Early in my forties, I remember sitting in my gorgeous C-Suite corner office in London contemplating my next career move. I’d spent the previous 20 years at some of the world’s leading investment banks in a plethora of global roles that found me living in Europe, Asia and the US. It had been my dream early in life. The traveling was fun and alluring at first but when I began doing so much that I woke up in a hotel room with no recollection of where I was, I knew I had to shift. My kids weren’t seeing much of me, my husband was finding it increasingly difficult to support my on the spot trips and I was in a constant state of flux, sometimes not unpacking before packing the next suitcase. Now, this is no poor me story. I was blessed beyond measure and given opportunities that most people never get. I had a dream job with access to the firm’s macro decision makers including insight into strategic objectives that were only shared with a few – but the pace, the expectation and the feeling that I needed a wife to do my bidding much like my male colleagues had – wasn’t sustainable for me.
During my corporate work life, I’d always dabbled in investments. One of my investments grew to the point that it required management full time and so instead of hiring someone else, I took the leap from corporate life to the life of being an entrepreneur. It was the entrepreneurial dream! I knew that it would give me the flexibility to see my children, be a better wife and earn on a scale that kept me comfortable while paying the bills. How wrong I was. None of these things happened. Despite the sparkle of great buzz for my consumer products business, 5 years on I’m just starting to see daylight. Ok, maybe not daylight but I am seeing the eeriness of early dawn. You see, the thing about being an entrepreneur particularly after having been an executive is that you underestimate the comfort that having a solid infrastructure provides. As someone who ascended the corporate ranks very quickly, very early and with little disappointment – I had an inflated opinion of myself – believing that I was a Wonder Woman who could do it all.
I’m not minimizing my capability. I am talented for sure but this stuff is hard – harder than being in a corporate job by far. There are some things I wouldn’t trade. I get to see my kids grow up. Check. I get to cook and eat dinner with my family. Check. My vacations aren’t littered with annoying phone calls. Check. I am the master of my own destiny. Check, check, check. Now comes the but…the sacrifices I’ve made and the risks that I’ve had to take to grow my company will literally blow your eyebrows off. I am one of the lucky ones. My corporate career and experience allowed me to bypass a couple of years of learning on the job but still…I have no eyebrows.
I had to pull my kids out of private school in the middle of the year and home school them for 6 months because there were no places available in our local school. They were lucky to have had the opportunity to even go to private school, but pulling them out on a dime and the disruption that educating my own children full time caused was more than a notion to me and to them. My husband works full time and travels so this was down to me. Almost entirely. On the bright side, I got my wish to see my kids. I love those little buggers but be careful what you wish for. I fully respect stay at home mothers but I’m not her and 24/7 was a lot. We downsized our house twice, finally moving into a house that was 1/5 the size of our first house with all of our stuff. I felt like a hoarder. Living up close with so many unnecessary things forced me to confront the excess. I didn’t need it but it took awhile to let go. I’m only human. Like all shoe lovers it was a process and the upside to excess is that in the most lean times, I still look like a million bucks! I always ask myself why I put myself and my family through so much but I had to make payroll, right? There was the stark realization that the livelihood of my team and their families depended on choices that I made. That is a huge amount of pressure if you are moral. When I left the corporate world, my phone stopped ringing. All of the folks who were enamored with my corporate identity suddenly disappeared. It was a tough pill to swallow and a massive ego check but probably necessary. Those vacations where my phone wasn’t ringing didn’t happen. This is not because the phone was ringing during the vacations but because the vacations NEVER happened.
Now, any serious entrepreneur will tell you that 5 years is as young as just being born. I’ve also been told that if all I’ve had to do is downsize and pull my kids out of school I’m pretty high on the success curve. I forgot to mention that I had to sell my car and I began using coupons. Who knew I was wasting so much money? I am now the official Queen of Internet Coupons. Need a thrift tip? Drop me a line. I am regularly on my hustle doing speaking engagements and executive transformation programs to keep the boat afloat though luckily, I love it. Sharing my experience and helping people who need it is like fuel for me when I forget the gifts that I’ve been given. I used to believe that I treated my firm’s money like it was my own but clearly I didn’t. Now I have to because it is my own money and I have to feed and clothe little people. Necessity is truly the mother of invention. If I ever go back into corporate life, they will love me. I know where every single mili-penny is. I really do. This is a skill I will never forget. Some people lose everything. I never expected that person could be me. While I haven’t lost it all there are still cliffhanger moments on a weekly basis that could honestly go either way. That being said, what was once desperation and panic is now my way of life. I’ve adjusted. Being on the edge, while still uncomfortable doesn’t strike me down in fear anymore. I often reflect on the fact that this is a choice where living on the edge is not for so many. It is all a matter of perspective.
The following points will all seem terribly obvious. I believed that I’d explored them before I took the leap. The truth is they’ve taken on a meaning that only living the struggle will provide.
No babies are dying. I might go broke but this isn’t life or death and I will survive.(Thanks to my husband for this snap-you-back into place perspective. He literally says this all of the time.)
You can never save enough money if you want to go out own your own. You have to be able to fund yourself until your business makes enough money for you to pay yourself. No matter how much you think you need multiply that number by 8 – 10 times and you will be closer.
Know what your real risk threshold is. What are you willing to give up in pursuit of your entrepreneurial dream? I’m of the go big or go home school of thought. Why leave a great career if you aren’t prepared to play in the big sandbox? You have to be prepared to be mega uncomfortable. You also have to be prepared to commit. Like your life depends on it. Like you’re skydiving. Once you are out of the plane, there is no turning back. You think corporate politics, failed promotions, and issues with colleagues are bad? Try managing debtors, up and down cash flow and the public/regulatory issues that face small and start up businesses. This is not for the faint of heart. Know what you are getting into. Don’t leave a career for a dream unless you are prepared for your dream to be an all-consuming career.
Know when to pack it up. There is no shame in going back into the world of paid employment if you can’t support yourself or things aren’t working. You will have been brave for trying and the skills that you learn in the trenches of entrepreneurial warfare are gifts to corporations. (I’m not here yet but the Lord knows I’ve thought about it).
The Grass isn’t always greener. We all want to have fun jobs, perceived freedom and all the rest. The reality is, with the exception of a few, being an entrepreneur is harder, especially if you have been paid by someone else for a long time. Sure, there are some great pros…but the cons are a big deal and too many ignore them in the pursuit of happiness. (I love how I slipped that in…great film.)
I don’t regret this journey because I’ve really gotten to know who I am. When you are on the edge of your personal oblivion, you really have to embrace who you are because that is all you have left. I am fiercely pro-entrepreneur but it is no joke. I wish I had someone to tell me in detail, the things that I’m telling you now. I don’t know if it would have changed my decision to jump but I would have certainly taken a different approach. I am doing fine but I’m waiting for my big break. I know it will come because this girl rocks and I have all of the scars to show it. To you I say: Do it, live it and be it but know the real cost of being an entrepreneur.
Author: India Martin founder, speaker, lecturer and writer. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for speaking or other engagements.