Entrepreneurs Are Mad…and That’s Perfect

I was recently asked why I am an entrepreneur.  The questions were good-natured but ran along the lines of;

  • “isn’t it really a lot of work?”
  • “you don’t get paid much do you?”
  • “isn’t it frightening to fight for success?”

Let me cut to the chase and tell you the answer to each is ‘yes.’  Unless someone is lying to you then these questions do enter the mind of an entrepreneur.  I would further argue that if that entrepreneur is worth his salt and/or really trying to move the needle then these questions enter their thinking every other hour.  Considering how negative these questions are, lets look at them and ask one of our own; “are entrepreneurs mad?”

Being an entrepreneur is a lot of work (done properly that is).  My father, an accomplished entrepreneur in his own right, is fond of saying that anything worth doing is necessarily hard so as to check your and the world’s commitment to that idea.  There are the challenges of building something new, changing people’s minds, nurturing and growing an organization, engaging the outside world in a productive way, and the list goes on.  That’s a lot to manage so sufficed to say that an hour of my day is precious.  That hour may live somewhere in the still-dark parts of the morning or smack dab in the middle of Saturday night—but it is my hour.  My hour can create product, produce revenue, empower my team.  Subsequently I find it difficult to justify how sleeping late, reading a magazine, sitting on my patio, etc are more valuable uses of time than the future we are trying to build and the team I have committed to in that pursuit.

Generally speaking, startup folks don’t make a lot of money…at first.  It is important to understand that entrepreneurs are no different from most people in wanting to be compensated for their work.  That said a founder is a unique beast.  We are willing to devote ourselves to an idea in hopes that the idea has extreme value later on.  I often see a follow-on to the question of money in “why not work a regular job—at the end of it all we will have the same money.”  I disagree completely.  I am working towards an outsized innovation and want an outsized return.  More to the point, the math here doesn’t hold up.  Lets say a successful entrepreneur is expecting after 3 years of hardcore founders work (see above) to personally make $10 million.  With the national average yearly wage hovering around $42,000 it would take 238 years to get there in a conventional sense.  What’s more, I hope to get there in just 3 years.  In order to accomplish this I need to find a way to create an organization that will allow me to squeeze 238 years of effort into 3.  This addresses the above point of hard work but also speaks to levering up the model of compensation.  So no, founders don’t make much money early on but rather trade that early hardship for the chance of outsized returns in short periods of time.  I personally think the tradeoff is worth it.

Finally, being frightened.  Launching a company is scary.  Scary to give up the security of a regular job, to be fully responsible for your destiny, to know that your decisions are the difference between success and failure, to be responsible for others, and to know that you will not have a break from all of this for some time.  I won’t pretend that these and others points aren’t very real.  But what else do I get from a healthy dose of fear as we start a company?  I get clarity of thought, prioritization, drive.  An entrepreneur is somewhat unique in that fear focuses our attention.  It empowers my resolve to break through to the truly important points quickly.  I not only understand the benefit of prioritizing everything around me but now believe in the utter necessity of such organization.  It drives me to take chances and make smart decisions, for every one that is missed hurts my team and me directly.  Yes, it is scary but fear creates an inhuman focus on results so key to any startup’s success.

So, is the entrepreneur crazy?  I suppose that is a matter of perspective and your own personality.  But allow me to posit that they in fact are…but not for the reason you think.  They are frantic and risk tolerant and aware of their fear and never slowing.  They are all these things and more.  That madness however in the hands of entrepreneur and applied to an idea that can change the world, is exactly what moves us all forward.