Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Supporting an Entrepreneur: Do You Have What It Takes?

When most people think about entering the workforce (or shuffling around a bit in it), they typically think of two types of employment:
  1. "I'm going to work a 9-to-5 job, collect my paycheque every x weeks, do a decent job, work some overtime, earn a promotion or two, keep my work life very detached, and make sure I have plenty of time to do what I want."
  2. "Screw working for other people--I'm going to start up my own company, be my own boss, and make a bunch of money.  Sure, I'll have to sacrifice most/all of my own time and figure out a way to fund my venture, but I know I can make a difference and be guaranteed to do something I love."
In other words, type 1 is the "9-to-5er" while type 2 is the "entrepreneur" (and, depending on circumstances, this can also apply to freelancing).

That would make for a good movie title: "Arnold Schwarzenegger is...The Entrepreneur!"

In this article, we're going to have a look at a third option which I find is largely overlooked (granted, I'm sure there are far more options/goals for employment out there, but in the interest in keeping this simple, I'm sticking to the ones in this article).

This third option is what I refer to as the "entrepreneur supporter".

I had originally planned on writing another series on this matter; however, I'm going to stick to a single article on it and, if interest/time allows, will expand upon the ideas in here in subsequent posts.

It is important to note, as well, that I am neither advocating nor denouncing one form of employment or the other (or the people who choose them).  What I am doing is writing from my own experience; take it for what it's worth, i.e. caveat emptor).

Decisions, Decisions...
Let's have a look at the first two types of employment and consider what they tend to mean to people.

What we will find is that a lot of the pros and cons are really a matter of perspective, so what one person may find to be a con may be a pro to another.  Keep that in mind as you read through this article.

The 9-to-5er

  1. Easier to keep work/life balance and, as The Offspring said, keep them separated.
  2. Fewer concerns about collecting a regular paycheque.
  3. No risks involving your own money.
  4. "Work to live", not "live to work".
  1. For the ambitious, limited control/say in how to grow/steer the company.
  2. More likely to be out of the loop as to the status of the company (is it in financial trouble? etc.).
  3. It's easy to lapse into a sense of entitlement (further reading to help combat this within your organization: Ownership Thinking by Brad Hams--highly recommended).
  4. Likely to have your salary/position cap out somewhere not too much higher than where you are now (of course there are exceptions, and for some people, this is less a con than a pro; the lesson: it's important to know what you want).
  5. Working hours are laid out by employer (but seem to be more flexible these days).
For a lot of people, this type of employment is exactly what they want; for others--especially the ambitious--they want something more (or, at least, different).

Let's have a look at the next type.

The Entrepreneur

  1. Don't report/answer to anyone but yourself (well, at least until you have a Board and/or shareholders).
  2. Set your own hours/schedule.
  3. You determine exactly what kind of work you want to do (and it's likely something you love--otherwise, why do it?).
  4. You determine what you do with all revenue.
  1. Have to fund the venture yourself (or at least raise the funds).
  2. It's your skin in the game: If business is poor/suffering, it's your money on the line.  Not to mention having to cover myriad costs...
  3. All the headaches taken care of by managers, operations, executives, sales, etc. are now your problem.  (Read: Insomnia.)
  4. Frustration.  You'll have to generate new leads/sales all while you're doing the work you set out to do (unless you hire someone else to help with that, but that's yet another cost to bear).
  5. While you set your own schedule, in order to get the business machine going, you're unlikely to have very much free time at all (if any) for the foreseeable future.
  6. Taxes, taxes, taxes.
  7. More taxes.
  8. ...and that's all while you actually do the work you set out to to do!
For those who are ambitious and want this kind of life, it can be extremely rewarding; of course, it's also fraught with risk and peril (kind of like being a knight, but with less chance of being parodied).  The greater the risk, though, the greater the reward.

Like you didn't see this reference coming a mile away.

Surely There Must Be More
So what about those who are looking for something in between those two options?  Something more, where one can affect greater change without needing to commit the shirt off one's back.

There is more, and don't call me Shirley (sorry, couldn't resist).

(From Paramount's Airplane)
Ok, no more Airplane jokes--I promise!

