Six months ago, I left a cool consulting job at a startup incubator to run my own company. I handed in my letter resignation in the midst of an economic downturn, which meant that if things didn’t work out, I wouldn’t have the security of going back to a traditional job. I liked the high-risk stakes of that equation. It made me feel like failure was not an option.
People had warned me about the things would be hard about working for yourself. Some of them knew what they were talking about, most didn’t. Having already spent the past 14 months guiding entrepreneurs, I thought I was prepared.
When the the challenges of my new occupation finally hit me, they knocked me down and out. They disrupted my life and my relationships and my sense of self in ways I didn’t see coming or knew were possible. I’d like to say I’m writing this post after bouncing back, but the truth is I’m still in the thick of it. I would even go as far to say I expect it to get worse before it gets better.
Below are four truths about entrepreneurship I learned the hard way.
1. Entrepreneurship is hard on your marriage.
My husband and I tied the not only one month before I made my exit from the corporate grind. Neither of us thought my being self-employed would challenge our relationship. After all, my husband already knew what he was getting into.
In the years we’d been together, my spouse had become well-acquainted with my workaholicism. He was accustomed to making excuses on my behalf when I would ghost family events or friends birthday parties early, if I showed up at all. He was always ready and willing to be my sounding board for new product ideas or marketing strategies. He was tolerant and patient with my dramatic episodes of self-doubt or creative mania that overtook entire weekends earmarked for leisure.
But entrepreneurship started to challenge our relationship in insidious ways.
The people that dare to carve out their own careers have the nature to do so — but their spouses don’t. The cliché challenges of self-employment that so many lament about — inconsistent salaries, long hours, uncertainty, etc. — rarely actually bother the entrepreneur. They do, however, bother their partner.
I have a high tolerance for risk. I am wholly unbothered by inconsistent pay. Exhausted is my favorite state of being. I think I do my best and most creative work when I am pushed to the edge of overwhelm. My husband does not share these character traits. Unfortunately, as my partner, he must endure them.
Most articles glorifying or condemning entrepreneurship focus on the entrepreneur. They forget that somewhere in the background there is a supportive partner, suffering the same war without any of the glory.
You will endure the hard times out of love for your business and your work. Your partner will endure them out of their love for you.
2. Entrepreneurship is misunderstood
I have found I encounter only two types of people in the world: those that believe I am an internet millionaire, and those who are certain I am broke af.
There seems to be no in-between, even if it is the reality I actually occupy.
When people ask what you do for a living, they’re hoping you say something self-explanatory like “doctor” or “teacher”. If you say “CEO”, it sounds too arrogant. “Self-employed” sounds like you’re about to pitch a multi-level marketing scheme.
I’ve pawned myself off under the guise of “writer” to avoid explaining eCourses and the size of the online learning industry. I’ve smiled through being labelled a “blogger” so I don’t have to go into detail about how disruptive and revolutionary FinTech is. Egotistically, but much like everyone else, I want my work to be impressive to other people. Unfortunately for me, it’s usually just bewildering.
I now understand most people don’t actually care what you do, so it’s easier to let them be wrong.
3. Entrepreneurship is hard on your sense of self-worth
I am learning to make peace with the fact that I will never feel successful. Not really.
I used to think I would. I thought it was an equation I could hack with the right job title or salary. I’ve sought designations and awards and media attention hoping the right one would make me feel accomplished. While I sometimes felt glittery and smug for a day or two, it eventually wears off and I am back where I started.
My life is painfully ordinary, even when it’s made up of the parts I thought would make it cool.
The race keeps getting longer and the finish line further away the faster I run. The more I occupy circles of other entrepreneurs and business owners, the more time I spend with people more successful than me — and the deeper my sense of inadequacy becomes.
It takes a dedicated and concerted effort to practice gratitude for what I have, but that is my only real defense. The fact of the matter is, my best is not good enough for me. It never has been, it probably never will be.
4. Entrepreneurship is lonely
I wasn’t prepared for the loneliness of being alone in my business. Because I would be working mostly by myself, I expected the loneliness to be the very traditional, missing-other-humans kind.
It was much more painful than that.
The real loneliness of entrepreneurship was the absence of mentorship and guidance. No one was doing exactly what I was doing, so I had no one to copy or ask direction of. That’s not to say I didn’t have people willing to help me, because I did, but pinning down a successful entrepreneur for a coffee was not the same as going to your boss and asking what to do next.
There were so many times all I wished for was just someone to tell me what to do. When to hire someone, what equipment to invest in, who to partner with.
Every problem has to be solved by me. Every decision has to be made by me. As a result, I hit walls in every direction I moved. I made mistakes so regularly I began to doubt if I could even succeed at what I wanted to do. I questioned if I even really wanted to do what I wanted to do.
Entrepreneurship cultivates within you an extraordinary patience for your own incompetence, because you encounter it so often, while simultaneously making you ruthlessly intolerant of making the same mistake twice.
I fight all my battles alone. The upside is no one knows when I lose. The downside is no one knows when I win either.
It’s all going to be ok.
Running my own business has forced me to meet myself in an arena I didn’t know existed, for battles I didn’t know I’d have to fight. You’re never really prepared. You also can’t wait to see what comes next.