Are You Wandering in Search of an Entrepreneur’s Promised Land?

Exodus tells us that Moses set out of Egypt with gusto. In dramatic fashion, he flipped Pharaoh the metaphoric bird and took off with his enslaved Hebrew friends, pursuing freedom in a Promised Land of milk and honey.

This reminds me of many stories that I heard during a research project I undertook a few years ago. I was chiefly looking at risk-perception among small and medium size business owners, start up founders and entrepreneurs. But what I stumbled upon was an intriguingly common set of attitudes and backstories.

These 1000+ business people in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand recounted their initial journey into entrepreneurship. Overwhelmingly, they described a transition into business ownership as the pursuit of freedom and flexibility and a sense of self-governance.

In most cases, they left an employed role, throwing off the predictable comfort of a monthly paycheck in favor of something more liberating and exciting. Even after being in business for years, their tone of voice and the sparkle in their eye as they recalled their start in business convinced me that this event was a thrilling watershed moment. It was a mix of passion and hopefulness, with a dash of apprehension and nervousness. Even where the catalyst was circumstantial (e.g. losing a job, or inheriting a family business) more than 90% seemed to recount Six Big Desires when starting out:

  1. To Be My Own Boss
  2. To Create More Wealth
  3. To Have More Freedom & Flexibility
  4. To Enjoy More Time With Family or In Leisure
  5. To Work in A Field of Enjoyment or Natural Talent
  6. To Create Something To Be Proud Of

These common drivers seem intuitive to me. I’ve been there myself in several businesses, and can identify. Perhaps you can, too.

It’s not that being an employee is bad per se (it’s my belief that employee and industry experience can be exceedingly helpful for entrepreneurs, and there’s evidence to back this up). That said, it strikes me that the entrepreneurial itch seems to be woven into some of our DNA, and when that scratch is prevented because of the requirements of a 9 to 5, that job can feel like a set of comfortable shackles.

My study also pointed Four Common Worries. These are the day-to-day concerns that were most pronounced in stealing the joy of business owners:

  1. Money Worries – not just cashflow, but also chasing invoices, juggling debts, feast and famine cycles, and lack of retirement savings for the owner.
  2. Time Worries – a sense of perpetual rushing and multitasking, working too many hours without a break, and a focus on time-consuming but low-productivity tasks.
  3. Generalized Stress & Anxiety – feeling uncertain, incomplete, or precarious. Some report fear that “the buck stops with me”, imposter syndrome, and a fear of unknown compliance requirements or legal issues.
  4. No Clear Path Forward – for those who identify as being innately entrepreneurial and ambitious, most describe a sense of not having a means to progress from their current state of survival to a desired future state of success.

Also interestingly, I found correlation between entrepreneurs who over-indexed for self-reported occupational happiness, and three common features of their businesses:

  1. Stability – this was the only concept with a noticeable connection to finances, though it went further than just dollars and cents. This was where the business owner had a sense of predictability in the business, and felt confident that they could see what was likely around the corner.
  2. Social – successful entrepreneurs may trend toward extraversion, but even when correcting for this, happier business owners reported that they liked to spend time with their staff, business partners, suppliers and regular customers.
  3. Social Good – when the business owner had a deliberate and purposeful aim to provide something of benefit to someone other than themselves, they were consistently happier. This includes grand gestures of philanthropy, as well as simple efforts to improve the lives of people impacted by the business such as employees or suppliers.

It’s interesting to me that even when the inevitable tough times in business came up, these happier business owners reported that one or more of these three factors helped to sustain them.

All of this leads me to one simple premise: business owners have common desires and concerns, and there are predictable ways for them to achieve success while increasing day-to-day happiness.

I’ve used this as a foundation for a business accelerator that I run, The CORE Marketing Method. This program teaches marketing excellence based on empirically proven methodologies that works in small business and start ups, and is brought to life in a proprietary business operations model to dramatically and predictably grow a business while containing risk.

So, what does this have to do with Moses?

