Note: This piece originally appeared on a thought-curated series on innovation and collaboration written for WECREATENYC, an innovation nerve center and coworking space in New York City.
We all know the mythology of the entrepreneur:
A small group of scruffy visionaries working in a garage or in a one-room studio walk-up suddenly finds itself at the helm of a company valued in the millions and headed for a giant exit. VCs and angel investors swoop in with seed money, or a Fortune 500 company comes knocking with an offer to buy. The journey there is rough: hyper-focused 18-hour days, intense mentorship and training at an incubator or accelerator boot camp, a whirlwind of pitching and targeting, and then the coveted, manic cycle: aggressive launch, rapid scaling, and the big exit – all at lightening speed.
That’s the culture at a lot of startups. The grit needed to endure and survive it is worn like a badge of courage for many. If you’re not sleeping at your desk, twitchy from too much coffee, subsisting on take-out and cans of RedBull, your fingers gnarled from sitting at the keyboard for marathon stretches, you’re not working hard enough. If you’re not interested in building the next Facebook, Twitter, or other disruptive model, built on the premise of “maximal exit in minimum time”, then well, you’re just an amateur.
But a business, especially in the world of startups, is often like an iceberg. What most people see is just 10 percent of the entire mass; much more lies unseen. Long hours late at night; the existential limbo of uncertainty and self-doubt; the burn of dreams dashed when things just don’t go right. That’s a universe of entrepreneurship that we’ve been sold – but what if we don’t fit into its mold? If you’re not out there aggressively pitching, seeking VCs, expanding your capital base, distributing equity shares, does that mean you haven’t earned the right to call yourself an entrepreneur or a startup?
Maybe we need a new definition of what it means to run a business.
Take the tragic story of Ilya Zhitomirskiy. The 22-year old co-founder of Diaspora, once dubbed a wholly re-imagined, decentralized version of Facebook, committed suicide in November 2011. The news sent shockwaves rippling through the tech and startup communities, from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley.
Suddenly, it brought everything into perspective: being an entrepreneur, which was once a golden step toward independence and creative freedom, was now being revealed to be only a step up from a Foxconn sweatshop. Founders, once passionate about an idea, were burning out and losing their sense of self. Ilya’s death opened up a dialogue of the pressures and emotional stresses of running a startup. And more broadly, it opened up a train of discussion of what it takes to be an entrepreneur in the digital age.
This “myth of big” drives many entrepreneurs, scrambling to invent the “next big thing”. In order to be successful, conventional wisdom argues, you have to subscribe to the myth that growth and expansion is everything.
But when your company becomes your life in such a way that it subsumes everything, there’s a problem. Entrepreneurs will always be driven; it’s in our genetic code. You’ll inevitably put in all-nighters, maybe an occasional 100-hour week. There’s a good chance you’ll turn down invitations, and downsize your social calendar. Being an entrepreneur is the raw deal, full of soaring highs and abysmal lows. The pressure to work as an entrepreneur will always be relentless, but when it starts to kill your relationships or lead to health risks, there’s something amiss.
Here’s a call to move away from the edge of this rabbit hole, cleverly dubbed “entreporn” by no-nonsense business blogger Amy How, and start down a different path; one that gets back to the root of why we start our businesses in the first place: Is it to brag about being an entrepreneur (a nod to ego), or is it have an impact – to solve a thorny problem or to reinvent the old way of doing things into something creatively disruptive?
There’s nothing wrong with starting and expanding your company in the name of guts and glory, to rev up that engine inside of you that wants to proclaim, “Hell, yeah” to the world. There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to change the world and to give back by solving a problem and meeting a vital need. But as many people have argued, neither of these motivations is worth the bouts of depression, draconian hours, and broken relationships that might result.
What’s never mentioned in the mythos of entrepreneurship and usually only half-whispered in conversations about business success is, “What about my quality of life?”
There are simple ways to tweak your entrepreneurial mindset to avoid letting your startup or business take over your life. Here are a series of posts we wrote for WECREATENYC that tackle alternative ways to approach entrepreneurship: