There’s no denying that entrepreneurs are the new rock stars. We are bombarded with exciting tales of overcoming adversity on the road to success and the message is often that you too could quit your day job, launch a successful venture and reap the multi-million-dollar rewards. Here’s a reality check.
The fact is that three out of four venture-backed startups fail. Why? Because founding a company is harder than most of us imagine. Behind the glamorous image of entrepreneurship lies a rollercoaster of epic highs and crushing lows that can produce great rewards, but also negatively impact your relationships, quality of life and even your health.
To give first-time founders an insight into what they can really expect, here are five realities I wish I knew when I began building my own business.
You’re only as good as the people around you
It’s a common belief that the founder of an organisation is its wise chief navigator who single-handedly steers the way to success. I found this to be a gross misconception. If a startup business is to flourish, the founder must set their sights on gathering the right people around them, as you can’t always be the smartest person in the room.
This might sound like an obvious statement to make, but it can be surprisingly difficult for a founder to hand over control. Assembling a strong team requires humility: the founder must accept that their skills have limits and recognise where they need to add the abilities of others. When I launched my company at the age of 25, it quickly became clear that while I had bucket loads of ambition, I needed a great management team and guidance from experts. Not only did I hire a management team of people who are all my professional seniors, I also quickly onboarded advisers with 20+ years worth of advertising technology, telecoms and business experience. The move paid off; my company grew quickly and many of my mentors later became my investors (and some even board members).
Pragmatism over idealism (almost always)
Founders are often idealists by nature. We start our own ventures because we want to solve problems we see in the world and, fuelled by the entrepreneurial fairy-tales that are so prevalent in today’s society, it often seems like creating the ideal company that runs just as planned should be achievable.
But perfection isn’t a realistic goal. Indeed, it’s highly likely that many of our best-laid-out plans will go awry somewhere along the line. A project you’ve always wanted to implement and spent 100 hours per week developing may turn out to be untenable. A friend who stepped in to fill a role might be the wrong fit for your firm. At such times, there’s no room for idealism — particularly when the situation hinders business prosperity.
To build a successful company, founders must be pragmatic: prepared to put emotions aside and change course, halt unfeasible projects after much blood, sweat and tears went into them, and make tough decisions. Although this sometimes means letting go of the original dream, a logical focus will likely propel company growth further than blind stubbornness.
The devil isn’t always in the detail
Quality is crucial to win customers and stand out against your competitors, yet it doesn’t follow that founders should try to preserve standards by acting as the main quality control checkpoint. While at first, you might be able to assess all operational elements — from customer emails to service delivery — an overly detailed-focused approach will become impossible to sustain as the company expands.
I was heavily involved in creative output at the beginning of my startup journey. As a former designer in the ad industry frustrated by restrictive banner formats on mobile, I wanted to design an experience of mobile ads that utilise lock-screens within a non-disruptive experience to the consumer. As our client base increased, so did business areas demanding my attention; be that strategy, shareholder management, or revenue flow. I just didn’t have the capacity to oversee each detail anymore and, consequently, had to hire and trust in a skilled team of experts to keep the quality bar high. If you build the right workforce, it’s important to have faith in them and let them shoulder their areas of responsibility, even if it doesn’t always end up exactly as you imagined.
Everything else comes second
It’s common knowledge that establishing a new business will disrupt your personal life, but I believe the full extent of this disturbance is less widely acknowledged. Firstly, it’s not unlikely that you will work many 16-hour days on zero salary, at least for the initial months, or even years. Secondly, you’ll definitely spend less time with your significant other, family and friends. Thirdly, you might need to eventually move country and leave your home network behind, which can be lonely at times, but helped once more by assembling a great team. Finally, it will rapidly become apparent that no one else is quite as dedicated to accomplishing your vision as you are. So, if you aren’t ready to give up a portion of your private life for the business, you may not be able to really make your entrepreneur dream happen.
It’s not for everyone (and that’s OK!)
There’s something very enticing about the thought of leaving the typical 9 to 5 routine and setting up as your own boss. Yet the actuality of entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. For those who understand and embrace the pressure, sacrifice and strain that come with starting a business, it is usually a rocky road to victory. For a large proportion of people, however, the harsh reality of going it alone can outweigh the benefits. And that’s ok, because what matters most is choosing a career you are comfortable with. If your health and happiness are in jeopardy, it might be time to re-evaluate which path you want to follow.
None of this, however, is to say that entrepreneurship is a bad route to take. There are many benefits to building a company from scratch; not least of which are the freedom to innovate and the ability to structure your time and focus. It’s just that the advantages usually get the most attention, while the less romantic side of entrepreneurship is left out of the spotlight. So, before they are drawn in by the glow, it’s imperative for prospective first-time founders to consider the less glamorous aspects of being an entrepreneur and ask themselves: is this really the right decision for me?