I want to preface this by saying that I don’t consider myself a serious entrepreneur yet, having never started a real company. However, I have spent a good amount of time in fledgling companies and ventures, and see entrepreneurship as my inevitable life path given my experiences, tendencies, and desires. This is a list of things that I’ve learned as I try to transition from being a student of computer science to a student entrepreneur.
1. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. make money because of intense domain knowledge. Entrepreneurs benefit from having a jack-of-all-trades attitude that skews toward sales, an inherently ambiguous career path. Why? Because more than anyone, they have to be able to sell their vision to people. But the number of jobs a founding CEO has to do is only restricted by their own imagination, and the number of hours in the day. Domain knowledge is great, but only to the degree that it gets the dollars into your bank account.
2. Those other professions exist today. The validation for pursuing a degree or job like this is that other people have been successful doing it, so why not you? For the entrepreneur, their job is to visualize what does not exist, and bring together the many disparate parts necessary to make it happen. The job is not done until this is accomplished. There is no boss except meeting payroll. These aren’t the kinds of pressures attached to most jobs, even high-paying ones. And even if they perfectly execute their vision, entrepreneurs may still fail to get enough people behind them to be financially stable.
3. There is no one traditional college major, existent or conceivable, for potential entrepreneurs to become successful entrepreneurs. The capital of entrepreneurship is equity, which is only gained by experience and sweat, not traditional college lectures and assignments. In many majors, most of what matters from an educational perspective happens in the classroom. In entrepreneurship, education often happens outside the traditional college experience, whether it’s through extracurricular research, relationships with professors and other students, or ventures you join or attempt to start.
4. Success in many fields is binary: you spend your life trying to get to and excel at your dream job. You either get to some level of achievement in your field, or you don’t. In entrepreneurship, you might be financially successful enough to stop after your first try. However, successful entrepreneurs usually can’t stop creating and investing in new ventures after they’ve caught the bug. Failures (the vast majority) have to start over with the lessons they learned and try again (and again, and again…) or quit. But the common thread to so many stories of successful entrepreneurs is a lot of failure or disappointment followed by a breakout success behind which all failure is swept away and forgiven. I would argue that these failures are the most important, formative experiences in making the entrepreneur a stronger businessperson and human being if they can survive them.
5. In many other fields, it is possible (albeit difficult) to overcome the rule “it’s not what you know, but who you know”. In entrepreneurship, ignoring this rule will kill you. Entrepreneurs live and die because of people: early customers, mentors, board members, lawyers, sales guys, and all of the other necessary human cogs in a successful enterprise. Without people who believe in you, you’re just yelling into the wind.
6. As a sole business founder, you’re all alone. Maybe not in the boardroom or at the industry conference, maybe not on the private jet or in the smoky back rooms where power plays. But when you get home at the end of the day, and you have a chance to kick your shoes off and reflect upon what you haven’t yet accomplished, you’ll know how alone you are. You aren’t the captain who has to go down with his ship. You are the ship, and the only vessel to the promised land is you.
Maybe this isn’t the cheeriest picture of being an entrepreneur. That’s not what I care about. For my sake, I just hope my expectations are as realistic as possible.What I care about is being honest with myself, and anyone who chooses to support me on my foolhardy path, or embark on it themselves.
But if you tell me I’m not or won’t be successful, I’ll merely add, “yet.”