The Entrepreneurial Myth: do you want to work alone, to watch your big idea die, and to sweep the floor? Try this instead.

October 14, 2009 by Jared Goralnick

image Most people could use more career independence.  Many have some big idea they want to offer the world.  A few thrive on building authority by taking on greater responsibility.

But these do not necessarily go hand-in-hand—they often make for a risky and stressful formula.  If you want freedom, impact, or authority, let’s talk about some paths to these beyond the “go launch a business” suggestion we hear all too often.


What Part of Entrepreneurship Excites You Most?

Before you go on, consider first what’s most important to you: freedom of time/location, making an impact, or running and growing a business?  These are interrelated and far from mutually exclusive, but most of us want one more than the others.  If it helps, you can place “the thrill of…” before any of these as that may help you to see it clearly—“the thrill of independence,” “the thrill of changing the world,” or the “thrill of building a business.”  Which do you seek most?

The Danger In Going All Out

Nevermind that 90% of businesses don’t make it five years and 50% don’t make it past year one (SBA statistics).  I want to talk more about lifestyle here:

If you want to bake bread, work at a bakery.  If you want to sweep the floor, start a bakery.  In other words, if you want to practice a craft then often times that gets put on the backburner for all the other minutiae that’s involved in running a business.  Maybe you won’t have to sweep the floor, but you will have to manage projects, keep track of the finances, help with workplace conflicts, etc.  (I believe this metaphor was in Michael Gerber’s E-Myth, a great book on this topic)

If you want cash and freedom, don’t build a startup. Don’t hire a dozen employees. Don’t start borrowing a bunch of money to invest in your idea.  Being a consultant may be a good approach to banking some buck.  Selling an information product or becoming a reseller online may be a way to build recurring revenue.  (If you really want to know about how to find a market online and build recurring revenue, my good friend Clay just launched his freedom business school – and I can vouch for the program.)  The thing is, while it’s possible for there to be a (freedom) light at the end of the tunnel, most forms of building businesses take an insane amount of work to get you there.

Another Approach to Changing the World

I’m not trying to dissuade you from doing The Next Big Thing (TNBT), but I believe there are other ways to realize our dreams than by starting a business.  Here’s the gist of a recent conversation with a good friend:

Friend: I have this awesome way of [insert her special talent] that local communities really need to keep publishing alive and even thriving.

She really might have this talent—she’s been in the publishing industry forever.

Me: That’s awesome, but how is that going to scale?  How are you going to build all the other stuff needed before you can do that?

Friend: Well, I guess I’ll build a product and…

Me: So you’re going to build a platform for local news?

Friend: I’ll start with one city, like Craigslist. I’ll just have to find some people who understand the technology and I think I can figure out the business side of this as I’m studying that stuff and…

Me: Have you looked at the way Yahoo Local News and and others are trying to do what you’re talking about?  Have you looked into all the geolocation services out there that have a hand in local?

Friend: No.

Me: I don’t want to turn you away from your idea, but what if you looked into whether there was a place for you at all these places that already have platforms?  So you could maybe kick ass doing the part you’re good at, the part you’re passionate about…rather than the grunt work and high risk part of trying to build (yet another) platform?  Or maybe you could build a plug-in for them that…

I’m not saying that this works for everyone.  But the thing is, we all get really excited about our ideas, but we don’t consider the market enough:

  • What’s already out there?  This is not a 15 minute Google exercise.
  • Do you want to compete with the existing companies in the space or could you possibly join one of them or offer a niche service to them?  (in which case you could immediately focus on the thing you’re good at?)

It’s somewhat naive to think we can easily land a job with authority at the incumbent or sell something to them.  But it is possible to effect change without starting from scratch or being at the top.

Just ask yourself, if impact is your goal is there a way to make the same impact without being a CEO of something that doesn’t presently exist?  Maybe you can have a greater chance of success with an existing group?

(and for all you 20-somethings who rushed to join not-for-profits at 25k per year as an office manager—this is not what I’m talking about—more on that later)

And as for Freedom…

Well, changing the world and finding extra time or money for oneself don’t always go hand in hand.  If you read The Four Hour Workweek, you’ll see that the types of businesses Ferriss advocates aren’t always in line with solving the world’s biggest problems.

But those aren’t for everyone—we all have loans to pay, mouths to feed, and ambitions outside of work.  Freedom businesses may be the best path to that—it’s not the traditional approach to entrepreneurship, but it is a valid one.  (Again, Clay’s program is one of many to learn more about that.)

The only point I want to leave you with on this is that the fastest way to freedom or reliable revenue is not to go out on your own trying to build something big.

