21st January, 2018

If you’re looking for trouble, start your own business

Starting a business is asking for trouble. Because, unfortunately, trouble of one sort or another will be visited upon every entrepreneur. Be it bad debts, supplier disputes, employee fraud, cyber-security breaches, client complaints, industrial accidents, fires, floods, order cancellations, equipment malfunctions, terrible weather, partners falling out, budget overruns or a thousand other problems . . . running a company is a vale of tears, a series of trials and tribulations to test the most optimistic character. So, unless you are resilient by nature, do not apply for the position.

None of these challenges will be highlighted in any business plan. Indeed, they are rarely mentioned at all. They are, however, the very warp and weft of an entrepreneurial life, and these crises cannot be delegated or ignored. If you are the owner and chief executive then you must roll up your sleeves and overcome the difficulties.

Of course, there are times of transcendence — great moments of achievement and victory — and plenty of fun and satisfaction to be had being your own boss. You have the pride of ownership and the creative delight of building something meaningful, generating employment and making customers happy.

However, no one embarking on a start-up should be under the illusion that success will be easy or quick. Indeed, it may never arrive.

Patience and stamina are essential attributes for those who choose to commence the journey — along with an ability to cope with the inevitable setbacks and disappointments.

There is a 21st-century myth among too many founders that business triumph is almost guaranteed within a couple of years. In reality, almost every worthwhile enterprise takes at least five years to develop — and a 10-year marathon is more typical.

In fact, I often think that every founder should learn how to lose money. Not because this is the purpose of any business, but because it is almost certain to happen — especially in the early years.

Having the confidence and spirit to push ahead, despite losses and errors, is a prerequisite for those who want to be entrepreneurs. Sales and profits come slowly and painfully, and economic cycles have to be navigated. Meanwhile, competitors attack relentlessly, and most things are much harder and take longer than you first imagined.

Capitalism is all about creative destruction, and any investor who tells you all his ventures have made money isn’t trying very hard — or is lying.

Innovation is especially fraught and perilous, but it is the principal engine of progress in society — the driver of rising living standards. Without it, we are consigned to stagnation.

It is the riskier stuff that provides the most excitement, and the greatest rewards when it takes off.

As a consequence of all the hazards and anxieties, entrepreneurs should be physically and mentally fit. Sadly, those with chaotic personal lives frequently fall by the wayside, unable to find refuge at home when business is giving them hell. The danger of bankruptcy, the striving to keep one’s dreams alive — these pressures can push founders to breakdowns or even suicide, yet for entrepreneurs, it seems it is almost always better to have tried and failed than never tried at all.

I probably come across as a bit jaded. In truth, I could never imagine doing anything other than being in charge of my destiny, owning and running businesses. Another career would pale into insignificance by comparison; the prize is worth the struggle.

There is something viscerally intense about the commitment and responsibilities required when you are the boss; you have a sense of purpose, a direction, vital engagement — and also nowhere to hide. A company will demand your attention, almost as if it were another child.

Moreover, trouble can be a stimulant. It demands action. A relaxed and stress-free existence has never appealed to me — too dull, too lazy, too unproductive. As John Dewey, an American philosopher, wrote: “Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates invention. It shocks us out of sleep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving . . . conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.”

Of course, it might be that if every business pioneer knew before they started just how arduous the expedition was likely to be, none of them would even start. Better, perhaps, that such founders are naive and inexperienced, but possess the unshakeable conviction and energy of youth, a hunger to prove themselves in the world and the advantage that they don’t know why something can’t be done.