Stop Building Other People’s Dreams
Build Your Own
4 years ago I left my big corporate job to start my own company. I walked away from a career that provided a stable salary, challenging problems to solve, a community of friends, and the comfort of a path that is intended to lead to a secure retirement. What makes a person so crazy to throw away a perfectly great job?
The answer to what made me so crazy, was passion. Specially, lack thereof. While passion propelled me far past the first decade of my career and opened many doors, over time I found that my flame for the daily routine of “business as usual” was shrinking more and more. For me passion became synonymous with success, so what happens when that burning drive fades? Towards the close of my corporate life I found that I was constantly thinking about new problems I could solve and how I would build something to solve it. It was a voice, a desire that was providing the background music for everyday life at that time. For founders, it is passion that fuels them to start building their own dream. But contrary to what many believe, a founder’s path is not easy. It is how my septuagenarian uncle described remarriage after divorce — “trading one set of problems for another.” But for founders, this new set of problems — the inevitable roadblocks and setbacks they frequently encounter — need to stoke this fire of passion and purpose, not extinguish it.
By nature, every startup is built on a dream, and the dream is the face of the business that clients see every day. The dream is why customers buy, and why they believe in you. But behind every great startup are untold stories. Most of these stories will never be told because the daily worries, near-wins and near-failures of founders don’t exactly inspire confidence from others. I’ve collected these thoughts to share with you some realizations that encouraged me as an entrepreneur to take that first leap away from corporate life to start a company. These ideas fueled my fire through the untold stories in my own startup.
First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Starting a company is not what it seems. From an outsider’s perspective, being a business owner looks like this:
We love to broadcast the stories of what seems like an overnight success. Running a business means that “you’ve made it.” You did the hard thing and instantly you’re a success. The weather forecast never changes, and it’s raining HUNDRED DOLLAR BILLS! All day, every day! Founders make multi-million, no, billion dollar exits and sail their yachts off into the sunset.
The reality of starting a company is a much different scene. In practice, a founder’s life feels more like this:
You’re a lone boat caught in the middle of a tumultuous storm. Rain pelts down, and thick fog prevents you from seeing rocks and perils around you. Sure, as the captain of the ship you might be an expert mariner. But despite your knowledge and experience, there’s one thing you can never control or fully predict — the weather. Out there on your ship alone in the middle of nowhere are a whole host of unknown perils. And in the middle of a raging storm, who will help you? Who can protect your boat from 20 foot waves?
Before I started my company, I had spent 14 years in big corporate jobs. These roles had cultivated the business acumen I needed to build and sustain a fledgling enterprise. I was certain I seen it all, but spoiler alert: it wasn’t half as easy as I thought it would be. Experience is the most humbling of teachers.
My corporate roles taught me so many valuable lessons, and gave me the opportunity to work with and learn from the most talented people. But behind the climate-controlled greenhouse of my career was a small voice that I couldn’t shake. It sounded something like this:
I felt like I was working so hard in my career, but to what end? What was the purpose of the sacrifice of my own blood, sweat and tears? On my weekly flights across the country to see clients, whenever we would run into turbulence I’d have a come to Jesus moment. If I died today, what would I regret? Of course the answer was always “the job,” since it was the whole reason I was on the plane in the first place. But more profoundly, if my plane went down, would anyone care? Yes, people would care, but in reality, no, the company wouldn’t. In my absence the company I felt I was making such personal sacrifices for would replace me and soldier on, never looking back. An email would be sent out announcing my untimely demise and the next day they’d be looking for my replacement. They might re-tell a story or two about me over the years, remembering that time I sat on a chocolate and didn’t realize it until lunchtime, but that would be all that was left of my years running to and from meetings, trying not to drink water because there was no time for a pit stop in between.
Admittedly, my outlook on my corporate career was shaded with a fear of ultimate meaninglessness. And when you truly desire to pour your heart and soul into your life’s work, your personal fire can be extinguished by the doldrums of routine and the bureaucracy of corporate protocols and politics.
And so I came to the realization that my corporate job could not make my dreams come true. But in true Field of Dreams style, in the back of my head echoed a little encouragement:
Around this time, this obvious inner-conflict was a signal that it might just be time for a change. I was offered new job with a well-known company. It was an executive role with lots of responsibility. Not to mention plenty of money. But I turned it down. Because playing in the background was that voice again, saying:
And so I cleared the first and most difficult hurdle on the path to fulfilling your dreams: knowing what you want. There are 2 paths to success — the path that’s already been forged and the path that you create. Up until that point I had been following the beaten path. But there was one thing I realized. That my fire of passion and purpose, the reason for my success up to that point, was dwindling. It was time to clear a new path.
In his book “Originals,” Adam Grant explains the choice to take the road less traveled by saying, “Conformity means following the crowd down conventional paths and maintaining the status quo.” Conformity is not necessarily a bad thing. In many cases, it’s what makes us successful in traditional, established life trajectories as a student, a manager, or a parent. It helps us to connect with people socially, to navigate corporate politics and to follow established protocols. Originality, according to Grant, is “taking the road less traveled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.” This is what entrepreneurs do. They challenge the status quo to provide people with something that is better.
Business founders are a rare breed. They are people who are living and breathing their company’s mission. They believe in its purpose so much that they are willing to bet everything on it — they put their livelihood, their personal life, and their reputation on the line for their mission. Entrepreneurs will grasp their idea with a white-knuckled death grip, and despite countless odds, they will relentlessly persist. Any given day for a founder might go something like this:
For anyone who has ever wanted to start a business, create a side-hustle, or even take on a new, challenging project — do it. It’s this desire that points you towards creating something of true, personal meaning for you. Because a life with purpose is the life you are meant to live. But this is the path you must forge on your own. You will work exponentially harder than you ever have before. And in the end you will create something amazing, and truly your own. Doing the hard thing is the path to building your dreams.
— Shannon Shallcross is the CEO of BetaXAnalytics.