Industry November 2015

To be or not to be an entrepreneur

Is it the life for you?

  • A thirst for knowledge, a logical mind and resilience are key
  • Scale up your business using technology or staff
  • Be prepared to do everything yourself at first

That is the question on the mind of many professionals, seasoned or otherwise. Is it “nobler in the mind to suffer /The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, /Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, /And, by opposing, end them?”

While Prince Hamlet wasn’t considering starting a venture company when he thus soliloquised, he aptly expressed the mid-career or mid-life agonies of uncertainty that usher some of us into an entrepreneurial career, yet put off still more.

The life of an entrepreneur is far from poetic, but can certainly be dramatic. There is an undeniably visceral pleasure in taking arms against a sea of troubles, and a huge sense of satisfaction when one, indeed, puts an end to them. So, why would anyone do it, and who should do it?

In simple terms, if you’re a pessimist, worrier, shirker or someone who wants instant gratification, the move is probably not for you. In my experience, anybody else who really wants to be an entrepreneur has a shot at success. The main reasons against include financial commitments, family responsibilities and a risk-averse spouse.

I understand those challenges. I started my firm Icon Partners K.K. in 2006. I had just built a new house with a huge mortgage, had a three-month-old child and very thin financial reserves. Yet, I turned down two job offers with ridiculously generous salaries to start my firm. Where there’s a will, and a certain amount of blind faith, there’s a way. The proverbial sea of troubles started 18 months later, when the global financial crisis kicked in. So why did I take such a big risk?

Having spent many years giving my all to help other people build up their businesses, only to find my position undermined by politics and shifting loyalties, I took a vow that I was never again going to outsource control of my career or financial security to someone else. The insecurity of secure employment convinced me to become an entrepreneur.

MJ DeMarco in his excellent book The Millionaire Fastlane explodes the myth of salaried security for life. If you are considering an entrepreneurial career, I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

I discovered by hard experience that however passionate you are about a job, as long as someone else has the power to wreck things for you then there is no security in it. I prefer to take my chances with slings and arrows, and of course relish the opportunity to earn an outrageous fortune.

Ultimately, the security of being master of my own success or failure made me take the leap. As an entrepreneur there are no redundancies and no irrational, incompetent, capricious or psychotic bosses playing dice with your livelihood. There is just you, your skills and the market.

Some skills and attributes will dramatically improve your chances of success: the ability to take enormous amounts of pain and keep making rational decisions; a fascination with everything and an insatiable thirst for knowledge; a really supportive spouse or partner; the openness to try silly things like chanting affirmations, which really work; and a logical mind that can connect the dots between your passion and someone who is willing to pay you for it. And finally, the one ineluctable truth: the ability to scale up.

If you can’t scale whatever it is that you do, you don’t own a firm, you own a job. You must find the parts of the enterprise where you add distinctive value, build an infrastructure that allows you to do that, and employ other people whose time costs less than yours to do everything else.

To have a business, you must be able to either leverage technology or train people to generate the revenue. Otherwise, your scalability is limited by the hours you work; you are an expensive resource with a limited shelf life, so put yourself to good use.

In the early days of any firm you have to do everything yourself. However, start out with a plan of how to scale the operation, or very soon you will find yourself wondering whether “to be or not to be” on someone else’s payroll again.

Being an employee can be great if the work is fulfilling and you can trust your firm to treat you well, but if you have dreams beyond worlds, as I do, and an unshakeable sense of optimism, then to take your destiny in your own hands might just be the lesser risk. As Prince Hamlet’s paramour Ophelia said, “We know what we are, but know not what we may be”.