Farmers farm, painters paint, musicians play music. Simple enough. You may do more than one thing; ultimately the truth of any such label is based upon the small actions that make up your daily life, from moment to moment.
There is another angle to this statement; namely, that you aren’t what you don’t do. You may spend all day listening to music, reading music magazines, thinking about music, even writing down little fragments here and there. But, if you do not actually play music, you are not a musician. Though fantasy, ambition and desire are the start of everything, no amount of them are a substitute for action.
How does this apply to entrepreneurs? Entrepreneurs build businesses. That’s it. That’s what they do. If you aren’t doing this, you aren’t an entrepreneur. So what does building a business mean, anyway? What are these magical actions? Two things:
1. Building something to sell
2. Selling what you’ve built to someone
Why am I bringing this up? The title of “entrepreneur” has become much more common in the past couple of years, as the flailing economy has pushed the public and the media to seek our next economic salvation, our next kingmaking trend. As it’s become more common, it’s also increasingly come to mean “someone without deep experience working on an indefensible, high-risk consumer internet business model.” This is a vision of entrepreneurship focused on the external artifacts of activity that looks entrepreneurial, rather than on the daily actions of engaging in progressive, thoughtful refinement of your business model and execution.
I feel this is partly an unfortunate consequence of the popular illusion of entrepreneurial success. Endless tech blogs paint of picture of startup success like a conveyor belt: build product, pull PR stunt for early customers, get lucky break, raise VC funding, go viral, get on the cover of Forbes, cash out and buy a lear jet. This is both silly and unfortunate.
It’s silly because the huge successes many are trying to emulate never happened this way. They only appear this way in retrospect, to a reporter who needs to tell a dramatic story, or to a reader who wants to believe one as a template of their own life to be. It’s unfortunate because it obscures the distinction between doing work that moves your business forward and making work-like gestures that fuel a delusion of productivity. I sent 50 emails, pitched at an event and sent my deck to three VC associates. Was I productive? Maybe, maybe not.
Part of the problem is that figuring out what to do when you’re starting a company is such a huge, wide-open space that nearly any task can be categorized as part of the job. Sending emails? Yep. Pitching uninterested investors? Oh yeah. Relentless networking? I’ve handed out 200 business cards this week! You can do these things until you burn every last dollar you saved at your horrid investment banking/consulting/bartending/lame big company job. You can also eat ramen, play ping-pong, chain-drink Red Bull and wear canvas sneakers to business meetings. None of this means you are an entrepreneur. Yet I constantly meet people doing exactly these things, without a product, a team or customers – and not looking for them – who are absolutely convinced they are entrepreneurs. Good luck; you have my sympathy.
Many of the “entrepreneurs” I meet are hustlers – they are running as fast as they can, selling themselves through an idea. Others are dreamers – they envision a world where their idea is a globe-spanning company, and their house is a 200′ yacht docked off the coast of Antibes, populated with the cast of the latest Victoria’s Secret catalog. There are also a host of less dramatic archetypes. Many are delusional about what they are really doing and why. They are seeking to emulate the behavioral appearance of the success of others, rather than to focus on the actions that will fuel their own success.
Most real success is not dramatic. It’s grinding – daily, small, consistent, relentless – commitment. Which, if you’re a real entrepreneur, is what makes you happiest. If your business isn’t igniting this kind of intense, fixated commitment inside you – why are you doing it anyway?
So, if you’re thinking of jumping in and going the entrepreneurial route, ask yourself: what did I do today? Did I build (part of) a product? Did I speak to a potential customer? Or did I design things that don’t exist? Build a product for people I haven’t spoken to, who haven’t asked for it? Pitched my consumer web app to a group of life sciences investors? Flowcharted a beautiful solution to a problem I’ve never had?
Be honest with yourself. Ultimately, who you are is exactly who you should be. You don’t need millions in liquid assets or a Co-Founder/CXO title to enjoy all the marvels daily life has to offer. You do need an understanding of yourself, what you’re really doing and what is driving you to do it.
So, take a look. Ask a mirror, your closest friends, your colleagues, any mentors you can get to engage with you – then listen. And try not to let your ego throw a tantrum when it hears something it doesn’t like.