Recently, my wife and I were reflecting on my decade and a half as an entrepreneur, and found ourselves talking in a very objective way about the costs of this career path. Costs paid not in money, but in currencies a younger me never thought were finite.
I never intended to start my own business. In the echoes of the dotcom bust of 2001, there were few jobs to be had. One by one, the three for which I was in the running fell through, and by spring of ’02, I found myself hanging the metaphorical shingle and launching an agency.
My founding partner and I had heady dreams, and it wasn’t long before we were sipping champagne in celebration of our first major contract. We were off to the races!
Or so the story goes…. In truth, it took everything we had to earn every sale, to eke out a profit margin, to pay ourselves a living wage in a city that has become world-renowned for its outrageous cost of living. Years went by. Scratch, scratch. Scrape, scrape. Always optimistic that the next deal would get us where we wanted to be….
Reducing a startup to a VC-fueled formula never made sense. Success isn’t simple.
And who could blame us? Flip through the pages of Entrepreneur, Inc. or Fast Company, and you’d be forgiven for believing entrepreneurship is easy. Build your Business Model Canvas, raise some seed capital, ‘pivot’ your model, then Series A, Series B and BAM! A $1 billion pre-IPO valuation. Herds of unicorns galloping all the way to the bank!
There’s just one problem…. Unicorns are a myth!
Yeah, yeah. I know. It’s a metaphor. I get it. But that’s precisely the problem. By encouraging would-be entrepreneurs to chase a myth, we send them in pursuit of the unachievable.
As a consultant, advisor, mentor, and Entrepreneur-in-Residence, I’ve watched countless first-time entrepreneurs beat themselves up relentlessly for not finding the exponential growth curve. And for social entrepreneurs, it’s even worse. As they try to confront some of humanity’s most intractable problems, they take the weight of the world on their shoulders. For them, to fail in their enterprise is to fail to save lives, or to save our shared environment.
The real price of entrepreneurship is paid in the currencies of resilience, friendships, health and even family.
Truth be told, I’ve beaten myself up for years thinking about why it’s such hard work to build a social venture. Why success wasn’t just a little easier to reach. And I’ve learned the real price of entrepreneurship…. Always living for tomorrow, when the next great contract or the right publicity would catapult us to success. Networking and cultivating opportunities, instead of being home for countless family dinners. Deferring dividends to reinvest, reinvest, reinvest.
So it was with deep interest and a widening grin that I read David Heinemeier Hansson’s post, Exponential growth devours and corrupts.
There is no higher God in Silicon Valley than growth. No sacrifice too big for its craving altar. As long as you keep your curve exponential, all your sins will be forgotten at the exit.
As he rightly points out in his epic rant, this is woefully absurd. And it’s absolutely not the typical trajectory of entrepreneurship. A tiny percentage of companies will reach the mythic unicorn achievement of the $1 billion pre-IPO valuation. It’s a fun dream, but an absurd goal.
A couple of years ago, I listened to Steve Blank, the guru of the ‘Lean Startup’ movement, at a conference I was attending. He took a moment to acknowledge the unicorns, but he spent most of his time on stage in a Silicon Valley hotel talking about small, family enterprises, about ‘small giants,’ and about employee owned businesses that drive significantly greater local economic returns.
These are the profound stories that give a different shape to our definitions of success.
Ultimately, if you’re going to take the leap into entrepreneurship, my advice is this….
First, be sure you understand all that you’re investing: the money, the time, the life energy, the relationships. Know and hold fast to what you value most deeply, and don’t trade that for anything. Don’t even be tempted. It’s a slippery slope and I’ve been down the slide. It’s a long climb back up.
Second, surround yourself with people who are on the same journey as you, and hold wide open the conversation about how you’re doing. It’s going to be hard. Your resilience will be challenged time and again. You’ll need your peers’ support. For me, the Social Venture Institute and Social Venture Network have been invaluable.
Third, remember—always—that you are more than your enterprise. Don’t forsake time with family and friends; don’t forget the pastimes you love; and don’t lose your sense of self to the work. Keep space for learning, for laughter, for love.
In For Better or For Work, Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, who is married to Stonyfield Yogurt founder Gary Hirshberg, makes clear very early (page 2, in fact!) a hard lesson that many entrepreneurs learn far too late:
Neglect is a ubiquitous theme when the spouses and children of company founders talk about their lives. It’s a pervasive problem…. Gary and I like to compare the experience to riding shotgun on a curvy stretch of road. Usually the driver—the one in control—is just fine. It’s the passenger who feels sick.
Watch your speed. Keep your co-pilot in life with you in the front seat. And find ways to navigate the ride together. You, your business, and your family will be better for it. After all, whatever your “heady dreams” look like, they’re much sweeter when you all arrive together. That’s the real shape of success.
Mike Rowlands is President & CEO of Junxion. He has been described as a “peace warrior” and thought leader on issues of social importance. This is one of a series of letters he’s writing as he seeks to embrace transparency, step in to courageous conversations, and be in service to a new era. You can reach him via firstname.lastname@example.org.