It’s my belief that when an entrepreneur sets out in transition to become The Business Owner, they typically burst onto the scene with a heady mix of euphoric emotions that make them more susceptible to biases and cognitive blindspots. At the risk of sounding like an off-brand Dr. Phil, these entrepreneurs go in excitedly with both guns blazing, but totally unaware of their poor emotional and mental postures that provide a platform for making faulty critical decisions.

Dr. Phil would tell you what I’m telling you, but with a more charming Southern accent.

In most cases, this causes the business to fail early. Of those minority that remain afloat, these blindspots prevent them from growing and holds them in a cycle of “just-surviving”, critically exposed to just one bad market event that could cripple them. And, they typically leave the owner prone to those Four Common Worries I described above, causing them to be less happy at work.

All of this could be helped if they learned something from Moses and his posse. Like the business owner, the Israelites also had a bold idea when they shook off their shackles and set out. And like most entrepreneurs, they held an idealized belief about some wonderful (but mysterious and poorly defined) final destination. According to the Kid’s Picture Bible that my two little boys ignore in favor of The Adventures of Captain Underpants, Moses led the Israelites around the desert for 40 years, not quite sure where they were going and therefore, not quite sure how to get there.

I’ve been in the area described in Exodus. It’s a fascinating and beautiful place in many ways, but I wouldn’t want to be there without a functioning GPS and an air-con that can safely blast me back into sub-arctic temps. I’d also want a destination in mind, and way-points of interest along the journey.

Entrepreneurship shouldn’t be a blind leap toward an unarticulated, mysterious final destination. After all, you may be leaping in the completely wrong direction, spending years wandering toward short-term business pursuits when a much more deliberate journey could deliver you to a meaningful destination far more efficiently. To stretch the Moses analogy, some people estimate that his 40 years of meandering covered a distance that could have been walked by a large crowd in about three weeks. In business you don’t want to waste time and resources treading the same ground for years. You want to get somewhere as efficiently as possible.

Right at the birth of a business, the entrepreneur should be ready to start hypothesizing about a goal. In the CORE Marketing Method, I encourage entrepreneurs to recognize that their business is a vehicle that can carry them in a direction of their choosing. I repeat ad nauseam: the business is in service to the owner, not the other way around. For this reason, before we ever start looking at ways to drastically grow a business, the owner is asked to spend some time considering where they want to be in five years personally. At the very least, the plan for the business should be complimentary to those personal ambitions about life.

Then, the entrepreneur thinks about three 5-year goals for the business that align to financial objectives, time and lifestyle objectives, and legacy objectives. These are designed to capture those driving Six Big Desires that gets an owner pumped to do their own thing, mitigate the Four Common Worries, and harness those three common corollaries with increased day-to-day happiness. Working backwards from the audacious 5-year goals, the business owner plots a course with way points along the journey (which I title Growth Milestones in the program).

Moses should have grabbed some parchment and written down as follows:

  1. Big Goal: Get to Jerusalem where there’s milk and honey galore.
  2. Way Points: (i) Get to the Red Sea and leave the Egyptian army treading water (ii) compete with the Philistines who have dominant market share in our target geography, (iii) grow the milk and honey FMCG channel.
  3. Tactical Executions: (i) highly targeted sling campaign directed at the Cranky Giant persona. (ii) Facebook ads.
  4. Result: relax, enjoy knowing the Middle East will be a peaceful utopia without any troubles thereafter.

Three weeks journey time. All of those Sunday School lessons would have been so much shorter.

So what should I do, AJ?

Start by acknowledging that your foundational entrepreneurial excitement, normally related to some of those Six Big Desires, is a legitimate reason to do what you do. Also recognize that as a normal human, these emotional drivers may expose you to involuntary irrational thinking that you’d be wise to account for. The best remedy is a clear plan based on insights over assumptions. That means committing to being Constantly Curious (desperate to learn), adopting a culture of ongoing insight gathering in your business.

At the crux of this plan is a destination that you ambitiously aim for. There’s a glut of evidence for how goal-setting delivers business success, and unfortunately a similar trend for entrepreneurs and SME owners lacking a clearly articulated goal.

