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Civilians don't understand

If you go into business with the goal of making money, there are far easier ways to do so.

Get a job.

I have been doing what I love as an entrepreneur for almost twenty years now, through four cross-country moves, three pivots and two languages. But I admit that my bank balance bears little correlation to the sum of my efforts.

My regrets are few. However, my “civilian” family and friends, those who are not entrepreneurs, can’t understand why, at age 50, I’m not financially prepared for retirement as they are, with a topped-up RSP and pensions that I can count on.

I sometimes wonder what could have been, had I stayed in the RCAF back in the mid ’90s instead of electing the “Force Reduction Plan” early severance package. My career options would have been limited but I would have had a job. If I were a bit lucky, at the end of my career I could probably have transferred to a position in the federal civil service. By now I would have had a decent retirement savings, a house, car, family, dog and assorted paraphernalia of a middle-class life. And obsessed about leaving that job by “retiring” as early as I could.

Or had I done like many of my colleagues back then, quit the military to get a position as a project manager at a defence contractor, I guess I could have also done quite well financially. Assuming the company remained in business.

But I am very certain that had I chosen either of those safe routes, I would have been very unhappy.

Civilians don’t understand the entrepreneurial urge to “color outside the lines”.

I would have been unhappy as a cubicle rat, because all of my life, even through school, college and my first military postings, I was always an “intrapreneur”. I would take a task that was given to me and turn it into something bigger. Or instinctively see what needed to be done and either do it, or organize a team to get it done. Employers say they love this kind of energy, but when it appears, more often than not, it gets stifled because entrepreneurial initiative cannot be managed to stay within the terms of reference. This was the main reason that pushed me towards launching my own business in 1995 instead of getting a job on the outside. I did not want to be managed.

Civilians don’t understand that we have this idea inside us that just has to get out.

Our spidey-sense causes us to recognize solutions where others see problems, and to recognize opportunity where others see despair. This puts us at odds with the general public, because our instinct is to swim against the current.

Civilians rarely live the experience of seeing an idea that so clear in our mind’s eye. The idea that is so perfect that it becomes an obsession that needs to be expressed as an entrepreneurial project. We know, deep down, that this absolutely needs to be done, and we can’t be at peace until the idea is realized.

Civilians don’t understand that entrepreneurs are not rational economic actors.

Entrepreneurs are so obsessed by the idea struggling to get out, that they willingly pay the opportunity cost of deferring a time-based income now, in the hopes of generating an impact-based revenue stream in the future.

The problem in our “time-for-money”-based economy is that if you take time off to launch a startup, foregoing a salary so you can get started, then every year you delay getting an income costs you. Delay your salary for a year, then the next year you need to make double your salary just to catch up. Take a reduced amount for two years, then you need to make three times your salary in a year to break even. And so on. This opportunity cost, although manageable when you launch a business for a couple of years in your low-earning 20s, quickly becomes unsurmountable the later you start, or the longer you are in a position where you can only take reduced draws.

The challenge is to find a business model with sufficient revenue streams so that you not only recover your opportunity cost, but also generate impact-based revenue that reflects the value-added you are creating for your customers. Which is fine in theory. The problem is that there is not a simple equation where value-added translates directly into cash, because our broken economic system does not place a tangible value on “doing good”. So in many ways you need to find proxies for the value-add, ways to incorporate the classic balance sheet as well as the externalities.

This search for a repeatable and scalable business model can take a long time. Or you can find a solution that works, but then circumstances change and the model breaks. Many business that create great value for their users and customers can struggle for many years to find a sustainable revenue model. But just because the business is not economically viable today, should you shut it down? Even if it is doing good, creating lots of “intangible” value that is recognized by the community but not by the economics?

Civilians like to think that entrepreneurs are rational economic actors. But that is not really the case. We invest our mind, body, soul and bank account into our projects, burning our bridges, trashing our Plan B, doing everything we can to make going forward the only option. Our core motivation is passion, not economics.

Civilians don’t understand that the biggest reward of entrepreneurship is not the money, it’s becoming a better person.

Looking back, I can see that the years after I launched my first business caused me to grow very much as a person, exploring my fears, my values and my strengths, testing and expanding my limits, and equipping me with a framework for living that makes me a much stronger and resilient person than had I stayed within the safe and predictable confines of a job description.

I have experienced challenges that I had to meet on my own, without any staff or counsel. I have had to face my deepest fears and nagging doubts, and find the part deep down in my soul that still hung on to the faith in my vision and mission, giving me the permission to persevere and overcome.

And once you get a taste of that, you can’t shrink back into a cubicle and a job description. In fact, the longer we are outside of the cubicle, growing and evolving as an entrepreneur, the financial Plan B of “getting a job” is no longer an option. I have spoken to too many entrepreneurs who tried it and are thoroughly miserable, and who are counting the weeks until they can leave the job or the consulting contract and get back to work on their idea.

This maturity has also made me understand that “financial success” is a lousy way to judge the efforts of an entrepreneur, because getting the money is as much dependant on skill, talent and preparation as it is luck. Actually, I believe it is 80% luck and 20% “the rest”, although the latter is essential to recognize when the former pops up. I’m not too fond of the “celebrity of wealth” that is all too pervasive in the business media (which I call “business porn”), because it distorts who is really doing good work.

Civilians don’t understand that we don’t do it for the applause. We do it because our life mission is to invent the future.

Civilians will never be able to understand the efforts of hundreds of thousands of small entrepreneurs who wake up every morning and willfully forego financial stability, work/life balance, retirement savings and everything else the salaryman takes for granted, just to get that idea that’s inside of them, out.

True entrepreneurs don’t do it to get rich. We do it because we heed the call of our life mission, to invent the future and thus to change the world.

We may or may not be recognized financially during our lifetime for making the world a better place, in a way that reflects our efforts and the value we’ve added to society. The truth is that in the end, those who profoundly transform the future are only recognized for their genius once they have passed away.


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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Frances Schagen August 5, 2013, 14:01

    I’d go so far as to call it an obsession. To create, to make things better, to solve problems.

    I see others around me counting down the days to retirement and, yes, feel a pang of envy and regret. But not to stop doing, but to be able to do without worrying about making next month’s mortgage or pay the property taxes.

    I can’t imagine ever stopping doing what I’m doing.

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