In a Monty Python sketch, the middle-aged Mr Anchovy, played by Michael Palin, wants to give up what he calls the desperately dull world of chartered accountancy in order to become a lion-tamer. His ‘vocational guidance counsellor’, aka John Cleese, suggests he consider an interim career path – banking, say – while he works towards lion-taming. No, no, no, no, no, Mr Anchovy interrupts. I don’t want to wait. At nine o’clock tomorrow I want to be in there, taming.
Fast forward fifty years, and now everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, a founder of their own startup venture. Lion taming is so passe. Entrepreneurship have become the new role models of the C21st, seen as pioneers in vanguard of Musk, Zuckerberg, and Jobs. However, we fall back on broad stereotypes without really understanding what makes such leaders unique.
The concept of entrepreneurship suggests that in dynamic new endeavours, with increased uncertainty and pressure, it’s all excitement and fresh challenge. Those with ‘entrepreneurial flair’ can see, act, and exploit opportunities faster than others. But it’s not for everyone, believe me, stand back from the glamour and the hype, the majority of entrepreneurs graft and grind to success, but the reality is more mundane than Musk.
It’s hard to find that elusive balance between irrational hubris, visionary conviction, and self-delusion. If you end up being right, you’re handsomely rewarded. If you end up being wrong, you were crazy… and everyone told you that you were crazy. Why didn’t you just listen? Self-awareness is an ongoing practice that founders should embrace. Constantly assess your role: what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses, what do you have to learn to be better at, and what you can delegate? What do you love and what do you hate doing?
Entrepreneurship has a way of sucking us in due to our drive and ambition, but your startup should bolster your happiness and fulfilment, not detract. For many, ‘it’s crazy at work’ has become their startup norm. Work claws away at life. Life has become work’s leftovers. The answer isn’t more hours, it’s less noise and far fewer things that induce ‘always-on’ anxiety. On-demand is for movies, not for work. Sacrifices abound.
Not only does crazy not work, but its genesis - an unhealthy obsession with rapid growth - is equally corrupt. Towering, unrealistic expectations drag people down. It’s time to stop asking everyone to breathlessly chase ever-higher targets set by ego. It’s time to stop celebrating crazy. Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day; they just use it up. Risks are often knowingly ignored.
Push back on the cauldron of hype and bravado, extreme working hours, growth-at-all-costs, and the focus on fund raising as the only measures of success – all are fundamentally flawed. If it is for you, build a startup that isn’t fuelled by all-nighter crunches, impossible promises, or manufactured busywork that leads to systemic anxiety. Noise and movement are not indicator of activity and progress, they’re just indicators of noise and movement. No hair on fire. Build calm. Simply turn these on their heads and debunk the myth to get a batter balance of reward.
Are there occasionally stressful moments? Sure, such is life. Is every day peachy? Of course not. But do your best so that on balance be calm, by choice, by practice. Be intentional about it. Don’t follow-the-lemmings-off-the-cliff. Step aside and let them jump! Chaos should not be the natural state at your startup. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Keep things simple. Leave the poetry in what you make. Focus on rewarding yourself.
So, I think you need an honest appraisal before you check-into the startup of you. I see many on the journey of hope living a 12+ hour daily false narrative of joyous struggle ‘testing my resilience’ in public, when I know behind closed doors they are wrecked with anxiety, burden, and fear. Get ready for a lonely bumpy road that 99% don’t survive. Being a founder is not as glorious as you think. In fact, it’s the opposite. So, let’s look at three attributes – sacrifice, risk, and reward – that I think you need to consider before rolling the founders’ dice, and put them into perspective.
1. Personal Sacrifices
Don’t think of these sacrifices as literal sacrifices. You’ll be giving something up, sure, but try to think of it as an investment option. You’re giving up intangible luxuries in exchange for something better down the road. You’re paying for the opportunity to find success in your own enterprise on your own terms. Here are some common sacrifices to expect along the way.
Stability You’re starting a new venture, and there’s no guarantees. Even if your idea and plans have solid foundations, there will be turbulence along the way, highs, and lows, rocky at best, and there’s no telling which direction you’re headed until you’re several months into it. Startups by their very nature are unstable, you will encounter unforeseen shifts as your work progresses. It’s part of the growth process. Eventually, with a resolute, clear vision, things will stabilise.
Security and standards of living Your very first investor is yourself, most founders use their savings to get off the ground. As a result, you’ll have to tighten your belt and repurpose personal budgets. Start tapping into your inner frugal self, and you’ll discover you can live on less than you imagine. No regular pay-cheque and sacrificing personal capital are two key financial risks – have you made contingency plans?
