Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hacking Entrepreneurship

I had a great conversation with a friend over dinner a few nights ago about what it means to be an entrepreneur.

When one thinks of an entrepreneur, specifically in the tech industry, the common image is someone who works 25 hours a day - someone who sleeps, eats, and breathes their company. Someone who codes/plans/networks/blogs until the wee hours of the morning. Someone who never stops working.

This image is not only the accepted standard - it is self perpetuating. If you're not working 25 hours a day, you are not working hard enough, and your company is not going to succeed. The most successful entrepreneur is the one who works the hardest, who eats ramen for the longest, who sleeps the least, who sacrifices the most.

When you're thinking about starting a company, as I am, this is a daunting image. The accepted model for entrepreneurship says "beware all ye who enter here - you are about to sacrifice every part of your life if you choose this path". A certain about of risk and sacrifice are inevitable, of course, that's part of the draw, but everything? I have to sacrifice everything? Live off ramen and sleep two hours a night and forego all social life and life in my parents' basement if I have any hope of success? I'm not so sure.

So let's take a step back. What is an entrepreneur, actually? We might think of an entrepreneur as someone who starts a company, or someone who is able to support themselves by some means other than a traditional 9-5 job. According to Merriam Webster, and entrepreneur is one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise. So what does that really mean?

Let's start from the last point: "one who assumes risks". The emphasis on hard work and sacrifice stem mostly from the risk the entrepreneur assumes. Success? You get the accolades. Failure? That's on you too. No matter what happens, you as the entrepreneur are ultimately responsible. The fear of failure is hugely motivating. Everyone wants to found the next Facebook/Twitter/etc, not the next...wait what was the name of that company?

Assuming all the risk for a company is terrifying. The idea of never getting another good night's sleep is nerve wracking. Having to sacrifice every other aspect of your life makes one start to reconsider.

As someone who is in the process of starting their own tech company, this image of entrepreneurship has given me pause. Am I really ready to give up everything in my life? Am I ready to be tethered to a computer 25/7? Is this really what I want? Maybe I should just go back to working a 9-5 job.

Two of the most important parts of entrepreneurship are innovation and creative problem solving. To start a company is to create a new way of doing something, or to create a new thing to do. If you can innovate a product, what not innovate what it means to be an entrepreneur?

In addition to assuming risk, and entrepreneur is "one who organizes" and "one who manages". If you are the one organizing a company, why not organize it in a way that makes sense for you? Want to be able to hire talent regardless of geographic location? Who says you can't? (37 signals does it) Love working from home? Build telecommuting into your culture. Prefer to be around people? Find a good office or coworking space. You're the boss now - you get to make the rules.

Though the entrepreneur is the one who assumes all the risk of a company, that does not mean they have to be the one to do all the work. Part of building a company is building a competent team to surround you. Though your company is expected to be on call 25/7, you as an individual aren't. Your team is there to support you, to work with you, to take on their piece of the work. Hire people you trust, and trust them to do their jobs. Assume the roll of "one who manages".

As I move forward with my company, I am realizing that I don't need to fall into the trap of what entrepreneurship is "supposed" to be. I can create my own definition of what it means to be an entrepreneur - one that fits me. That doesn't mean I won't be working hard, I know I will be, but as they say when you're doing what you love (in the way that fits you), it doesn't feel like work at all.

Stay tuned.