A Bit of Background
Being an "entrepreneur supporter" is an area in which I have considerable experience.

Coming out of school, I had the opportunity to work for various companies as part of my degree's co-operative program.  The companies for which I worked ran the gamut of SME sizes.  I also worked for large, multi-billion dollar corporations (that sounds impressive when I put it like that).

Needless to say, I had a taste of what was involved in working for each size of company.

Without going into gory detail, I had decided that while I wasn't prepared to risk everything, I had more ambition than struggling my way up the corporate ladder for the rest of my natural life, relying on luck and politics as much as hard work and skill in order to get ahead.

There's ambition, and then there's ambition.

As I couldn't really find any direction/advice on what to do in this case (save for some advice which I'll just say was trite), I thought about it, did my own research, and came up with a plan to try out:

I would get a job with a smaller SME in which I could add immediate value, establish myself, invest a good chunk of extra time, learn what I needed to, and work my way to a position of influence as fast as possible.

It worked.

Yes, I had to invest more than a few years' worth of time before I had any kind of measurable influence (including huge swaths of my own), but it worked (by way of my own example, in a company of 40-50 people, I had made VP before I was 28 and currently sit as the CIO of the company).

No one said it would be easy.

Being an Entrepreneur Supporter
At this point, I think it's safe to say that being in such a position is a compromise between being a 9-to-5er and a full-on entrepreneur.

I'm going to share with you, dear reader, some of what I've learned during the course of being an entrepreneur supporter (I like it when section titles line-up so nicely!).

When choosing the company you want to work for, consider the following:
  1. Make sure they do something you are actually interested in.  (Seriously.)
  2. Do your due diligence!  Check out the owner and/or executive (if there is one), what their goals are, and what their short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals (and, if applicable, their exit strategy).
  3. Make sure it's a size you're ok with.  As a general rule, the bigger the company, the more work (and time) you're going to have to put in (more politics, more inertia, etc.).
  4. Make sure you can work with the entrepreneur/executive (let's face it: egos or not, entrepreneurs can be very particular about how they want things done; after all, that's why they started a business instead of working for someone else).
  5. Do your homework on the company!
Strike up a relationship with the owner (and any of his/her executive staff) early on.  If you're going to help steer his/her company, as noted above, you'd best be able to work with that person.  What's more, you'll likely be spending a lot of time with him/her, so getting to know the owner/exec staff early on will go a long way, both in terms of being able to work with the people in question as well as understanding the business in which you're now embroiled.

Keep your ears open and ask questions.  Your MBA might have taught you a lot, or you might be great with technical jobs, but in a small business, chances are very, very good that you will not have learned enough to wear all the different hats you need to (whether you're responsible for those positions or not).  And the odds are good--especially if the business has been around for awhile--that the people currently working there know a thing or three about how to run it well.  Listen to them.  And if you think you know how to do what they do, challenge yourself and find out.  Grow.

Be prepared to be on-call 24/7.  Though most 9-to-5ers are now expected to be reachable for a bit after business hours and deal with occasional emergencies, being on-call in this supporting role is inevitable.  If you want people to listen to you, you have to participate, and that means late-night phone calls, early-morning meetings, last-minute conference calls, and emergencies on long weekends (and being responsive to all of the above).  The idea here is to make the entrepreneur's life easier--not yours.  He/she has enough to worry about.  Let him/her know you can handle the tough situations.  Start small, and the responsibilities will pile up (a mixed blessing to be sure).  It's a small price to pay for having influence without having to worry about your own money in the company.  Take comfort in knowing that you won't have to work 80 hours a week forever.

This will be you, for any number of reasons.  You've been warned.

Don't be the squeaky wheel.  Whatever you negotiate your starting salary/terms to be, make sure you're comfortable with it, because the last thing your boss will want to hear is you justifying why you should get a raise every 6-12 months.  Sure, you might get it every so often, but, that kind of sacrifice (or lack thereof) won't soon be forgotten.  Remember: He/she is sacrificing a lot more than you are; let them know they aren't alone in it and that you're "investing" in your own way.  If you've done your research, your entrepreneurial boss will take care of you (time off, flexible hours, pay raises when possible, etc.).  This actually leads into the next point nicely.

