What It’s Really Like to Be an Entrepreneur
Everyone thinks they want to be one, but are you sure?
I’ve been running my own business for the past six years, and I often hear people talking negatively about their employers. And it occurs to me:
If you’ve never run a business, it’s easy to criticize the owner.
What’s a lot more difficult is actually being the owner.
So I thought I’d share some stories that just might help you appreciate your job a little more and possibly make you rethink this decision to be an entrepreneur entirely.
Fact: Most Entrepreneurs Are Not Rich
This month, my business will lose money, and I’ll be personally funding it to keep the lights on, pay our staff, and cover the operating expenses. Honestly, I’m okay with this. It’s part of the job.
In fact, this is not at all uncommon — for business owners to have a month, or even quarter, that loses money. Sometimes, it’s an entire year.
This is also not a complaint. Not at all. It’s just an insight into a world that many people seem fascinated with but may not completely understand.
These days, it’s common to criticize people at the top, whether that’s at the top of an organization, a company, or even society. And certainly, there is corruption among those with great power and wealth. But there is also virtue.
I believe being an entrepreneur is an honorable calling, one that requires great responsibility. So before you take that delve into trying to start a business again next time, ask yourself if you’re ready for what it’s going to require of you.
In my mind, there are three job requirements of a great entrepreneur.
Let’s look at them together.
Entrepreneurs Take the Risks No One Else Will Take
When I think of the word entrepreneur, I think of my friend who instead of paying himself a five-figure bonus after a profitable quarter bought a car for one of his top employees.
He called everyone out of the office and into the parking lot where he turned the gift into a company-wide ceremony, announcing to the entire team what a good job this person had done.
I think of my dad who moved from Illinois to Alabama to start a restaurant and, because he had no place to stay, slept in a hole-in-the-wall, practically-condemned office space while he renovated it.
During the day, he would hammer and paint and lay brick in the summer heat; and at night, he’d blow up an inflatable mattress and fall asleep as the dust settled. The next day, he would get up and do it all over again. He was 48 years old.
I think of Nathan Barry who walked away from a lucrative information marketing business (where he was making $350,000 a year) to go all-in on a software company called ConvertKit. Not only did he take a massive pay cut. He put $50,000 of his own money into a company nobody believed in just so he had enough startup capital.
For years, Nathan tirelessly promoted and pitched and tried to grow his company while working for very little on a project that was not guaranteed to succeed. He was okay with that. Nathan understood that part of the job of being an entrepreneur is believing in the vision before anyone else does.
Lesson: The reward never comes without the risk.
Entrepreneurs Pay the Costs No One Else Will Pay
I don’t say this to glorify entrepreneurship or to scare anyone. But sometimes I see folks vilifying business owners, saying it’s a privileged position and it “must be nice.” Trust me. It’s not nice, not unless you have the stomach for it.
I cannot think of a single entrepreneur whose business hasn’t cost him something dear for the sake of a greater vision. This vision, by the way, almost always involves other people and providing a means for them to live while the business owner scrapes along and struggles to survive.
Like my friend who owes the IRS $300,000 in taxes he already paid (that’s another story) and is considering how much of a pay cut he should take before having to lay off a single employee. So far, he hasn’t let a single person go.
Or my friend who started a chain of restaurants and would regularly write checks for $14,000–17,000 to his company to cover that week’s payroll expenses. Then the next week he would pay himself back if the weekend sales had been good enough.
I think of 2015 when in my own business we took some risks that didn’t pan out. At one point, I had $200,000 in bills to pay and only $30,000 in the bank account. Through some last-ditch efforts, I was able to cover my bills but ended up not paying myself for five months just to keep things going.
Lesson: Pay the costs no one else will pay, and eventually get to do what no one else gets to do.
Entrepreneurs Get the Reward No One Else Will Get
And if you take that risk and pay those costs — in terms of time and money and effort — you just might find yourself at the finish line. You just might win the race and collect the reward.
And it is this point when people may begin to use words like “luck” and “privilege.” And that’s fine. That may even be true. But it’s not the whole story. What got you here was your willingness to do what must be done when no one else would do it. And so, who better to receive the reward, than you?
When I think of that year 2015 when our business almost went under, I remember not paying myself for five months and worrying about whether we would be able to pay our taxes.
But I also remember that by the end of the year, we’d had our best year yet. The risk paid off. The costs were worth it.
Similarly, Nathan Barry’s company ConvertKit now brings in over a million dollars a month. He eventually paid himself back that $50,000 investment and then some. I’ve heard whisperings of him turning down huge offers to sell the company.
Now, everyone sees the vision. It’s easy to believe in something after it’s successful. The hard part was when Nathan saw it before anyone else.
My other friend who was writing personal checks to cover payroll is now earning an executive-level salary (as opposed to the $40,000 salary he was paying himself) and will likely sell his business for eight figures.
He’s also given his top managers equity in the company because he values their risk and sacrifice in sticking with him over the years. They saw the vision and paid the costs. Big risk, big reward. That’s how it works.
Lesson: You get the reward because you took the risk.
Note: This Is Not Gambling
Now don’t get me wrong. Don’t do anything stupid with your money. Entrepreneurship is not gambling, no matter how many click-bait articles you read that would tell you otherwise.
The most successful entrepreneurs are smart with their money and often fiscally conservative. They take risks but almost always risk they’re able to recover from.
Great entrepreneurs understand that reward does not come without risk. And they realize that reward does not come without rewarding others.
Every great business owner I’ve met was not only a risk-taker; they were a giver. As my friend Ray Edwards says, “You can’t get rich without making others rich in the process.”
So it’s not about gambling. It’s about generosity. It’s about being bold. You give, not take, your way to the top. And every smart entrepreneur I know understands this. You can, of course, be greedy and enjoy the short-term benefits of running a company, but that success will likely be short-lived.
The best way to succeed as an entrepreneur is to bring others on the journey with you.
Big Risk, Big Reward
So that’s what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. Maybe there are smarter ways to do this. I don’t know.
This is just how I see most folks “in the ring” doing it. They’re trying to be wise and take care of their families while putting their butts on the line because they believe in this thing, even when no one else does.
As for me and writing a check to cover the company’s expenses this month? I’m fine with it. My family is fine. My kids will still eat. The company will live to fight another day, and we’ll eventually earn that money back.
The bottom line: You don’t get the reward without the risk. And you don’t stick around in business without sacrificing short-term gain for long-term rewards. You pay the cost. You take the risk. You do what no one else will do and you get what no one else will get.
Why share this?
Because I want you to think about this the next time you complain about your job. Almost every entrepreneur I know has a story like the above. We all might be surprised by the risks our employers have had to take just to ensure we were able to take home a paycheck that week.
Yes, I know this isn’t every entrepreneur. But it just might be more than you think.
So do you still want to be an entrepreneur?
Are you ready to take the risk, pay the cost, and give your way to the top so that you can get that reward?
If so, then I applaud you. The world is waiting to see your vision. Just don’t be surprised if they don’t see it until after you’ve succeeded.