One of the highlights of my mentoring work with entrepreneurs is the day they decide they don’t want to be entrepreneurs anymore. That might seem counterproductive, of course, but it’s a decision that can enrich the rest of their lives.
Social media sites, especially sites like LinkedIn, are filled with odes to entrepreneurs who tirelessly battle the naysayers and emerge victorious in their crusade for success. Start-up founders are exhorted repeatedly: Never give up, never lose your drive, never accept that it can’t be done, never surrender your dream. Never never never. Ever.
You can, um, pivot, 500 times, but pivoting is for pioneers and exiting is for losers. If you take a different path, you’re a quitter, doomed to be a drone in a corporate world, a follower, a lackey. You’ll be thinking inside the box, wrapped in a corporate cocoon, a drone, a minion, tortured by un-shifted paradigms and un-pushed envelopes. Simply stated, you’re a failure.
Entrepreneurship has become a religion in the business world, with all the zealotry that drives true believers. The entrepreneur is Erik the Red, Chuck Yeager, Davy Crockett (before that Alamo unpleasantness), Thomas Edison and Louis Pasteur…the superhero who will lead us into the future. Or maybe entrepreneurship isn't a real religion; perhaps it's more of a cult.
Entrepreneurship, like bungee jumping and fourth marriages, is an irrational act. The hours are intolerable, the odds for success are abysmal, financial strains are constant, and social/family ties atrophy. Most people who take this path are unbalanced. That doesn’t mean they’re mentally ill, although I do have my suspicions about several, but they often live outside the norms for factors like risk tolerance and ego.
Frequently, I’ll meet a younger person who is swept up in the mania surrounding entrepreneurship. She wants to be a part of the creative process, the disruption, the new frontier for business. She has an idea, usually an app, and she’s ready to change the world.
When it’s a person I’m mentoring, we examine the full range of issues connected to the adventure—and to the adventurer. What will it take to make this a viable business? How can the process be systematized or accelerated? How can cash be charred instead of burned? What are the options for timing and structure of an exit?
The most critical conversation in all of this is about the trade-offs inherent in starting a business. The owner will be foregoing the opportunity to advance in a traditional career in order to roll the dice at an all-or-nothing table. Often, the owner will be taking on loans to finance the first steps of the venture, delaying by years or decades their opportunities for financial security. Almost always, their bucket lists grow dramatically with everyday goals like travel, family, home ownership or binge watching.
Sometimes, the owners make a rational assessment of the situation and decide to move forward. Sometimes, they make a rational assessment of the situation and decide to end the venture.
Maybe they determine that the business won’t be profitable enough to justify the investment or that they will have too low an equity stake by the time they get to the finish line. Maybe they look at their own parents’ relationships, or availability to them as children, and decide that’s where they will make their biggest investment of blood and toil.
Whatever path they choose, they’ll have a solid foundation for their decision and an improved likelihood of success. They won’t quit. They’ll make a decision about the value to be received for the value invested, and then they’ll choose their next steps.
Meanwhile, online, there’s a bro culture surrounding entrepreneurship. Guys post about how hard they work or how little sleep they get or the trails they are blazing, and I can’t help but wonder if they are trying to convince themselves that they deserve a seat with the cool kids. It’s reminiscent of high school, at times, and I hope they grow out of it.
There are many paths to success, many ways to change the world, and many ways to have a fulfilling life. When someone I am mentoring makes an informed choice about the right path, it’s a glorious day.
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