Have you ever been camping in the pouring rain and experienced the sense of accomplishment, even thrill, of cooking up a simple dish and successfully serving it, despite the difficult circumstances? Why is it so satisfying? Deep down, you know that you could pack up the car and head to the closest restaurant and motel, maybe only a few minutes away, but you persevere and you’re rewarded with a possibly nourishing, definitely sopping, plateful of lukewarm Hamburger Helper. You hold it up as though it were a diploma from an elite school. “Despite all the difficulties,” you think, “I made this!” Somehow, it tastes better than a featured dish from a five-star restaurant.
That feeling of accomplishment despite the challenges is what drives entrepreneurs. Which is strange, because most people think it’s the money and other trappings of success. That’s understandable. Popular culture often conflates entrepreneurialism with money and excess. Think Fyre Festival excess. Images of nice cars, jets, helicopters, with our hero striding confidently, usually in slow motion, with his (yes, it’s usually a guy) eyes on the camera. The reality is far from the image.
Entrepreneurs might be more prevalent than you think. More than 6% of Americans get their primary income from their own business. Despite all the publicity that “unicorns” and IPOs receive, fully 80% of small businesses are self-funded. And more than half start out in a primary residence rather than an office.
In my experience, entrepreneurialism more often means top ramen out of a cup sitting at a lopsided table, scrolling through names of potential customers, working the phone pitching product and setting up appointments. Working on PowerPoints, one-sheeters, and videos all to set up that magical moment when you find yourself in front of a potential client extolling the virtues of the product you’re so passionate about. The thrill of changing a skeptical “no” to a less skeptical “maybe,” to a magical “yes.” That’s what motivates an entrepreneur. And it doesn’t really change when money enters the picture.
Travel guru Rick Steves often says that travel is intensified living. The same is true for startup life. With all of my businesses, I’ve had a rule that they needed to pay for themselves, even when I had some investment capital in the bank. After all, the capital was usually earmarked for a capital expense, like printing books. Any other expense needed to stay within current cashflow. This set up rules that made the resulting sacrifice seem like a challenging game, and gave me a genuine sense of accomplishment when I succeeded.
This rule also led to some memorable moments in the early days of my business. There were the times when I stayed free on beer-soaked couches at various fraternities as we travelled the country promoting our first book. Or when a weekend at a friend’s parents’ in New York turned into an entire summer as our negotiation for a book deal with Simon & Schuster took longer, much longer, than we at first thought. Don’t worry–I cut the grass, did the dishes and took out the trash. Or the time that I kept re-upping on a 30-day “test drive a Macintosh” deal that Apple was offering to first-time buyers, which you were technically allowed to do, though the salesguy told me that no one had ever tried it. After six iterations, I finally had enough money to buy one. My companies have bought dozens since.
I learned early on that when you’re young with enthusiasm, a plan, passion, and genuine interest in people, the world opens up for you. Just like you forget the rain and mosquitoes on that camping trip, you forget all the doors slammed in your face along the way. But you’ll never forget the look on the face of your first customer to say “yes.” Intensified living, indeed.