
You see, the vast majority of entrepreneurial ventures do not succeed, leaving those very same people who are obsessed with success dealing with its absence.
Have I scared you off yet? Of course not, you're reading this because you're the person I'm describing. You're going to do this no matter what. Good. So, here are four pieces of advice from someone who's been there.
- When you embark on an entrepreneurial journey, give yourself a hard timeframe. Don't allow yourself to be sucked into a black hole of never-ending struggles to prove that your idea, company, or self is successful. Everything has a life cycle. So do ideas. There's no magic timeline to follow, but if you're still trying to reach the critical mass of a self-sustaining company after two years, I'd seriously look at what's next.
- Define what constitutes success based on reasonable assumptions and unreasonable standards. There's nothing wrong with shooting for the moon, but if you are constantly falling back to earth because you cannot reach escape velocity, something is very wrong with your success metrics. Perhaps launching satellites into low earth orbit may be a better idea. (That's intended to be a metaphor, not advice.) As long as your standards are high, you have the assurance it wasn't for lack of trying.
- Prepare yourself, your spouse or significant other, and family for what's to come. Nobody starts the entrepreneurial journey with a balanced lifestyle. Yes, you should strive for that at some point. That's why you're doing this anyway, to have the luxury of time and choices of how to spend that time. To see your kids grow up. To travel and see the world. To mentor, teach, and help others less fortunate. You'll get there. However, and this may sound harsh, but from what I've experienced and seen, that's at least a five-year journey.
- Last, be honest with yourself about why you're embarking on this path. If it's all about the money, you'll never be motivated enough. How can I say that? Because I can tell you, without hesitation, that if you can trade in your drive for money, you aren't starting out with enough drive.
Few of us look for discomfort. I doubt you woke up today thinking, "Gee, what can I do to make my life harder than it is?" But the journey of an entrepreneur is always harder than expected. That's what you're signing up for.
Is it worth it? Really, you want me to answer that? You might as well ask me if it's worth being a parent. Of course it is, if it's who you are.