Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The high cost of entrepreneurship

So you are ready to start your own business! It’s a time that is both exciting and possibly nerve-racking. But there are so many reasons to do it, right? To be your own boss. To set your own hours. To realise your dream. And most of all, to provide the kind of financial reward and security that working for someone else can rarely offer. And you are re right, of course, in principle. Successfully starting, running and ultimately exiting a business can deliver on all of these promises.
However, before jumping into the waters of entrepreneurship, there are other sides of the coin you should be prepared for as well. Upon setting out on your new venture, gone will be the safety net you may well have become accustomed to: the regular salary. If you are funding the business yourself, you will hardly be able to pay yourself a salary. And if you are seeking outside funding, the last thing investors want to see in the “use of proceeds” table is a comfortable salary for you.

Without outside employment, you now also have to consider things like health insurance. The cost of being self-insured is becoming increasingly higher. Once your company may qualify for a small business group rate, it helps. But remember, you are the company. If you have the company pay your insurance, it is still you paying for your insurance. Every dirham or dime spent, is less money you have to work with in growing your business.
And as you no longer have someone to pass problems up to, be prepared to be the receptacle for all of the company’s problems. With the addition of employees, even good ones, you will also take on the role of parent, guidance counsellor, marriage counsellor and confessor. Which takes an inordinate amount of time.
But lest you get the idea that I am dissuading budding entrepreneurs from pursuing your dreams, I would assure you I am not. For many (myself included), the benefits mentioned in my first paragraph far outweigh the obstacles and challenges listed in the next three. But it is a decision that should be carefully considered before committing. Especially as one of the biggest changes you are likely to experience in starting your own business is one that is often the least anticipated: the change in lifestyle! In making the shift from employee to entrepreneur, you will be moving from enjoying a regular salary and the ability to budget your time and expenses in the pursuit of happiness to wondering what each new day will bring.

Let’s start with the budgeting of time. At the helm of your new enterprise, evenings and weekends become extended work hours where they used to be time for relationships and recreation. Whether it be business opportunities or operational issues, right now will always be the right time to handle them. So an unhappy client at 9pm can be a once-again-happy client at 9:30pm with a little handholding. 
But push them off to the morning when you may prefer to call them and they could well be on the way to becoming an ex-client. This weekend’s operations issue, if left to fester until the work week, could cost you far more than a few hours it may take to address it immediately. This is not to say you’ll never have free time to relax in the evening or on weekends. But your business will demand that you are always on call. Even travelling takes on a new complexion as you will undoubtedly spend an inordinate amount of your time on your email or phone handling business affairs.
Now on to the financial impact on your psyche and daily life. As an employee, you generally know how much you’ll make each month (apart from commission-based sales jobs of course). And you know your core expenses of housing, etc. So you have a reasonably good idea of how much you can place against your culinary, social and recreational interests. Well, now it is “disposable income, goodbye”!
If you are committed to building your new venture and you are placing all available resources against this goal, then discretionary funds for fun take a hard back seat. When I started my business in Manhattan, in 1999, I chose self-funding at the onset to preserve my ownership stake and to test the market before seeking outside funding. As the business started developing, I committed more and more funds. Within a few months, I had cashed in every account and mutual fund I had set aside over the years to fund operations. And all during this time without any income.

So my daily life changed significantly, in ways I struggled to cope with. Such as coming home at the end of each month and telling my wife: “No, I couldn’t take salary again this time.” After having provided very well in my past life as an employee, this was a rather bitter pill to swallow.
I also recall a conversation with my executive vice president (EVP) of sales and marketing a few years ago. When I hired him initially, he was fresh out of college, without experience and hungry to sell. We had a small team in those days, and they tended to go for lunch at one of the nearby delis in New York. 
They would often ask me to join, and I always politely declined. Now that this young salesman was an executive and had known me for several years, he spoke about the early days of lunches and said at the time that the staff thought I was being elitist in not joining them for lunch. I told him it was not at all the case.

In fact, I would have been happy to, but I could not let myself spend $10 (AED 36) a day on a sandwich when I had no income and was living on credit cards. So from my perspective, it would just be more debt. Clearly, I put a good face on it, since they thought I chose not to eat with them. But internally, I was distraught at not being able to do something my young staff took for granted.
I only point this out as an example of how one’s lifestyle can change in making the move to entrepreneur. Unless you are independently wealthy, things you once took for granted, like joining the beach club or having that expensive dinner, should suddenly be viewed through a new lens. And seldom have I seen a place as lifestyle-oriented as Dubai. Golf, beach clubs, and flashy cars are the expected norm. So preparing yourself mentally for not having the time or money to pursue these Dubai standards will be key.

So where am I going with all of this? I’m certainly not suggesting you forgo your dreams of starting your own business. The rewards are well worth the pain, as I myself discovered. But no great accomplishment comes without great sacrifice. And in the early days, the most profound area you are likely to experience in terms of sacrifice is in lifestyle. Expect to compromise in having the time and the funds to enjoy many things you take for granted currently.
And a parting bit of advice, if I may. Before committing to your new venture, make sure you discuss this at length with your spouse or partner. It’s important to have them on board with the commitments of time and funds that will be required, and the change in lifestyle that comes with it. Because it will be changing their lifestyle as well.

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