It's an easy mistake to make. Every day it seems, there are headlines about the 20-something high school dropout who sold his company for over $1 billion or the 17-year-old kid whose app was acquired for $30 million. Or worse, you saw The Social Network and think the life of an entrepreneur is one of parties, private jets and bathroom blow-jobs. Whatever the source of your misperception, it looks pretty fun if not downright sexy. The truth (for the other 99.999 percent at least) is that entrepreneurship mostly sucks.
Just in the last week, I've spent time with a startup founder who is running out of money in search of a sustainable business model; a small business owner struggling to keep his marriage and his company afloat, and; an extremely successful entrepreneur who suffers from a form of depression. All three are smart, hard-working and talented people. They are also my friends, so their pain is my pain. And their struggles are typical for startup founders and business owners.
The fact that building a successful company is hard is not a revelation. Long days, time away from family and endless hours spent in airports are an accepted part of the job. In a wonderful post from Mark Suster, a VC investor and former entrepreneur, he admits:
It's not for everybody and you shouldn't feel bad if you aren't one of those that chooses this life. You'll probably be healthier and wealthier. Despite the fact that only the Lotto winners get reported. Many more people play.
These struggles are not exclusive to VC-backed technology companies. In fact, for small business owners, it can be much worse. You can lose your house, which is what happened to another friend. Nor are the stresses of startup life limited to founders. As I wrote in a previous post, working at a startup can be just as hazardous to your health. Over a four-year period in my own career, I was laid off three times!
So what is an entrepreneur to do when grinding through these moments of fear, uncertainty and doubt? As with most of life's challenges, it really helps to talk with others who understand and have lived through similar experiences. Many CEOs and startup founders find groups such as EO or Vistage to be extremely helpful in this regard. These groups operate within a tight circle of trust, where founders can share their most intimate fears and receive moral and strategic support from other founders. Tight startup communities enjoy less formal support networks.
Another support system that is almost always underutilized is your spouse. Like many entrepreneurs, I've always tried not to bring my frustrations and failures home. My wife is a nurse and my idea of a bad day doesn't involve someone actually dying. So I've always avoided sharing my relatively petty problems with her. It's my burden, so the thinking goes, and it's best to keep it out of the limited time we spend together. This approach is common amongst entrepreneurs and actually leads to more, not less, stress at home. Your spouse is as invested in your business as you are. Not sharing everything, the good and the bad, is both unfair and counterproductive. When launching my current business, I've included my wife in every detail from the decision to start up through the daily highs and lows I've experienced. And it has made my business and our marriage much stronger. In their book, Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur, entrepreneur-turned-VC Brad Feld and his wife, Amy, provide practical advice to couples:
Being thoughtful, kind, honest, challenging when appropriate, and supportive in hard times are qualities that you want to be able to practice and improve upon. And you want to encourage these qualities in your partner.
When you look past the glossy headlines and "business pornography," as one friend refers to TechCrunch, et al., you see that even the most successful entrepreneurs have lived through very dark times. Ask what experiences they remember most and it will be those moments when the bank called its note, their biggest customer left or they had to lay off their employees. Show me a successful entrepreneur who says it was easy and I'll show you a liar. I've found sharing my experiences with other founders and my spouse helps me carry on and stay positive. And I believe that I am most helpful when I simply listen to and understand the challenges my peers are facing. There is support all around you if you seek it. And while achieving startup success is never easy, it will be much sweeter when you can share that success with friends who know just how hard it was to get there.