March 2015: Reflections on Being an Entrepreneur

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No office. Work when you want, from wherever you want. #Nomad for life. Sounds groovy, doesn’t it? Why, yes, I happen to agree. I’m a few weeks into my entrepreneurial adventure as co-founder of Retrium, and like clockwork, the winter grays are in the rear view mirror. It’s 75 degrees out and sunny. The coffee is strong, the music is playing, and spring is here.

As I continue to adjust to the daily #startupgrind, from time to time I plan to share some insights into what bootstrapped start-up life is really like. For those of us who live outside The Valley, and especially for those of us who live in a “suit city” like Washington, D.C., being an entrepreneur comes with certain stigmas and assumptions. What is it like working without an office? How do you know what to do all day? Can you actually make money being an entrepreneur? That, and more, coming your way. These are my random thoughts and reflections, so read at your own risk Smiley

Lessons from March 2015 (Month 1)
The open-ended nature of building a business is simultaneously empowering and exciting as well as confusing and overwhelming.

There is so much to do when building a business from scratch. We have to build a website, build a product, build a customer base, build a marketing plan, build a business model, build, build, build, and build some more. Since there’s only two of us (myself and my technical co-founder, Ryan), there’s a constant nagging sense that we aren’t accomplishing enough on a daily basis because there’s just so much to do. At the same time, the fact that on any given day I can work on anything I want is incredibly empowering and exciting. It’s a strange dichotomy that, I suspect, will persist for a very long time.

 

Working in the same physical location as your co-founder is both challenging and invigorating at the same time.

As a cash-strapped startup, we have no office space. Some days, Ryan and I choose to work separately from our homes. Other days we decide to meet and work together out of a coffee shop. As a social guy, I thought that I’d prefer working with Ryan from the same physical location. Sometimes I do. But working together also presents challenges of its own. It can be distracting. It can be far too easy to disrupt each other. At the same time, being together enables you to easily share the joy you get from tweets like this:

It feels great.

I finally feel that I have control over my own life. I no longer have a one hour commute every day to and from the office. I no longer have to request days off to take care of a sick child or to celebrate a holiday. I no longer feel like a bad employee when I have to go to a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day. At the same time, I wake up excited to start working. The day goes by in a flash because more often than not, I’m in the flow. Assuming the whole “I need to make money” thing solves itself at some point, this lifestyle is far superior to the 9-5 office job.

 

Friends and family are genuinely interested in what you’re doing at work.

“How’s work going?” used to be a relatively empty question. Sure, I could give an answer, but with the exception of my spouse, my parents, and perhaps a few others, no one else really cared that much. That’s no longer the case. Friends, family, former colleagues, and even random people I meet genuinely want to know how Retrium is doing. It’s kinda cool.

 

That’s it for this month. Now, back to work Smiley

Getting an MBA vs. Starting Your Own Business

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Let’s start with the profiles of two high-success individuals who are about to embark on two different life adventures.

Individual #1 (We’ll call her Lucy)

After graduating five years ago with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering from MIT, Lucy took a job as a software developer at a large corporation. Her starting salary was a healthy $90,000. In no time, Lucy was identified as a high potential employee. She was quickly promoted to project manager, then to senior project manager, and was correspondingly given multiple raises resulting in her current salary of $125,000. As she moved up the corporate ladder, Lucy started to realize that she lacked some of the foundational business knowledge that her older, more experienced colleagues seemed to have. So she decided that it would be a good idea to quit her job and enroll in a fulltime MBA program. As a star performer with great references and a solid academic background, Lucy was confident that she would get accepted to a top-ranked business school. She knew the costs are high: $170,000 in tuition payments plus an opportunity cost of $250,000 in lost salary, for a grand total of $420,000 in lost income over two years. Yet, with the support of her family, she decided to go for it. After applying, interviewing, and nervously waiting for a decision, Lucy finally got the good news: she was accepted to Harvard! When she told her parents, friends, and colleagues of her decision to leave her corporate job and get a Harvard MBA, they were immediately supportive (“you’re lucky to be able to attend such a good school!”) and wished her the best of luck.

