Every now and then, some of our friends are bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. They tire of the corporate routine, the work hours and travel, and the thanklessness of working for someone else. Some of us are poked to offer advice and take sides. I take the side of employment. Having run a business for 12 years, my opinion is that entrepreneurship is needlessly romanticised.
First, the dividing line between work and life is erased the day you become a business owner. There is no shutting off. The long task list plays in the background whether you are at the cinema or in the shower. You wake up with the nightmare that a client deliverable has gone horribly wrong. Work consumes all your waking hours, and those who tell you to delegate, fail to see that delegation always needs a minimum of two people to work.
Second, that big canvass of office infrastructure that protects you, yes, that very thing you take for granted when you are at work, is sorely missed. There is no coffee machine in your tiny office and you have to stand by the kettle with the phone pressed to your ears, wondering how to measure tea and also make notes. When that printer gives up just the night before presentations have to be handed out to the classroom, you wonder how the ink got all over your fingers. You miss the tech support boy you did not even care to smile at. From replenishing stationery, to filing tax returns and fixing your HDMI cable, you have to know all, and be capable of seamlessly slipping into as many roles as required.
Third, if you think your boss is bad and you want to be your own boss by beginning a business, you have got it wrong buddy. At work you soon figure how to manage that one tyrant. At your own business, you have a bunch of clients, a set of vendors, and your own colleagues who will all make simultaneous and mostly unreasonable demands, and throw tantrums when you least expect it. Imagine having a tough deadline and your key resource calling in sick. At work you will escalate the issue, call for a replacement, vent at a colleague, draw on others you bailed out earlier, and begin thinking about how your boss will placate the client. If it is your own business, the only choice is to simply put your head down and do the task in abject loneliness, hissing under your breath about the unfairness of it all.
Fourth, the comfort of the pay cheque is something we just do not appreciate enough. Running a business is a real life exercise in managing that demon called cash. You will find that you won a large mandate, delivered it to great quality in time, and returned to your office in a celebratory mood, only to understand that your wait for being paid has only just begun. While your vendors will pester you for payments, your clients will offer a variety of creative excuses. Your employees’ enthusiasm about being a part of your team and feeling like owners, will all evaporate after a few months of delayed and deferred salaries. You will be too scared to take a bank loan or discount your invoices, worried about repaying with interest and building up debt.
Finance for non-finance courses that are so popular at all professor-led EDPs of management schools, should be handed over to small entrepreneurs. We guys really can do with those steep fees, trust me, and we will do a far better job of it.
Fifth, you will slowly find that the objectives and purposes of your business are modified dynamically as you go along. What you began doing won’t do well. You will tell yourself to keep the faith until the cash dries up at the bank. Then someone will come with something else you have the time and energy to work on. Or a client will ask you for customization that completely modifies your product. You will begin to build new dreams around every opportunity that comes your way, and soon enough you will be digging so many desperate little wells to realistically find any water. From time to time, helpful friends will assuage your doubts about the original lofty ideals of purpose and vision, by telling you that you are yet to transform into a blue-blooded business person. You will worry about your learning curve and grab the next mandate whatever it is.
Sixth, you will fall into the trap I call the Midas-touch syndrome. You will unexpectedly do well with something and begin to make money. You will love how your idea succeeded and how well it is performing. That confidence will make you think that what worked here will work everywhere else. You confidence about unlocking the key to success will lead you to put your money into what will later turn out to be harebrained ideas. But until the point of losing it all, you will have no doubt in your mind that you are on to becoming a serial entrepreneur who has the magic touch. Staying with the idea that worked and giving it all the focus is difficult when success comes early and easy.
Seventh, that tribe of private equity investors and venture capitalists will find you when you have posted two to three years of growth and profits. They will lure you with two concepts—the business plan and valuation. Even as you worry about the lofty assumptions that go into the business plan, in front of your eyes a growth path that turns your business into a million dollar empire will unfurl. The valuation matrix will make your heart swell in pride. You will love that range of valuation that is on the last slide of their presentation. The sign off will be heady and the money in the bank a huge relief. And then you will slowly kill yourself trying to achieve those stiff sales targets and the gory reality of financing in tranches. Even before you wake up in the morning the voice that asks “How much did you make today?” will begin to threaten your existence.
If you think you have a horrible job, take a vacation. Don’t jump into the madness of starting your own business.