For the first two and a half years of my career after I graduated, I worked as a fund manager for one of the UK’s largest investment companies. It was a great place to learn about business, and I was surrounded by some incredibly smart people.
I was on the fast track, and I just had to keep doing what I was doing and I would have been very successful.
But something was missing. I was restless.
I used to look at my watch at almost exactly the same time (1.15pm) every day, inwardly groaning that there were still another five or so hours to go.
In the years since, I’ve worked out what it was that was missing from my life and my career – passion. If you’re not utterly passionate about what you’re doing, time passes much more slowly.
From all the conversations I’ve had with people over the last 20 years, I believe that there’s only one way to really inject (and retain) this passion.
By becoming an entrepreneur and working for yourself.
There are so many great things about being an entrepreneur. You feel alive all the time, you control your own destiny and you get to see first-hand the tangible difference you’re making to the people and to the world around you.
I feel unbelievably fortunate to be an entrepreneur and I encourage anyone who will listen to make the leap.
Being an entrepreneur is not, however, without its downsides.
The numbers don’t lie: 90% of start-ups will fail within 12 months, with obvious financial implications for the individual and their family.
But it’s not the downside of failure that I want to highlight. It’s some of the more personal challenges that come with the territory, particularly for those entrepreneurs who are lucky enough to go on to grow medium to large sized companies.
I think there are three personal challenges faced by almost all entrepreneurs.
First up, it’s surprisingly lonely. Part of this is understandable. Entrepreneurs invariably spend the first few years of their business struggling and being surrounded by people who tell them that what they’re trying to achieve isn’t possible.
Faced with this, entrepreneurs quickly learn to rely on themselves, and their instincts. It becomes them against the world, and that’s ultimately a lonely place to be.
And when the entrepreneur works out that they need to seek advice or counsel, there aren’t many places to go. Talking to colleagues isn’t the solution, because as the founder of an organisation, you have a different status to anyone else within your company.
You can’t share your true concerns without being conflicted.
Sharing your issues with your other half works to some extent but unless they’re living and breathing it with you, they’ll never fully understand. And there may well be an embedded frustration at your likely obsession with your business.
Even among fellow entrepreneurs, there’s no one who will understand, or care about, your business as much as you do.
Secondly, you’ll lose a piece of you. Part of the role of any founder – especially in a business scaling quickly – is to manage the mood. Any display of emotion (irritation, anger, frustration) has a disproportionate impact on those around you.
For an entrepreneur who typically cares more, and probably has higher standards, than almost everyone else, this can be an incredibly difficult thing to suppress.
Achieving it requires you to cut off one end of your emotional spectrum. You learn to control (and to internalise) these emotions for the good of the team.
After almost 20 years of doing this, I’m not sure there’s any issue, tangle or mess that would cause me to react emotionally.
The problem with this ‘skill’, however, is that you simultaneously cut off the other end of your emotional spectrum. You naturally lose a bit of your warmth, fun and happiness because you’re always in control.
It’s why entrepreneurs regularly need to be reminded to celebrate the successes of their business rather than just moving on to the next thing.
The final thing you risk losing is your vulnerability. And this, to me, is the scariest bit. In my case, it took me until I was about 35 – a decade into the entrepreneurial journey – to realise that I no longer needed to carry a protective shield round with me.
Just because you’re a founder doesn’t mean you’re not human. You don’t have to pretend to be invincible – either to yourself or to your colleagues.
Feeling isolated is a natural price you pay as an entrepreneur. The sooner you recognise this and do something about it, the more fulfilling the role will be.
Being more open, more vulnerable and more comfortable in your own skin (warts and all) not only makes you more human, it makes you a better leader.
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