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Reflections on entrepreneurship | The Light Series

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Being an entrepreneur is not an easy road. The glitz and glamour seen in media is a far cry from the daily business owner. Captured in Joe Dafney’s brutally honest essay on how he realized the sacrifices of an entrepreneur stripped him of his ego. Now, he reinvents himself.

I remember sitting at my desk, staring out of the window of some glass tower on a conference call, half listening and playing on my phone.  I was proud of myself because I had gone from working as a janitor to now being one of the people I used to clean up after. Following years of hard work and long hours, I achieved the six-figure salary, the corporate credit card and the little glass plaque with my name on it. But, like any good American, I wanted more. 

In my formative years, I was enchanted by the legendary success stories of entrepreneurs of the 80s and 90s.  I read countless profiles on people who started with nothing, but an idea, that they turned it into a fortune.  Like them, I wanted the mansions, the jets, the cars, and most importantly, the royal treatment that company founders seemed to enjoy.  So when my last job ended, I made my pact with the Universe to start my own business.  

Today, a year after making that pact, I can honestly say that I had no idea what I was taking on. What I learned is that entrepreneurship is an exercise in faith. You must do an insane amount of work upfront and do it well—then hope your bet was right. Even if your bet is right, you’re always a few bad decisions away from failure.  Add to that, the emotional toll this takes on a person calls for something bigger than self-confidence and ego.

‘I had always been the passenger on someone else‘s boat’

Any new venture is a gamble. For me, it depends on how successfully you can guess what products and services the people will put their dollars toward.  While in the business world, everyone loves to celebrate the winners, in all the gloating, we tend to brush over the risk involved. But, the risks are real.  The free markets are no place for weak stomachs and if you guess wrong, there’s no one to blame and there’s no money.

In hindsight, the biggest misconception I had about starting my own company is that entrepreneurship is freedom. Although, you do get to manage your time as you see fit, a new venture is all-encompassing. The thought-work involved is constant, so, regardless of where you are or what you’re doing, you’re always working.  

My company requires commitment on a scale that I had never experienced in my time as an employee. The difference is like the distinction between babysitting someone else’s child and raising your own.  With my venture, I no longer had the option to stop producing whenever I got in my feelings. Such fluctuations in my productivity became fatal.

Unlike employment, entrepreneurship doesn’t allow you the same ease of escape.  In the age of job-hopping, any discomfort at work can be addressed by finding another position.  Rather, entrepreneurship forces you to address such discomforts, while it also demands that you address them successfully or potentially watch the whole thing collapse.

My time as an entrepreneur has given me a new perspective on my experience as an employee.  In retrospect, I cringe at the thought of my arrogance before making the switch. I took for granted that I was enjoying the benefits of of someone else’s years or sometimes, decades of work.  

As an employee, I reaped the rewards of founders who put their asses on the line, so that I could take my paid mental health days and long lunches.  I had always been a passenger on someone else’s boat and although I could feel the storms, I never was responsible for steering the boat. I didn’t have to finance the boat, build the boat or maintain the boat.

With ego shattered, I rebuild myself

My reflections reveal an uncomfortable reality: our economic system allows us to build a comfortable life off of  someone else’s vision. More comfortable than the life of the entrepreneur. As an employee, you can put in the long hours and get the work done.  At the end of a workday, you can usually go home (sometimes early), and forget about your job until the next workday. 

Looking back, I realize I never gave 100 percent because I never really had to.  Indeed, I was being paid to contribute my skills to complete a small portion of the work at a company that  required my competence and diligence. On the other hand, it never required 100 percent of me.  Now my company is me.  No matter how big it gets, it will always be an extension of me.

A year into my entrepreneurial journey, I can say this has definitely been sobering.  There are no mansions and I don’t get treated like anything close to royalty. I’ve been humbled, but my resolve is stronger than it was when I started.  Now, I understand that you have to find your reward in seeing the vision come to fruition—the money and praise are an afterthought at best.  

The fear of failure and financial ruin have been replaced with the intoxication of challenging myself and meeting those challenges, all with the faith that the rewards will come.  

I’m committed now—until death do us part.   I’m operating at the level I didn’t know I was capable of and I have faith that the payoff is imminent.  My journey has changed the way I see myself. Today, I feel more present in the world. Although, I probably owe all my previous employers an apology, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Joe Dafney is an entrepreneur, tech expert and business systems analyst living in Houston.

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