Entrepreneurship: Neither so romantic nor so hard
Reading Schumpeter’s Entrepreneurs Anonymous in this week’s Economist made me reflect on my own adventures in entrepreneurship. Schumpeter makes it sound so hard citing stories of alcoholics. Popular media makes it sound so romantic. It’s neither. It’s both.
After years of deliberation, dreaming and dreading, I decided to start a business towards the end of my MBA. Most of my buddies were done with Michigan and left Ann Arbor on world tours, family gatherings or new jobs. I had a large student loan but no family around to worry about. My wife (who also finished her MBA) headed to India to start a career in marketing. I had lots of time but no money. My biggest possessions were a fat IBM laptop and a Jetta car from my pre-MBA days.
After a point, I felt odd hanging around with friends in Ann Arbor – they had family, kids and jobs. When I was desperate for some company, I bought cheap wine, called the families home and served my wine in nice glasses. After a couple of glasses, everyone was usually happy. I read up online on what jobless students did with student loans and learnt of loan deferment and told Citibank that I can’t pay up right now because I had no job, which was technically correct.
I had a single business suit that I bought at a Brooks Brothers outlet. Armed with brochures of our company that I printed at school, I would wear the same suit everyday and drive around Detroit and Southeast Michigan, handing those off to medical practices (whom we were targeting). Over the next few months, I stayed in four different houses that students subleased when they were away – it usually came with low rent, a free bed, nice books and wifi (one even came with a dog). I figured that with my Michigan ID, I could rent VHS tapes from the University library – I took to Akira Kurasawa and Hindi movies that I wasn’t allowed to watch while growing up in India.
There was this doctor-owner of a large medical group in Colorado we routinely pitched to over the phone. I was thrilled when he told us that he wanted to invest $25K in our business. Soon he said he would actually like to do a $50K. My joy knew no bounds when that amount was upped to $200K. Then out of the blue we got an email one day that told us that his money preferred a vineyard to our business. Another investor suggested that I might take his money and run away. My fragile b-school ego remained crushed from time to time.
Here’s how I survived and even had fun. I continue doing so today.
Having easy mental exits. For me an exit is a movie (I once saw 15min each of 4 different movies, just for some crazy fun). When the doctor investor chose a vineyard over our business, I went to see Harold and Kumar – laughed a lot and got back on the street the next morning. Even during the toughest times, I exercised every other day, went trekking, pursued activities that made me happy (none of those needed money anyways).
Run a marathon with sprints. Yes, it’s sometimes annoying to see super growth stories like Facebook and it makes me think what’s wrong with me. But time and again I realize that if I’m in it for the long haul, I need to focus on what matters to me. Creating new things is the way I like to lead my life, spend my time. So it really doesn’t matter who else does what, I have to keep doing my thing.
When training to be a long-distance entrepreneur, you need a routine. Mine includes good sleep, meditation, exercise and eating lots of dal and vegetables daily.
You don’t really need anything to be happy. May be I technically slept in the office (when the office was attached to my bed in a basement – see pic) but I never thought of that to be a big deal. Einstein said, we act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life. All that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about. It’s so true. Entrepreneurship is not about the other stuff – it’s largely about being excited about creating something. If I need to go back to a basement office-plus-bed even today, I easily and happily would.
Doing it for the money. Money would be the stupidest reason to attempt an entrepreneurial life, even though it usually comes. The Economist article talks about stresses owing to mortgage and car loans – but you don’t have to be an entrepreneur to have them. My take on personal finance issues has been to avoid them altogether. Keeping financial needs low has allowed me to take business risks without other worries.
Do it only for yourself.There’s only so much your family, friends and mentors can support you. It’s largely a mental game that you play for yourself. To expect others to share your pain would be quite unreasonable. I found that having a business partner who is on a similar wavelength as you is helpful, especially when the rest of the world seems to be on the other side.
There’s no right time. There’s really no right time, age or life situation that makes the journey smooth or easy. Starting is only half the story, the rest of it is being able to handle an ongoing churn in the stomach and being able to create despite everything else. Investors comment. Clients complain. Employees quit. Nearly everyone will advice you about the problems in your business. My teacher,C.K. Prahalad often said that if your aspirations are not greater than resources, then you are not an entrepreneur. There’s no question about it.
It’s nice to read about other entrepreneurs but there’s only so much swimming you can experience by reading. Ultimately, you have to jump into the water to find out how it feels.