Being an entrepreneur is a huge financial sacrifice. You may not draw any salary while you’re bootstrapping and/or looking and begging for capital and even once you have the means to pay yourself, it will probably just barely be enough to keep the lights on. But that’s not the biggest cost of being an entrepreneur.
There is also a significant opportunity cost when starting a company. The forgone income you could be earning in a consulting or corporate gig, not to mention the resume-building, career ladder rungs you could be climbing, is substantial. But that’s not the biggest cost of being an entrepreneur either.
As I’m sure you could imagine, launching a new venture is also a huge time commitment. The biggest you’ll ever make. You can maybe budget some time here and there for one other activity like working out. But you can kiss your TV time, your leisurely book reading, your weekly beer get-togethers, your golf outings, your garage band and your weekend getaways away. There simply won’t be time. Your top priority and to a large extent, your only priority, will be your company. But even that’s not the biggest cost of being an entrepreneur.
So what’s the biggest cost of being an entrepreneur? As best as I can recall, back when I was running my company, a typical dinner conversation with my wife went something like this:
Me: “So how was your day?”
Wife: “Good. Hey, my friends are coming to town next week so I wanted to see if you could join us for dinner Wednesday night. I’d like you to meet them.”
Me: No response.
Wife: “Glenn, does that work?”
Me: “Ummm… Sorry. What was the question?”
Wife: “Does next Wednesday work for you?”
Me: “Does Wednesday work for what exactly?”
Wife: “I just told you. You obviously haven’t heard a word I said.”
Me: “Sorry. You’re right. Can you please repeat it?”
Wife: “Glenn, where are you?”
Me: “What do you mean? I’m right here.”
Wife: “No you’re not. You’re not really with me. Where are you?”
Me: “Sorry. There’s a lot on my mind. I think I need to fire one of my execs. And we didn’t get the licensing deal we spent three months pursuing. And one of the investors might be backing out at the 11th hour and there’s no backup plan. And our sales were flat from last month. And…”
I’d love nothing more than to sit here as I write this and tell you that this kind of one way conversation was a rarity. That my body being in one spot while my head was elsewhere only happened once or twice a year. But I’d be lying. If I said these “the sky is falling” conversations were a weekly occurrence, I’d probably be drastically underestimating the frequency.
That’s because being an entrepreneur is a full time job. I don’t mean full time as in a forty or fifty or even sixty hour workweek. I’m talking full time as in 24×7. You’re “working” even when you’re not working. It’s all you can think about. There’s no escape.
You think about it first thing when you rise up in the morning and last thing when you lie down to sleep at night and every moment in between. Even when you’re not in the office, the office is always inside of you.
And that’s why I would suggest that the biggest cost of being an entrepreneur is the emotional one. This is not to say that being an entrepreneur doesn’t have its rewards. I loved it. There’s no better way to feel alive than to try to create something out of thin air. The elation of the highs are unlike any other experience. But the highs can be far and few between while the lows are ever-present. The ecstatic moment when you’re shaking hands with an investor to lead your financing round is usually on the heels of spending months feverishly pounding the pavement with investors all over the country and receiving 100 “no’s”. You celebrate the big customer or strategic partner you just landed but that’s only after a year of painstakingly working your way through a long, slow, convoluted sales cycle that you thought would never end. And those celebratory moments don’t ever last very long, for the very next day there are new obstacles to face, new mountains to climb.
On top of the ongoing stress and anxiety, what makes the entrepreneurial life so emotionally challenging is how isolating it can be. While you want to be authentic with your staff to a degree, you also want to be the optimistic leader who instills confidence in your troops. You come to learn that your state of mind is quite contagious. They don’t even have to hear it from your lips. They can sense it. They can smell your fear from across the room. If they don’t feel a sense of calm and reassurance coming from their leader, they’ll get nervous and head for the exits.
When you’re in dangerous seas, if there’s no brave captain at the helm, that’s when mayhem ensues.
This sense of isolation is likely reinforced with your Board dynamics as well. It’s a balancing act. Sure, ideally you and your investors are partners joined at the hip and completely in sync. You’re in this together and if things aren’t going well (and inevitably there will be periods where they aren’t), you want to feel empowered to discuss the myriad of challenges you’re facing on a regular basis. At the same time, being too vulnerable has its risks. The Board may feel you’re in way over your head and need to be replaced. So the pressure to demonstrate that you’re in control and you’re the most competent quarterback to lead your team to victory is constant.
And it’s not just about your behavior and attitude at the company but at home as well. Thank God I had a very supportive wife at the time to be on the receiving end of all my many venting sessions. But even so, I still had to strike a balance. If I had no filter, she would have had to endure these emotionally draining speeches filled with all my stresses and anxieties multiple times a day. There’s only so much a person can take. And my ego would only allow me to be so transparent. After all, I didn’t want her second guessing the person to whom she had made a lifetime commitment.
My intension here isn’t to convince anyone not to be an entrepreneur. When I look back over my 20+ year career, being an entrepreneur was the most rewarding job (if you can even call it a “job”) I’ve ever had.
Yes, it was stressful and anxiety-provoking and challenging and uncomfortable and uncertain. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Going into it, I was well aware of the financial and opportunity costs of starting a company. I had worked with other startups previously and learned about the sacrifices of time and money that the founders had made. But I was pretty clueless as to the emotional costs I would be undertaking. Not too many people discussed it. It was a somewhat taboo topic. But now I know. Now I understand.
So if your gut is telling you it’s time to take the plunge, throw caution to the wind and start a business, by all means go for it. No time like the present. But just be sure you go into it eyes wide open. If climbing the mountain wasn’t so exhausting and risky, reaching the summit wouldn’t taste nearly as sweet. So go ahead and climb. Just realize it’s not going to be a cakewalk to get to the top.