By Doug R. Wilwerding
I distinctly remember as a young entrepreneur in my late 20’s and 30’s frequently thinking to myself, ‘there is no possible way I could ever work any harder than I am working right now’. I am embarrassed to admit that I actually said this out loud more than once. Woe was me at the weight of my entrepreneurial burden. At the time, I shared the same struggle that so many entrepreneurs experience. The work was hard because building and growing a business is damn hard.
Entrepreneurialism is inherently an unnatural act. It involves ridiculous risk, delayed gratification, and intellectual, physical, and emotional commitment beyond rational limits. The hours are long, the early wins are few and far between, and your closest companions are interminable doubt, a sense of isolation, and a heavy responsibility for everyone involved. In short, as an entrepreneur we accept an invitation to suffer for the vision we love.
Part of the growth process of the entrepreneur is working through this sense of sacrifice by coming to a few realizations. Once internalized these lessons lighten the load.
Start with this irrefutable fact; none of us is the first or will be the last to endure suffering for a vision. We all stand on the shoulders of entrepreneurial giants. Every product or service we benefit from today is the result of someone’s vision and their sacrifice to that vision. From entrepreneurs of notoriety like Steve Jobs whose vision led to the Mac I am typing on, to Nikola Tesla whose vision of A/C current powers this Mac, and current icons like Elon Musk who is revolutionizing personal transportation, to the vast majority of entrepreneurs who work in relative obscurity, each has traveled the journey you travel today. Learning of other entrepreneurs’ successes and failures along the path can be both informative and inspirational.
As a logical extension of the first point, realize that there are a lot of people around each of us, in our towns, neighborhoods, and in our families who have traveled the entrepreneurial journey. These people are our allies; once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur at heart. Being an entrepreneur enters you into a special corner of society. Each of us can learn from the others who sit at the same table.
Many of our predecessors on this journey are available and usually willing to share their battle scars, wisdom and advice. When listening to their stories, many parallels can be drawn across time and generations; these are the most important lessons. While landscape and lexicon frequently change, the fundamentals of business are timeless.
In 1999 I was on a flight from Chicago to Miami. As is true for most of my life, luck was in my corner. I was seated next to the Chairman and CEO of Ashtabula Steel from Ashtabula, OH. (The name of the company changed years ago.) I don’t recall his name any longer but I have never forgotten the conversation. Over the course of two and a half hours he taught me more about leading a business with integrity, building high performance teams, and structuring and leveraging a board of advisors than I could have learned in years of trial and error. Much of what he taught me I put to work as soon as I got back to the office. He was truly interested in the 37-year-old rookie sitting next to him and I have been forever grateful for his generosity and wise counsel.
Finally, try not to be defensive or sensitive to constructive advice. Whether this is your first start up or your tenth, no one knows everything. If someone who cares about your success is challenging your ideas or approach take the time to listen hard and consider what they are saying. A fallacy of the entrepreneurial ethos is unwavering certainty of thought and action, although we all secretly live with a level of doubt. Being open to advice and taking the time to really consider other perspectives will either shine light on new ways to approach problems or will serve to objectively confirm your path. Either conclusion lightens the load.
To be an entrepreneur is to suffer, at least in the early stages. Embrace it, but don’t wallow in it. Find a way through by looking in the mirror and by asking for and accepting help from those who have traveled before you. The reward of being an entrepreneur is knowing that you have built something meaningful and truly valuable. In addition to economic gain, you build relationships and a legacy. These rewards make all the burden and sacrifice well worth it.