You know how it goes, a stupid, simple statement along the lines of “you know, we probably could do better than that”, or maybe “that’s cool but I have a better idea…”. And before you know it, you’ve gone down the path of building a business and spending years doing your thing, head down and plowing forward.
These days it seems to be called being an ‘entrepreneur’, it’s what all the cool kids are banging on about when job prospects stink and the tech world still seems to promise fame and fortunes if you come up with the latest whatever it is. But what the endless articles about how to smash it being a super productive entrepreneur fail to talk about, is what happens when the journey comes to an end, years down the track….
I hopped on the road of doing the ‘startup’ thing way back when the internet was still soiling it’s pants and the idea of starting a business revolved around coming up with a tangible product that was physical. I had already cut my teeth in ecommerce, through developing a client’s online store over four years, so when I dug around and pulled out my product designer’s credentials (as in designing physical products, not what people these days call a ‘product designer’) after one of those fateful discussion with my then other half, I had the skillset to make it happen online and enough of a skillset to manage the design and production of the physical product we decided to go after.
And we did. Then I did. And years past.
What’s never said, by anyone I have ever heard, write, or talk about the journey of being an *ahem* ‘entrepreneur, is that at some point the cool word wears off and you become a business owner, which sounds not so glorious — the guy down the road with the news stand is a business owner, right? The underlying truth about the vast majority of business owners though is that most will crash and burn within five years. Those that don’t, will go on to make some sort of living out of what they are doing; and for the very, very, very few, they will become wildly successful and travel the world in luxury.
I was the middle one.
There were ups, downs, some excitement and a lot of the same old, same old; after the gloss wears off, running your own show is like everything else but with a whole lot more risk. But after a series of events in 2016, namely the election of that orange skinned buffoon to the the top job in the US and 51%, of 60%, of Brits deciding that they wanted to do something stupid like leave the EU, business went decidedly pear shaped. We weren’t the only ones we knew but for us, where at least 75% of what we were making went to either the US or the UK, the retail markets collapsing, because that’s what they did, was not so great for business.
Then one day in 2017 I woke up and said fuck it, I’m out.
So with a bit of planning, at the start of 2018 we publicly called it a day, wound down and by mid year, operations stopped.
Even now I regret nothing, it was the right thing to do. Our business model was solid, the product boutique, and literally loved the world over. But factors outside our control made moving forward increasingly difficult; insert discussion about the lack of, and the the cost of, skilled labour in Australia, coupled with the cost of property in Sydney making for an equation that is not conducive to business or small scale manufacturing. In the end, the events of 2016 and local conditions just made it all a bit to hard.
The question then came up, what now? You see, for most people, when they chase after their own thing, the reality is that they develop a very specific, and often broad, skillset. The longer they do it the more specific it becomes. Sitting there and asking the question ‘what now?’ becomes not only interesting but, depending on how old you are, shit scary.
The reality of the world is there are really only two distinct paths for making a living : 1. Working for the man and 2. You are the man. What you are never told is that these two paths are their own ecosystems and for the most part offer very little cross over, especially if you come from option 2. For me I have been my own man since about 28, working in digital media, consulting and then doing my own brand thing. I had a 2.5 year stint as a GM for a company, while I put my brand on the low key for a few years but for the most part have been doing my thing for a long time.
The idea of getting an ‘employed’ job came up several times over the years and every time it’s been an excellent source of disdain. It was best put to me one day over an informal (yet scheduled) discussion with a highly recommended recruiter. After we went through everything his words to me, which still stick in my mind even today, were “the issue you will always have, is the person on my side of the desk looks at your resumé and thinks to themselves, not if you can do the job, because it’s obvious you can, but how long before you take their job?”.
And therein lies the crux of the two stream system. As an employee, you present very little threat to those above you, they are hiring you to fill a specific role they need filled. The hierarchy of the workplace never makes them think that you will take their job. As someone who’s worked for themselves, and accumulated a body of skills (most of the time because you have to), some of which overlaps or supersedes those of the person interviewing you, you are seen as a risk factor. Not for any inability you may have to not do the job, but for one they have that you can also do.
Then of course there’s the ‘universal joint’ factor, as I like to call it. You know where you build a diverse skillset not because you think it’s cool, but because you have to. For me, operating exclusively in the online space to sell what we did around the world, I by virtue of necessity not only kept up with tech trends but also crafted a skillset to implement them… because hiring someone every time you want to change or roll out something becomes very expensive, very quickly. As a result, I have been backgrounding building websites for clients for years — I can sell, design and execute from beginning to end. But look for a role doing this? No chance. I can pull my own clients, speak confidently about attack strategies and design, connect and build,. But find a role building sites? Nope. My skillsets do not fit ‘full stack’, whatever that definition is.
Personal ego is a woeful thing in the world of productivity. Ask anyone who deals with middle management.
And that’s what they never tell you when they speak of startups and entrepreneurs. It’s wild fun, full of potential at the start but at the end of the journey, because everything at some point comes to an end, you can find yourself sitting outside the loop; with no real way back in. Having ridden your own wave for five or ten or twenty years does not compute, nor does the concept that over that time you may have developed skill sets that can be highly valuable to business today.
I decided to set out and build a new business, with the skills I have. It sort of shits me to start over but there’s a certain challenge that comes from starting at the ground level again; new things to learn, gaps to fill. And the buzz you get if, and when, it kicks and you are moving under your own steam once again…. it can be a little bit addictive…