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The challenges of being an entrepreneur

Everest

photo by Christopher Burns

Have you ever thought about climbing Mount Everest?

It’s an incredibly strenuous task to undertake. Nobody just decides on a whim to tackle Everest, hops on the plane, gets some gear and knuckles down for the climb. It takes months and sometimes years of mental and physical preparation, research, collaborating, and organisation before the actual climb even begins. And then there’s the grueling two month long trek itself.

Being an entrepreneur is not unlike taking on Everest. It’s not an easy path. The fact that, comparatively, so few undertake it, and that even less make it a way of life, is testimony to its difficult nature. You really have to be strong enough to persevere.

Sure, there are people who are more mentally destined to the entrepreneurial life. For the rest of us who’ve been through the schooling system, had parents who were employed, and haven’t had regular exposure to the mindset of the entrepreneur, we need a bit of practice.

Naturally, you get better as time goes on, but it’s always a challenge in the beginning. And continues to be a challenge, but you get better at managing and handling the challenge.

Just like with the mountain; the climb itself doesn’t get easier. But, with practice, it’s who you gets stronger.

Foundation

The first steps is establishing a foundation. Whether you begin your entrepreneurial journey at age 8 or age 80, having a firm foundation to work for is essential. A foundation could mean several things.

Let’s look at a financial foundation. The better your financial situation, the more you are able to play. Your business may or may not work out; if it is your only source of income, should things go awry, it is always helpful to not have to sell your home to make ends meet.

Granted that this is easier said than done. Some people are able to build their businesses in their free time while working a job. Some, like myself, go the freelance route so there’s more time available, but income is still dependent on marketing your freelance business and getting those jobs. Where your business requires your absolute commitment, finances would come in the form of investors and financiers.

And sometimes, you just don’t have the luxury of any financial stability. The testament of the entrepreneur, however, is that you make it work. It’s going to be harder, make no mistake, and there’s still no guarantee of any success, so as best as you can, find somebody who has money and believes in you, or plan ahead and save up a healthy nest-egg that breaks your fall.

A good emotional foundation is also important. You need to have a strong disposition on this journey because few people understand it, and it has the potential to break you, driving wedges in relationships, chipping away at your sanity. Learn to be strong and keep at it. Having a mentor or coach or both is a huge boon on this journey.

Having somebody around to lean on when you are doubting yourself and wanting to throw in the towel is such a boon. Or at least to talk to can make or break you. In my life journey, because I surround myself with freelancers, the people in my world have understood my pitfalls and have been able to offer some measure of support and motivation to keep at it. In recent times, being around actual entrepreneurs has been a saving grace. These are people who have been through the paces and built up successful companies, who live a life of relative leisure, and who still tell me that I’m not being delusional. They say that if I wasn’t struggling, they’d be worried. It doesn’t make things easier, but it does help give you courage to keep at it.

The Tools

Having the correct tools of the trade is very important, of course. You can’t be a good dentist if you only have a hacksaw and chisel. To run a business, you need good organisational tools and the skills to match. You also require good communication skills.

The tools most important to entrepreneurs are good people.

There are folks who are good are organisation, and folks who are great communicators, and people who rock at marketing, and at managing money, and managing staff. You need to focus on what you’re good at, and connect with the people who are good at the other stuff.

No human is an island and no business is built on its own. When you need support, get the support. I have been fortunate to be in business with a friend who has a few years head-start on me. He’s already gone through a lot of the grind and I’m leveraging off his business experience and acumen. We are able to complement each other with different skills and learn and grow from each other.

We still have our pitfalls and challenges and we are both growing in this together, finding out what works best. And it’s been a slower journey than we would have liked but we’ve still been moving forward and, at the end of the day, that’s what counts.

Playing the Game

One of the lessons that I’ve been learning through recent months is to trial the viability of a business idea first over a few days. If there’s traction in the form of interest and customers willing to pay, I have something substantial. If not, move on to the next thing, wasting as little time as possible.

If there’s evidence of paying customers, investors will be interested, provided a couple of criteria are met.

Customer numbers and revenue need to be increasing. There should be evidence that there’s no cap on customers or potential revenue. In other words, if you have a wonderful product that only caters to ten people’s needs, there’s no growth potential for your company.

And a major caveat to getting investment is if they don’t feel you’re the kind of person to pull it off. Financial institutions will only put money into sure business models, after wading through all the projections and papers. Angel and Venture Capitalists will invest in people. They are themselves entrepreneurs and they know that not all ideas pan out, regardless of the projections. But they know people, and they know the kind of people that they would want to put their money behind. People who are committed, who know how to play the game, and who will make things happen regardless.

You’ve got to learn to be that kind of person. And that takes time. That is part of the journey. You either are somebody who never says die, or you’re somebody who has to become that person.

You can learn the hard way through trial and error, learning what you can through books and the Internet, putting that knowledge into practice.

One of the best ways I’ve been exposed to this year is being part of these incubator programmes. Do a search for incubators; there are tons of them across the world. They are often sponsored but you will need to handle your own living expenses (although some programmes do cover expenses after a few weeks of commitment). The learnings and experience involved in working full-time on your business, alongside fellow entrepreneurs and mentors is immeasurable.

The Pay Off

In the case of mountain Everest, there’s the thrill to reach the top, the desire to do something few others have done, the bragging rights, the personal challenge, and a myriad of other reasons to keep focused and dedicated to completing the climb despite all the hardships that come with it, be it frostbite, altitude sickness, physical illness, or mental fatigue. The goal has to be bigger than the challenges, and you’ve got to be willing to endure anything to get to that top.

This attitude and will doesn’t guarantee you’ll make it. You can still fail, you can still be forced to turn back. Situation is not always in your control. But you’re the kind of person who always shows up, no matter how many times you’ve returned to the bottom. You will get to the top of that mountain, even if it takes you 100 goes.

And that, my friends, is the definition of an entrepreneur.

An adventurer who doesn’t stay down. There is no real finish line as an entrepreneur. You just keep moving forward.

And yes, one day, that payoff will be well worth it. And you will bask in the glory of your success.

And then you’ll look for another mountain to summit.

My Journey

These last few months have been grueling and I’ve had to deal with emotional break-downs, financial issues, relationship issues, being on my own, out of my comfort-zone, completely unsettled, and it has all been amazing. As I write this, I’m sleep-deprived, cash-strapped, a social hermit, emotionally drained, and on the verge of tears. I’m not in the best space and yet I also am in a good space. I am engaged, alive, and actually posting on my blog!

It’s been too long since I was able to just sit and write, and be a little bit creative. It’s having to accept that life happens, that not everything works according to plan, and recognising that I am still on track. I’ve gained more business acumen in the last 5 months than the last decade  of freelancing. And I am pleased. Broken as fuck but pleased nonetheless.

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