Individual #2 (We’ll call him Tom)

Tom is a technical wizard and a natural leader. He’s the rare combination of a geek who is also an outgoing, personable guy. He’s five years out of Stanford University, where he graduated with honors with a Computer Science degree. Upon graduation, he was recruited by all the hot Silicon Valley companies – Google, Facebook, Apple. Now, he’s a rising star and a lead engineer and has been told by the suits that he has the potential to become a “big deal” at the company. His starting salary was $90,000, but he’s now making $125,000. He’s generally happy with his job, but he also feels that by working at a big company, he’s missing out on his lifelong dream: to start his own business. One day during his daily 6:00am morning shower, Tom has a flash of genius: an idea that could change the world! Tom hurries into the office, excited to tell his closest friend at work about his idea (and secretly hoping that his friend would be interested in becoming a cofounder). It works! Tom and his friend start working on the idea at night and on weekends. One day, after receiving yet another urgent email from his boss (they always seem to be urgent), Tom decides that it’s time. He walks into his manager’s office and tells her that he’s quitting his job. That same evening, he calls his parents to tell them the news. The reaction is predictable: “You’re doing what? Tom, you could lose everything! What if it fails? Are you sure this is a good idea?

What People Think About Lucy and Tom

The difference in reactions to Lucy’s and Tom’s decisions is not mere hyperbole; it’s how most people in our society think. At first glance, there’s a good reason for that: Lucy is smartly investing in her future by getting a Harvard MBA while Tom is risking everything, since the vast majority of startups fail.

What’s So Different About Lucy’s and Tom’s Paths, Really?

Let’s look at what Lucy will most likely get from her Harvard MBA:

  1. A really great business education
  2. An amazing lifelong network
  3. A guarantee of lost income in the short run
  4. Hopefully a lot of extra income in the long run

And here’s what Tom will most likely get from founding his startup:

  1. A really great business education
  2. An amazing lifelong network
  3. A guarantee of lost income in the short run
  4. Hopefully a lot of extra income in the long run

That’s the thing. The expected outcomes of getting an MBA and starting a business are nearly identical in almost every way. Both are opportunities to learn. Both are opportunities to meet people. Both are guaranteed to lose you large sums of money in the short run, while having tremendous potential to make you a ton of money in the long run.

What Needs To Change

Despite the similarities in outcomes between the two, most people consider quitting your job to found a company to be an extremely risky activity, while quitting your job to go back to school to be a worthwhile investment. This needs to change. Yes, of course starting a business is risky. But starting a business, like getting an MBA, is also a worthwhile investment in your future. And that’s true even if your company fails. The business skills you will gain and the people you will meet will, in the long run, open doors for you.

So the next time someone you know quits his or her job to start a company, treat it the same way you’d treat someone who is going back to school. Both are deserving of praise.

Do we do it?

Startups. We love the idea of them, we wish we had the guts to do them, yet we hesitate. We come up with all the reasons not to: I have a good salary! they are too risky! but what if I fail? And yet, at the end of the day, as we come home from another day at the office, the idea persists. Just look at all those people who’ve done it — really done it! They’ve turned something simple into something real!

And so, day in and day out, we continue to dream our dream. Because ultimately, the draw of a startup is the same thing that draws engineers to build, software developers to write code, musicians to write songs. It’s the urge to create something from nothing. To turn an idea — no, your idea — into a real, honest-to-god business. A self-sustaining engine of growth, profitability, jobs, and freedom. Yes, that’s it — freedom. To be your own boss. Wait, I thought an entrepreneur’s boss was his customers? So we hesitate. Again.

Yet the idea of launching a startup is one that continues to gnaw at us. Do we do it? Or do we simply continue to dream?

The best time to start a startup is not tomorrow, not next week, and certainly not next year. The time is right now, at this very second.

Jason Baptiste