Can Entrepreneurs Change the World and Still Have a Life?

Can Entrepreneurs Change the World and Still Have a Life?

Do entrepreneurs always have to make an either/or choice between running a startup that does big things or creating a manageable business that doesn’t take over the owner’s life?

I am writing a book for entrepreneurs who are serious about growing their businesses. The book is for startup founders, ambitious small business owners and funded CEOs. Marketing is really important to their growth game and most entrepreneurs need a lot of help figuring it out.

Earlier this week I researched articles about the differences between startups and small businesses. These businesses can look similar to outsiders, but entrepreneurs know there is huge difference between the extreme forms of lifestyle businesses and scalable, funded startups, with lots of variations in between.

The differences can be summed up as: Startups think big and move fast. Small businesses think small and move slow. That appears to be the common knowledge that everyone agrees on.

When “everyone agrees” about something so diverse and complicated, my watchful entrepreneur brain gets curious. Reality is never that simple, which means there are opportunities to create something new by going against the grain or by digging into the open cracks.

  • Could an entrepreneur change the world in a big way AND have a life?

(Spoiler alert: I don’t have the answer. I’m exploring new possibilities in this post.)

“Startup = shoot the moon”

In one corner are “scalable startups,” the big dreamers that take funding so they can grow faster, get bigger and change the world on a massive scale. True Silicon Valley-style tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon started as small startups and have grown big, changing our world forever. Thousands more startups grew up to be successful and well-known. The startup scene is cool and is attracting crowds.

There is a very high failure rate for “go big or die” startups (and their investors), but that’s the game. Most startups don’t get funded and shoot something less than the moon, but some do make it big.

It’s an extreme sport that becomes all-consuming for the founder, the leadership team and key employees. Leading a startup is exciting and most founders work day and night to win the race to become a big company and pay their investors. Every entrepreneur I know who has created something big and successful had invested years of extreme work hours, investment and personal sacrifice to power their “overnight success.”

“Small business = lifestyle”

In the other corner are so-called “lifestyle” small businesses that also can be successful, but in a different way. By providing worthy work and steady income (profits), the entrepreneurs can solve for the life they want to have and control their destiny more than startups. That’s the dream, at least.

Despite what what venture capitalist investors say, not all small businesses are lifestyle businesses. The reality is running a small business is hard and most small business owners don’t achieve both a great business and a great life, with money in the bank, endless vacations and steady profits.

Some do succeed. I know dozens of successful small business owners who own multi-million dollar businesses with high profits and a life they deliberately create and control. It’s the pay off for years of hard work, high quality customer service, great marketing, disciplined focus, systemized processes, loyal employees and powerful automation. There is a new type of modern small business built for the digital age that grows faster with fewer employees than ever before.

There are few examples, though, of small businesses that changed the world for millions of people or became world renowned. And that’s OK, too.

Choose your adventure

We are fortunate to live in such amazing times in which wild success is possible for entrepreneurs. The good news is you can choose your adventure and decide what game you want to play – startup crazy or small business lifestyle, or something in between. New forms of business are being created every year. Either way, you’re in for years of hard work, some healthy risk, personal sacrifice and prolonged investment before any big pay off.

I have been thinking a lot about this with my own situation. I’ve been in the fast-paced, high-impact VC-funded growth game for a long time. I love it and I admit that I am habituated to long hours, crazy goals, global ambition, ambitious peers and total commitment. My health, family, relationships and pastimes (20 years with no hobbies) suffered through these all-consuming and exciting business adventures. I learned to manage it, but not always very well. I’m working on it.

Recently, I’ve made a choice to start a new career phase as an author, speaker, consultant and advisor. I love the game of helping entrepreneurs create and grow businesses. It has been my passion, my hobby and the source of most of my greatest friendships. And I know I’m creating a small business with all the normal challenges that come with that game.

  • My brain is telling me to think big, work hard and go all in. But will I be just be jumping back into another all-consuming pursuit?
  • Could I change the world for millions and have a rewarding personal life too? Am I being selfish or naive to think I could have it both ways?

The discussion continues

Countless others before me have explored this, including well-known authors:

  • Tim Ferris wrote the 4-Hour Work Week to prove that a 4-hour work schedule was possible and show us that the 9-5 routine was made up a century ago and should be left behind.
  • Jim Collins, author of the bestseller Good to Great, shared with the Infusionsoft executive team that most great CEOs were truly married to their work. Only a few super-CEO’s also had fulfilling family and community lives, created by practicing extreme discipline and saying no to everything else.
  • Gary Vaynerchuck advocates going all in, all the time, in his book Crush It! and in his continuous online content. Big success comes from extreme hard work, speedy action and savvy strategy.
  • My friend Pam Slim, author of Body of Work, challenged me to imagine my ideal day and build a business that lets me do that. I was stunned that the thought never had occurred to me, but I think about this often.
  • Jason Fried created the world-changing Basecamp software company (formerly called 37Signals) with a small rockstar team. Their lifestyle (or workstyle) is their first priority. His book ReWork is a manifesto for the new discipline of small teams doing big things.
  • Dan Sullivan, founder of Strategic Coach and advisor to thousands of successful business owners, advocates running a successful business to serve the founder, including taking time off to rejuvenate and maintain entrepreneurial enthusiasm.

Questions I am thinking about

I don’t have the answers. In fact, I just have more questions.

  • Can you have big impact AND a great non-work life in a small biz?
  • Could there be such a thing as a “lifestyle startup” that has big impact? A “world dominating and disruptive small biz”?
  • Is changing the world on a smaller scale enough?
  • What would and entrepreneur need to think, do and be to create major impact in the world, a great business and a great life outside of work?
  • What new extreme discipline would need to be developed to play this sport?
  • What would an entrepreneur need to give up to create this possibility?
  • What’s the myth or misconception am I missing?
  • Who is doing this now, or at least talking about it?

What do you think?