Find a shop where egos are checked at the door--including the entrepreneur's.  This doesn't mean the owner will be cow-towing to you and giving in to your every whim.  What it means is that everyone--including the owner--is prepared to do whatever it takes to make the business work.  You still have to deal with the owner's personality (like any boss), but at least you'll have an added measure of reassurance that you're not going to get taken to the cleaners and/or taken advantage of.

Treat company money like it is your own.  If you're in a position where you make decisions and/or handle company money, treat the money as though it was your own (and I mean that in the best possible way; i.e. don't go spending it all because you can).  Be smart with the money going out.  Be prepared to justify expenditures ("ROI" will become your favourite TLA).  Conversely, be prepared to do whatever it takes to maximize revenue.  Nothing makes you look better than adding serious value to the company's bottom line (an axiom in any-sized business).

Two words: Be flexible.  If you were hired on to be an engineer or developer, be ok with being pushed out of your comfort zone.  Take on tasks that you'll likely make mistakes with (just be careful with how you manage those mistakes--another good lesson).  If your boss wants you to go in his stead somewhere, do it.  If your boss wants you to take out the garbage, heck, do it.  Show that you're reliable.  Wax on, wax off (and all that).  And remember the Golden Rule: "He who has the gold makes the rules." Be prepared to do what the person signing your paycheque wants/needs.  The Golden Rule also speaks to what your boss does with his/her time.  You might not approve/believe it fair/whatever of what your boss does.  Guess what?  It doesn't matter.  It's the same with any job/boss, really, but at least here you can take solace in the fact that it is that person's money paying your wages--that person certainly isn't going to just burn money for the sake of burning money (see above: due diligence).  Get over yourself and focus on your job.  If it really bothers you, then maybe this type of work isn't for you.

Work/life balance.  This one might be a deal-breaker for many.  If you can manage to balance the two the way you like, then all the power to you.  However, be prepared and don't be surprised if those two areas of your life bleed over into each other constantly (and usually much moreso the "work" portion entering into your "personal life" portion).  This "bleed" is happening more and more with many jobs, but it's a fact of life with this type of work.  Entrepreneurs are notorious for having to sacrifice personal relationships for their dreams of their business.  Supporting those entrepreneurs will most definitely require a comparable level of sacrifice; maybe not to the same degree, but make no mistake: Sacrifice will be involved (I really can't overstate that).


No, not THAT kind of produce.

It should go without saying that you should produce results, no matter what tasks you undertake.  You'll likely have to take it a step further, too, and be prepared to do whatever it takes to complete your tasks with a minimum of budget.  Does your solution involve sinking $10 000 in licensing?  Or could you do a bit more work and find a way to cut that cost out with open source or a different solution?  This does not just apply to software, either.

It's still a big risk.  While you might not have skin in the game (unless you really want to go that route), you're certainly not a 9-to-5er.  As time goes on, you'll be exposed to more and more information--both good and bad--and you'll be expected to know what to do with it.  What's more, there's no guarantee that you'll see a big payday/cash out, but you're likely to experience more freedom (with your responsibilities), and with no risk, there's certainly no reward.  Make peace with that as soon as possibly can, and learn from any failures you may encounter.  "Success has many fathers; failure is the bastard son."

I'm sure I could go on at greater length, but, what I've disseminated here is at the core of what it takes to successfully support an entrepreneur.

While there certainly is a greater degree of potential reward, as well as freedom and responsibility, it has its share of risks, as well, though not necessarily as severe as if you had started your own business.

I have to say, though, for me, at least, it's been well worth the risk.  Personally, I've invested a lot of my own time into supporting an entrepreneur, and it has taken a lot of sacrifice (it still does), but it can and does pay off.  I enjoy a considerable degree of freedom (along with the Sword of Damacles that often dangles above my head), as well as a long-time friendship with my boss.  It's definitely not for everyone, but for those who do pursue it, it can pay off huge.

I might write more about it at a later date, but in the meantime, questions and constructive feedback are most definitely welcome.

We'll see you on the next post!

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