Starting a Business Isn't All Unicorns and Rainbows (the Other Side of the Story)
A reader emailed me this week with a suggestion. She left her job over a year ago to travel the world and start a business with her partner. After struggling to get her business off the ground for the better part of a year, anxiety got to her. Despite having significant savings, she became so distracted by money-related fears that she could no longer focus on building the business. She started look for a job. She found a great job. Excellent pay, fantastic benefits, flexibility on travel. The ability to live a great lifestyle without being self-employed. So what's the problem? As I was reading this story, I couldn't help but think about how familiar it sounded to my own story. I too left a comfortable job to start a business. I too started feeling anxious about living off my modest and hard-earned savings. My anxiety got so bad I sought medical attention. Stress can be debilitating for entrepreneurs. For some reason I slogged on, despite having no income, no investors and dwindling personal funds for a year. Twice. I also came very close to looking for a job, and my path could have been very different if I had. This reader wrote in to suggest that I offer some perspective on the issues and questions both she and I faced when starting a business. So here it is, the other side of the story.
Yes my ambitious friends, starting a business isn't all unicorns and rainbows. It's always challenging and sometimes scary as hell. Brace yourself.
As this reader pointed out, the rhetoric around lifestyle businesses is usually one-dimensional. I know that I too often sound one-sided on the issue. The truth is, starting a business is hard. It's definitely not for everybody. Regarding our reader friend who started this discussion, I'm not saying starting a business isn't for her. She could still very well end up becoming self employed in the years to follow. Taking a job isn't any sort of defeat. It's simply what you might be right for you at the time. Let me clear up a few things before we continue. I've written many times about my views on self employment. I've often been harsh on jobs in general. I wish there were far more self employed people and small businesses in the world. Our economy and society would be better off with fewer big corporations. Concentrated wealth and power corrupts. People are often happier and more fulfilled when working for themselves. BUT, that doesn't mean people who work jobs are losers or weak or uninformed or flawed in any way. Many of my closest friends work "regular" jobs. Some people choose to work a job because they love what they do. Some people choose employment over self-employment because it's comfortable or lucrative or challenging in a different way. Some people simply know that they wouldn't make good entrepreneurs. Other people work jobs because they haven't figured out what they really want to do with their lives. In any case, there is nothing wrong with having a job. If you currently have a job, there is no reason to feel bad about that. Don't let anyone who runs a business or even a "lifestyle business" tell you how to feel about what you do for a living. It's up to you to decide. When I write about my love for self employment and the lifestyle I live now, I'm sharing my personal feelings, and I'm talking to a certain group of people. If what I say resonates with you, great. If not, that's fine as well. I don't think I'm special or superior because I'm an entrepreneur. In fact, sometimes I think entrepreneurship is an affliction. Everyone is different, and I'm not suggesting that everyone should be self-employed. On the contrary. That's why I have also occasionally written about what employers should do to be better bosses. There are some fantastic and important jobs out there for smart and ambitious people. There are employers who care about their employees and what they're contributing to the world. Unfortunately there aren't enough of these caring, sharing employers. The facts say most people are unhappy with their jobs. I knew that I would never be satisfied unless I gave self employment a real shot. I even had a very flexible job, with incredible benefits and unlimited time off. Still it wasn't enough for me. I know a lot of you feel the same way, and that's why I write so passionately about entrepreneurship.
The Other Side of the Story
As you've probably noticed, the blogosphere is full of people who like to tout the benefits of self employment without talking about the other side of the story. Again, I'm sometimes part of that group. Self employment can be an incredible way to live. It has made me happier and more fulfilled than anything else I've achieved. But the other side of the story is something every would-be entrepreneur or lifestyle business builder should consider. These facts are very real, serious, and not to be overlooked:
1. Starting a business while traveling at the same time is damn near impossible
Quit your job! Start a business! Travel the world! Maybe you've read similar rallying cries online recently. If only it were that easy. The truth is, it's damn near impossible to get a new business off the ground while traveling. Sure, you can travel once your business is stable, but building a business takes serious dedicated, concentrated effort. Backpacking around Southeast Asia might be fun, but don't expect to get much real work done. In fact, you'll probably just be frustrated by your inability to truly enjoy either the traveling or the business building. I built my business partly while living in Mexico, but most of the effort I've put in happened while I was stationary for months at a time.
2. Personal problems don't disappear just because you're self employed
If you're seriously unhappy, don't look to self-employment as a cure-all. If anything, your natural psychology will become amplified during the startup phase of your business (which usually lasts a few years, by the way). Starting a business is an emotional roller coaster. If you don't have a strong emotional foundation, that roller coaster might make you crazy.
3. Serious anxiety and even panic disorder are very common among new entrepreneurs
I mentioned earlier that my anxiety became so severe that I talked to a doctor about it. It turned out my startup experience had brought on a case of panic disorder. Eventually I learned to deal with the stress and the condition went away. While I had it, I made some ridiculous decisions and had a hard time getting any serious work done. It's hard to say how much that level of stress damaged my health long-term. Most entrepreneurs I've talked to go through something similar, do differing degrees. For some it's bad enough to kill their business plans altogether.
4. Your relationships may suffer because of your business
Can your close personal relationships endure month after month of you being physically unavailable or emotionally distant? My wife is incredibly supportive. I'm very lucky that's the case, considering how many years I've spent in the grueling "startup" phase of businesses. If your spouse or family isn't so supportive, you have to decide if the risk of damaging your relationships is worth it.
5. There's a very real chance your first business attempt won't succeed
You need to be able to accept that. If you can't live with that possibility, you should probably do something else. I failed twice before I succeeded. I knew about the risks and accepted them. My goal was to learn from each failure and I didn't count on any one business as being the perfect opportunity. Maybe you'll fare better, and maybe you won't. If you do accept the possibility of failure, I suggest you focus on winning the war (building a business) and not on winning every battle (any specific project or business may fail). For me, these harsh truths weren't enough to keep me from building a business that supports me and that I'm incredibly proud of. I live a charmed life because I fought for it. For you, the answer might be different. Hopefully this honest look at the other side of self employment will help. If you read this and are still committed to building your business, welcome to the club. You have entrepreneurship in your blood. Has your experience with self employment been similar? As I said, everyone is different. This is just my perspective. I'd love to hear your perspective in the comments below. And if this article helped you, I'd love you to share it with someone who could also use it. Just click the sharing buttons below.
The reader who started this discussion with me over email is Leah Neaderthal, and her business is called Smart Gets Paid. She teaches women entrepreneurs how to get the clients they want, and get paid bigger numbers. Thanks Leah for the inspiration for this post and good luck to you with the business. Let us know how things progress.