In the technology economy, startup entrepreneurs have become something akin to rock stars. Whether it’s bloggers swooning at Ryan Holmes’ genuine humble graciousness amid the rampant growth of his business, Hootsuite, or Dennis Crowley appearing on TV commercials for Best Buy coyly hawking his baby, Foursquare, it’s hard not to take these moments for what they are: celebrations of success.
We fawn over exciting and successful companies, but to bring things back to earth it helps to remember that for every one of these wins, there are nine miserable failures. Such accolades are a few of the juicy rewards that come from brilliant conception, execution, perspiration and—yes—luck. As such, it’s important for would-be tech tycoons to maintain perspective on success and entrepreneurship; and to enter the fray eyes wide open about what the life of an entrepreneur really entails.
In August, we denizens of the technology industry gathered with the similarly afflicted from Silicon Valley at the annual GROW conference in Vancouver. We got together to share ideas, know-how and connections, and to celebrate successes like 99Designs, Cheezburger, Zendesk, and PlentyOfFish. It was an opportunity to learn, mature and feel good about building the technologies that, each in their own small way, help to reshape the ways in which we work and play.
The unifying tone, if not the explicit message, of conferences like GROW is that it’s good to be an entrepreneur. For many entrepreneurs, this is true. For a few, it’s better than good—it’s awesome. Financial success is but one potential windfall of venturing out on one’s own; the others include flexibility in lifestyle, fulfilling that desire to leave “worthy evidence of your passage,” sticking it to that girl/guy who rejected you at the high-school dance, and the opportunity to develop knowledge and experience at one’s own pace. In truth, there are as many reasons to pursue one’s own business as there are lines of business to pursue.
Some ideas are too big for a startup to tackle, and some are too big for the kind of resources you can muster at the current stage of your career.
But it’s important to remember that entrepreneurship does not apply to everyone at every stage of one’s life; nor does it apply to every idea. Some ideas are too big for a startup to tackle, and some are too big for the kind of resources you can muster at the current stage of your career. Other ideas are simply “features” that are dependent on larger products or services. For these you’re best off taking them to your superiors at your present employer, Humungous Corp.
Much more importantly, we need to remind ourselves that entrepreneurship is a means, not an end. As an example of what I mean by this, I am frequently approached by young wantrepreneurs itching to own a business and asking for help and advice. I will ask them what their idea or project is: many don’t have a well-formed answer, or they have multiple ill-formed ideas that have nothing to do with their experience. I cringe. Their approach is just all wrong.
Being an entrepreneur is hard, even when you are successful. In the glossy magazines and YouTube interviews we see only the glamour of being a company founder and none of the grit. I visited Ryan Holmes unannounced not long ago and caught him napping on a well-used cot in a storage area at the Hootsuite offices. He hadn’t slept for two days.
READ: Hootsuite and the Art of Continual Product Innovation
Marshalling resources and people who, for natural reasons, don’t share the same drive as you to move a business forward can be hard. Struggling against the enormous counteracting forces that lie ahead of any startup is a physical, emotional, and financial drain. Watching friends enjoy luxurious vacations while you toil in obscurity takes its toll on your sanity. A mild form of bipolar disorder is required to—or results from—containing the dissonance of where you want to be and where you are. And there’s no more solitary feeling than risking your entire well-being in order to push through an idea that might be slightly before its time or is disruptive to the status quo.