So What?  And Tying It All Together

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about lessons-learned in business.  I get paid to offer business advice and I organize a group to help entrepreneurs succeed (come to our next event Oct 29th!).  But the first step is not to just start your business.  The first step is to figure out whether you want to make an impact, find more freedom, or just build a business.  Then the next step is to figure out what’s already out there.

Putting those two steps together you have all kinds of options for what type of career is for you and whether it makes sense to go it alone or to join something else that’s already off the ground.

(I went off on a little tangent earlier about the unrealistic not-for-profit change-the-world path, and that’s because just joining a company is not the best way to make an impact there and beyond.  The best way is to build rapport with the exact company you want to be involved with and use the tactics in Charlie Hoehn’s Recession Proof Grad free eBook to land a respected job where you get to make the impact you want to make.  Seriously grab that eBook.)

So don’t just build TNBT.  Do what’s right for you.

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11 Responses to “The Entrepreneurial Myth: do you want to work alone, to watch your big idea die, and to sweep the floor? Try this instead.”


  1. Tim Koelkebeck

    One of my favorite technotheory posts. Bookmarking so that I remember to send this next time I talk to a kid with an idea who’s already using the e-word :)

    I’d like to know who this undisclosed friend from the publishing industry is. Her idea may be inline with something I’ve discussed with UCP.

  2. Jared Goralnick

    Thanks, Tim. Oh gosh, I’m just glad I didn’t get into the whole “so you call yourself an entrepreneur” thing. Truthfully, it really doesn’t matter what one calls oneself…but what does matter is that one sees there’s not always glory in entrepreneurship, business ownership, whatever. The glory is in living out your dream, not living out some abstract concept that applies to some hypothetical career path.

    As for her idea, we’ll chat.

  3. Chuck Westbrook

    I agree with Tim. This post is challenging in the best sense of the word. Now I have some more self-reflection to do.

  4. Jared Goralnick

    Thanks, Chuck! I’d be very curious to hear if anything comes from that reflection–keep me/us posted!

  5. Walter

    What you have stated here is an eye-opener. Many aspiring businesses forget to see the larger picture, that is why many fail. I believe in proper deliberation and preparation before plunging into any of our dreams. :-)

  6. Mark

    Thanks for a great post that has come at a relevant period in my life. Freedom is my ‘thrill’ and for a while now I have been contemplating the best way to engage my particular passion while achieving the independence I am seeking. This post has provided some further insight and helped to clarify which path I should take.

  7. Jared Goralnick

    Walter, glad this was useful for ya. I think that we all should take a LOT more risks in our careers. But those risks should not JUST be to start a big business, there are lots of other options. So, we should act quickly, but we should recognize what options are out there besides going whole hog and building a software app or something.

    Mark, that means a lot–glad it’s helped to clarify. Look forward to learning about the path you end up taking one day!

  8. Sohit Karol

    This is a great write up Jared! You’ve touched on some points no one ever talks about. Very useful advise.

  9. Nathan Ketsdever

    Great post and interesting e-book suggestion Jared. There are lots of people who are struggling to find jobs in this economy and both recommendations will come in handy for them.

    In terms of entrepreneurship, I’ve been reading Steve Blank who teaches at Stanford and includes the lean start up methodology from Ries in his own methodology. He refines ideas by being explicitly customer driven, because all business plans and pitches are just “hunches strewn together” without the experimentation. His methodology applies to most all technology start ups–although he suggests adapting his theory to each unique organization, business model and product.

    His list of books to read broken down by each proficiency is quite good as well. His sales related materials were particularly insightful for me, as it suggested proven texts from a experienced technology entrepreneur.

  10. Rob Wagner

    Interesting concept of not rushing out to start a business just because you have a great idea. I know that in this market obtaining capital for any new business is difficult to say the least. I have used this principals that you mention the past few years and it has work very well for me. What I love to do has nothing to do with cash flow statements and what our stock price is that day. Sometimes if you just focused on what you are good at and enjoy you have a much better life. One word of caution. If you are good at what you do you may be asked to get more involved in your company. The last 6 months I have found myself without a boss and left with answering to a board of directors.
    This was a great post Jared

  11. Barbara Saunders

    Interesting … I think part of the problem is that “entrepreneurship” is used too broadly AND some people are unclear both about what their goal really is and about the right strategies and tactics to get them there.

    If all you want is to practice your craft without a boss looking over your shoulder, then you need to open a small business or consulting firm – not get venture capital or manage a ton of employees. Chances are, you’ll make just about what you made doing it for somebody else – maybe a little more, maybe a little less. Chances are, your schedule and flexibility level will be somewhat similar to what you have now – you aren’t prevented by a rule from going to your kids’ game but you may have to be up all night doing what tech support did in your job.

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