How you think about entrepreneurship is holding you back from launching that first side hustle or startup.
Imagine you are chatting with an acquaintance. They mention they have a great idea for a new software-as-a-service (SaaS). It’s not exactly an earth-shattering concept, but it would meet a very specific need — say, an administrative problem that HR professionals face in their daily work — which has not been addressed by other software companies.
Your friend not only details the potential product, but also its business model, and how it could be brought to market.
Given your friend’s programming skills, their network and expertise in the HR software industry, and their solid work ethic, it’s clear that they could build and launch the service on the side of their full-time job, with a relatively low level of risk and capital investment.
“That’s great!” you respond. “Are you gonna do it?”
“Well,” they say, hesitating, “I don’t think so.”
“Why not?” you respond, slightly taken aback. Their enthusiasm for the idea had been so tangible.
“It’s too much time. And besides, I’m 45 years old, and I don’t think I have what it takes.”
No matter what you say, your friend can’t be convinced. Because what matters, ultimately, is how a would-be entrepreneur sees themselves. If they don’t believe they can be an entrepreneur, it will never happen — no matter how capable, passionate, and hard-working they are.
And this — arguably a form of “anticipatory” imposter syndrome —is separate from being able to realistically assess whether you can (and should) launch a side gig or small startup.
There are countless everyday problems that are still waiting for smart, simple solutions that could be solved by individuals like your friend — if they could just go out on a limb. Not all of these require expensive, tech-intensive solutions, or quitting your full-time job.
The idea that most people have of an entrepreneur/entrepreneurship is often a false ideal, a myth built through popular (and at times exaggerated) stories in articles and movies, that glorify outsize success stories.
As the pandemic poses both a significant challenge and an opportunity to innovate and launch a new business, and a big increase in new U.S. startups, it’s worth considering this myth, and whether it’s holding you back from adopting the mantle of entrepreneur.
1. The Myth of the “Ideal” Entrepreneur is Misleading — and Terrifying
A huge mental block for would-be entrepreneurs is the notion of the “ideal” entrepreneur. You know the basics — start with a young, brilliant student who dropped out of an Ivy League school. Although they excel in their computer science classes, school just isn’t really for them. After quitting, they obtain $300K from a family friend or parent to use as seed money — et voila.
By sheer virtue of their hard work, solo brilliance, and innate talent, 5–10 years later, they have created a sprawling tech behemoth with a valuation in the billions.
It’s a great story, but it’s also problematic. First, this scenario is a rare, rare exception. “Success” is, of course, how you define it. But if a tech unicorn is your idea of successful entrepreneurship, you may be too intimated to ever try it.
Entrepreneurship comes in a wonderful, diverse kaleidoscope of shapes and sizes. Starting a side hustle shooting original travel content for YouTube is entrepreneurship. Producing high-quality prints of your artwork and selling them on Etsy is entrepreneurship. Building a small network of clients for your home manicure business is entrepreneurship.
Starting a gig doesn’t necessarily require a lot of funds, nor should it necessarily engulf all your time and money.
As Daphne Demetry, an assistant professor at McGill University, wrote in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, “When we imagine the pathway to becoming an entrepreneur, we often envision a linear track: quit your job and start a business. Being an entrepreneur is an all or nothing proposition, right? Not always. Like many things in life, the pathway to entrepreneurship can be more winding and accidental.”
2. You, Too, Can be an Entrepreneur
Once you overcome the mental hurdle of re-framing what entrepreneurship is, and the fact that you can be a great entrepreneur without starting a tech startup, you can turn your business idea into a reality (or undertake the task with a higher degree of confidence, if your new gig is born of necessity).
Read books about entrepreneurship, take online courses (e.g. via Coursera), read Medium articles about entrepreneurship, and join meetups (Zoom meetups, for the foreseeable future). This will help you adopt the mindset of an entrepreneur and focus on building up your entrepreneurial skill set, which is a crucial step in becoming — and succeeding as — an entrepreneur.
Own your particular flavor of entrepreneurship, even if you are “only” selling brownies at the local farmer’s market once per week. Take pride in the fact that they are the BEST brownies around, and you are slowly building up a client base and a presence on Instagram.
Be inspired be a new model of entrepreneur. Look at Arlene Grosso, an entrepreneur in her 70s, whose story was told in the Tampa Bay Times. Or to the college students who are selling clothes or homemade instant ramen after losing their part-time jobs, as recently profiled in the New York Times.
Of course, this also entails being realistic about the time and energy you will need to invest to make launching a small businesses or side gig worthwhile. It will be a tough road requiring a lot of hard work, grit, and learning to deal with the unknown. You have to be willing to learn, make mistakes, and even quit if things just aren’t going right.
But there’s a difference in framing (i.e. not “seeing yourself” as an entrepreneur), and your passion and drive to make something work once you are able to see yourself as an entrepreneur.
If you find your entrepreneurial passion — pursue it. Toss the myth of the ideal entrepreneur out of the window, and make your entrepreneurship your own. That is, after all, a successful entrepreneurial endeavor in and of itself.