Prepare yourself by clearly outlining your financial commitment to the business. Know exactly how much money and time you will commit and what will happen if that investment is unsuccessful. Have frank discussions with yourself about the potential failure of your venture. These conversations will not only help you create a fall-out plan from mishaps, but they will also help you identify risk factors, and just what your real appetite is.
Headspace A new business requires consistent problem-solving. Every day brings a new challenge, which is both a joy and a burden. To prepare for this, clean up your daily life: avoid mindless activities that are distracting and aren’t priorities. When have a moment when your mind is clear and you need a break from the business, utilise it. Time management skills are important in preparing yourself for the loss of headspace you’ll experience with a startup. Successful entrepreneurs are the ones who learn to thrive in uncomfortable situations with confidence.
2. Personal Risks
Entrepreneurship gives you the opportunity to make a mark on the world and improve people’s lives. For yourself, you can create a personalised financial landscape and, more importantly for me, the freedom of how to spend your time. Before you arrive at that place of satisfaction and fulfilment though, you will have to face certain risks.
Quality of relationships Some founders end up sacrificing significant relationships. If you lose worthwhile relationships completely, that’s a sign that there’s an issue with your ability to balance work and life priorities. Know that your time will largely be dedicated toward your venture but carving out time to spend with those you care about is critical.
You’ll start thinking about business most times, sometimes because you want to and sometimes because you can’t help it. At the outset, your time invested in relationships will have to change but manage the timing and the intensity of this, put some clear bookmarks into your schedule.
Emotions By this I mean physical, and spiritual health. You need to keep these on top of your agenda and not let your entrepreneurial venture take precedence. Set aside time for taking care of your health every day but know if won’t be as much as you’d like.
Starting a business will mean that you will go through an emotional rollercoaster, highs and lows, euphoria, and huge doubts about your ability to succeed. Try to find a balance, make the highs and lows less extreme and focus on steady progress. Outliers of either emotion are unhelpful. It is how you handle these situations that will ultimately define who you are.
Sleep It’s quite simple: the right amount of sleep leaves you with the right working hours in the day to get things done. Don’t sacrifice sleep, its counterproductive. Sure, there will be pulling all-nighters to get a proposal completed, but it’s never about sacrificing huge chunks of sleep every night in order to gain a few hours in your day. It won’t be worth it because you’ll lack energy.
In other cases, you’ll be getting up early to make a meeting or get all your tasks in order, or lying awake at night, restless and wondering about the future. Whatever, your sleeping habits are vital, and despite the rhetoric, you don’t need to run an 18-hour working day.
3. Personal Rewards
As you progress through your entrepreneurial journey, you will no doubt see close friends have great careers in the corporate world, allowing them to live a comfortable life. However, this should not discourage you, remember that their security has a ceiling for growth, and your limits are infinitely higher doing your own thing. You will have your time to shine.
Hands-on relationship with the work you love Many people choose to go into a business because they love some aspect of it: a chef opens a restaurant. As a founder, you control your own destiny and establish an enterprise to serve as a statement of your ambitions. In the beginning you have to do a bit of everything and sometimes get knocked down, but you have to dust yourself down and get back up on your feet. You are setting your own direction and without being too dramatic, your own destiny.
Freedom You decide when you want time away from the business. Whilst at the outset you’ll be putting in a shift, but it’s about repurposing your time for maximum benefit. Flexibility to use the hours and days in the week is a great feeling, it was one of the personal drivers in my choice to do my own thing. Work your own schedule, when and where you like. This freedom adds to your life satisfaction and make you more fulfilled. Set your agenda, no one else does!
Excitement and impact Building your own business is exciting as you get to apply your skills and abilities to solve problems, make breakthroughs and meet interesting people. Your work is dynamic, your venture is growing so you never get bored. There is no better feeling then creating something out of nothing. You get to see the impact you make first hand as you work closely with customers and your team.
Success creates the reward of being able to chart your own course freely. In my opinion, my life is made up of a bunch of small wins that feed overall success, nothing is at odds. Success means that we live the life we truly want, and not just the life we settle for.
No one is asking you to look at the world through rose-coloured glasses. See the world for what it is. Entrepreneurs choose the life of challenge, gambling for achievement, but also inevitably encountering times marked by confusion, chaos, and disappointment. They consciously choose a life in which the peaks and troughs are more vivid than if safer choices made. Is this for you? Can you manage this volatility?
Many startup founder wannabes I encounter are lured by the eat-what-you-kill excitement without reflection on do they have what it takes. But if they ignore self-analysis, they should not ignore comedy. Mr Anchovy never did become a lion-tamer. What he thought was a lion was an anteater. Shown a photo of a real lion, he passed out.