I don’t advocate for heavy business plans that are uninspiring, dead documents that live in a drawer.

Instead, I strongly encourage the business owner to have a robust strategy that has a goal in mind, imperatives that are measurable and that cause us to arrive at the goal, and tactical executions that deliver the imperatives.

It’s often the audacity of the goal that provides the deepest well of excitement and passion in the business, which can spark amazing creativity in marketing efforts and inspire innovation for product refinement or breakthroughs in business development. The more agile nature of start ups and smaller businesses means that you can opportunistically take advantage of things as they come into view, but they should be guided by the goal and not derail the overall direction of the plan.

A quick note: I don’t love the emergence of a business philosophy that I think is a misreading of Eric Ries‘ brilliant Lean Start Up model. Ries brought into the mainstream the idea of launching rapidly with a minimal viable product (MVP), followed by insight gathering to fuel iterative product improvements. The misreading is where entrepreneurs think this replaces the need for directional purpose (i.e. a goal). Probably because it provides an excuse to find short-cuts around things that are hard, some also see this as permission to neglect a business plan altogether. That’s not good.

Yes, be responsive to learning and gather data deliberately. Yes, be ready to iterate to better meet your customer’s needs. If need be, discover a business model as you begin to operate. But overall, consider these Lean ideas as fine-tuning the path toward your goals. They aren’t in place of goals. You still want to have those in place and acting as a beacon for all of your efforts.

So, with that I’ll leave you with the most important part of this article, my relevant Dad-joke:

Q: How does Moses make beer?

A: Hebrews it.

I’ll show myself out.

If Moses had tried a joke like that, Pharaoh would have asked him to leave immediately.

Want To Be a Happy Entrepreneur? You’ll Need These 3 Things.

Several years ago I ran a research project that surveyed more than a thousand small business entrepreneurs.

I was interested to see why these folk were so willing to engage in risk. If anyone bothered to look at the stats, they’d never form a start-up or open the doors to their new small business. Government agencies tell us that failure is the most likely outcome within the first 10 years of operation, whether you’re in the US, the UK, or Australia. Anecdotal evidence suggests the failure rate is even higher and especially in certain business sectors.

Even more troubling than the rate of businesses that close up shop, many of those businesses that do survive end up in a state of month-to-month existence, stagnating rather than growing.

I realize all of this sounds a bit depressing. And yet, despite these hard realities, entrepreneurs keep opening their stores, launching their apps, and building their SaaS platforms. I wanted to know why they seemed so impervious to the well-known risks?

I discovered some of those answers. What I didn’t expect to find is that despite all of the risk, failure, and turmoil, entrepreneurs are happier than their friends in steady employment.

At first I thought this might be just something to do with the smaller size of SMEs and start-ups. A report conducted by PWC showed that while just 27% of employees at large companies are happy at work, 43% of small business employees report being happy. Those smaller workplaces seem to have a big impact on worker contentment.

It also turns out that business ownership is a critical factor. A study from the Wharton School of Business looked at 11,000 MBA graduates, and found those running their own businesses ranked themselves happier than all other professions, regardless of how much money they made.

So, it turns out that working in a smaller business makes you happy (whether you’re the owner or an employee). On top of this, being the boss who owns that small business makes you happier than the other employees.

What I additionally discovered was that among all the entrepreneurs I surveyed, three common traits emerged among those who reported more day-to-day happiness than other business owners.

I should point out that while these findings weren’t statistically powered to show causation, the correlations were strong. That said, I listened intently and saw the faces of these business owners. This gave me a real qualitative sense that there’s something to learn from these principles. Interestingly, only one of the three ideas relates closely with money.

  • Entrepreneur Happiness is Stability and Predictability

This is the first of the three traits that may link to wealth and cashflow, but it certainly goes beyond just dollars and cents. These happy business owners reported having a sense of rhythm in their business and fewer drastic feast-and-famine cycles. Interestingly, they didn’t seem to relate their happiness to moments of euphoria, such as landing a huge client or successfully pitching for funding. Although my study didn’t look into it, the pursuit of these large momentary rewards may fuel some of the addiction to entrepreneurship that many of us can identify with. Even so, these big adrenaline rush moments don’t seem to deliver day-to-day happiness.

