I was recently asked what it’s really like to be a founder.
Going through those early days doing all the jobs and working all the hours, through to running a successful business with a team of over 150 employees, it’s an ever-changing journey.
Many a wannabe entrepreneur has come up with the idea that will change our lives and theirs. Usually, these ideas surface after a couple of glasses of wine and fade into oblivion as the third glass is poured.
But for those seriously considering taking the plunge, what advice can I give? What did I wish someone had told me when I was first starting out? What lessons have I learned? Turns out there’s quite a few.
First, ask yourself some questions…
Can you go for a year without salary?
If not, perhaps it isn’t the right stage of your life to consider starting a business.
Can you work till midnight 6 days a week?
There are times when you will definitely need to. Expect this and be willing and able when the need arises. Without complaining. Without even mentioning it. Nobody will want to hear about how many hours you are working.
Do you have a business partner?
Life is lonely as a solo founder and your chances of success will improve dramatically with the right partner.
Are you a good generalist?
Every day will be different and the demands can come from all angles – often with nobody else available to look at them.
Understand that running a business is…
Thinking of having kids in the coming years? Planning a wedding? Home projects, running a side hustle, building that website you always planned to… forget about it.
Your business will occupy every waking hour your mind has to offer and things won’t slow down for your life events or anyone else’s. The demands on your time and mental bandwidth will begin high, and will ratchet up year on year as each new phase of growth takes hold.
Are you prepared to sacrifice that family time, those hobbies or other ambitions…? You will need to.
The pressure will be immense at times. Whether it’s paying your own mortgage in your pre-revenue days or your responsibility to cover 200 salaries each month as you reach SME status, it is likely a large number of people will become contractually and financially dependent on your business and its financial performance, which is not a trivial situation.
This can cause a level of stress that many people are uncomfortable bearing. High stress can affect sleep, memory function and all manner of mental faculties. Take steps to understand your character and how you will respond to the more difficult conversations that invariably arise when you combine huge financial commitments with limited, and sometimes inadequate, cash flow.
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Some things to consider…
You will change
Your energy and sense of humour are critical to the culture you are building, yet these are things many founders find difficult to maintain. When the buck stops with you, sometimes you need to be the bad guy, you need to stop the fun, and focus on the critical.
Relationships will strain and suffer. You will ask people to do things they don’t want to do. You will ask people to do things that don’t make sense, and you won’t be able to share your reasons. People may not like you at times.
Your humorous laid back demeanour will at times give way to a time-poor taskmaster, like it or not this will spill out into your personal life and your friends and family will notice the change. With so much on your mind, you can quickly become a lot less fun to spend time with and relationships can suffer as a result.
You are probably building an expensive hill of beans
All startups are high risk and nobody should start a business without knowing the vast majority fail: 80% of startups fail within 5 years. Some people are okay with that, others don’t respond well to the idea of very public failure.
You are odds on to fail and should accept that before embarking on the mission. The vast majority of founders invest multiple years, life savings, and walk away with nothing. You need to expect that outcome before you start out. Then improve on it.
If you win…
The benefits are huge
In the unlikely event that you are successful, the upside can be incredible.
Successfully growing a business is one of the most rewarding things any human can achieve. You will grow professionally and personally in confidence and experience. Little will phase you after what you have been through.
Life’s ups and downs will be trivial in comparison and you will have earned a unique experience that few can demonstrate. You will feel immensely proud and it will have all been worth it several times over.
You get to define your dream job
After many years of being a generalist and involved in all areas, any successful business owner is going to have a pretty good idea of where their skills (and passions) lie. You’ll have the opportunity to craft the shape of the business around those passions.
Love the super early stages of tech companies when it’s all hands on deck to bring products to market quickly and iterate? Why not start an incubator?!
Wherever the journey ends up, running your own business can give you the freedom to define your dream job.
All that stress is much easier to deal with when you look forward to Monday mornings.