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It must be easy. Print a t-shirt and go-public

Startups in the past few years (and being an entrepreneur in general) have gained a surprising level of acceptance if not outright admiration by the general public. It is exciting to see, but it sure is much different than when I started. In the mid-90s when you said you had a startup people just assumed you couldn’t get a “real job”…

So with this new public view (and more press/stories than ever) another interesting thing has happened. People have expectations that being an entrepreneur is like other jobs. That startups follow similar rules and patterns to big, established companies. And even worse, that you start a company and then in 6 months or horrors if you aren’t great it takes you a few years, but you take it public and retire with a few Ferraris in the garage.

Well, WRONG. Wrong, wrong, wrong. In startups there generally are no rules or rulebooks. Sure there are movements like “lean startup” or even incubators, but that doesn’t mean as an entrepreneur your success or even your path is lined out. As a matter of fact the worst thing you can do is follow someone else’s rulebook. The great startups are the ones that first look crazy and don’t make sense… The “me too” guys never amount to much.

Here’s the thing, being an entrepreneur or working with a startup is a maddening mix of science, art, gut, data and which way the wind blows. I hope I’m not crossing some sacred line that says all startup entrepreneurs are genius and on their way to unicorn status (the billion dollar club), but the fact is it is hard, confusing and sometimes lonely driving a startup. When things are hard or your product isn’t getting traction it feels horrible. You don’t know up from down and every decision feels like it could be fatal. Even when things are working well, you don’t always know what to do next. It’s just not easy.

So why even bother… You should choose to be an entrepreneur not because of assured riches or some elite social status (as those are both questionable and arguably unlikely), but because you have something that you deeply need to do. A problem you need to solve, a social wrong you want to make right. You have to be driven by a purpose beyond money to survive the rollercoaster of a startup.

I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire working life and its not an ounce easier today than it was twenty years ago. I am fortunate to have enjoyed some success in my startups but I also tend to go all in each time so my risk levels and downside today look very similar to the aggressive entrepreneur in his twenties. I do that because I have a burning desire to do something that matters. Something that moves the needle… But hey, I’d be lying if I said it was easy or that I don’t often wonder what the heck am I doing… Why not just relax into some cozy cubicle with a view, solid salary and maybe even benefits… These are real and fair questions that will keep you up at night, so the burning desire to drive real change and do something has to scream louder…

So, my advice: Don’t just pursue your passions because you like mountain bikes or think making chocolate is neat. Don’t become an entrepreneur so your card says CEO or you can say “startup” at a cocktail party. And certainly don’t start a company because it’s a direct line to wealth. Those things all fade… Pursue things you have a deep desire to do. Pursue it well beyond reason as that’s what it takes to do anything relevant.

And keep aspirin and pepto handy… I’m telling you, don’t sign up because you think it’s easy…



Photo credit: David Mayerhofer