In general, these happy businesspeople had often been operating more than five years and had a thorough knowledge of their industry. They had some sense of the patterns of ebb and flow in their business and could see around corners to predict what was coming next. One subject told me “I’ve been working in this industry for over twenty years, and I’ve owned this business for nearly ten. I’ve seen almost everything that there is to expect and I rarely get surprises these days.”

It seems that happiness may have something to do with finding ways to avoid the uncertainty and anxiety common to many in small business.

  • Entrepreneur Happiness is Having Good People Around

The next theme was a social one. Happier business owners seemed to genuinely like spending time with business partners, employees, and suppliers. Many also spontaneously described liking their customers on a personal level.

This makes sense. We are social animals and being able to celebrate wins together, or support each other through tough times, has a positive effect.

This group also identified having a spouse or partner (or whole family) who were enthusiastically supportive. The family member didn’t have to be involved in the business directly (although many were), but they did seemingly need to understand the atypical life of the entrepreneur and provide encouragement from the sideline. Unfortunately, the converse is also true: those who felt their partner or family didn’t recognize their effort or the dynamics of business ownership reported much more day-to-day stress.

  • Entrepreneur Happiness is Thinking of Others First

If the first two themes seem intuitive, this final one caught me by surprise.

Whether it be grand acts of altruism, such as fundraising for a cause, or small acts of generosity such as going beyond to support employees, focusing on a good outcome for others with no obvious return to the business seemed to correlate with entrepreneurial happiness.

I collectively refer to these types of inspired actions as Social Good in my upcoming book. Fundamentally, these are efforts that the entrepreneur makes that benefit someone other than themselves and align with a value that they deem to be personally important.

For example, some business owners prioritize environmental impact even where this might increase costs. One business owner I spoke to ensures that her vegan restaurant not only serves vege dishes, but financially contributes to animal welfare causes. Another entrepreneur in the educational space contributes scholarships to kids in lower socioeconomic areas. Several business owners support people living in poverty through direct donation or asking their customers to make a contribution. In my own case, I constantly nag my clients and CORE Marketing Method students to join my Kiva team to provide micro-finance loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries (you really should join).

These acts of generosity did not need to be thematically linked to the type of business, either. Some business owners decided that their revenue would support a local school, church or community group. Others simply found satisfaction knowing that their employees were always taken care of and loved working for them. Many also derived genuine happiness from seeing their customers lives improved, seemingly without a focus on how this might impact their own bottom line. It’s a concept that has been laid out well in the book co-authored by Bob Burg and John David Mann, The Go-Giver (you may want to follow Bob Burg at his site or on his socials at Instagram and LinkedIn).

When I conducted my study, it struck me that many of these entrepreneurs felt that their acts of Social Good had permanence and resonance, even when other challenges in business were temporary. One tech start-up founder chose to pay over the normal hourly rate to his offshore developers and provide other types of support. He described it this way: “Even if we have a bad month in revenue, I can always sleep at night knowing we do something good for these guys working for us. If this thing never ends up succeeding, their lives will definitely be better for having worked for us.”

In the CORE Marketing Method I incorporate this concept as one of the three 5 Year Goals that guide an entrepreneur toward growth.

Along with Money Goals, and Time & Lifestyle Goals, I encourage students to identify Legacy Goals. These are the things that you’ll proudly tell Grandma when she asks how your business is going. She doesn’t care about your fancy car or the VC pitch, she wants to know that her grandchild is a successfully decent person. Sure, the Legacy Goals may include accolades, awards, achievements and recognition, but it should also seriously consider an impact for causes that are important to you and improve the world for others.

This isn’t in an effort to be a saint, but because it seems to deliver happiness. And like all of us, you want to be happy.

Quokkas would make excellent happy entrepreneurs.
If only they had opposable thumbs (and the support of an angel investor).