Almost every interviewer I have sat across in my corporate life has inevitably looked me in the eye and asked:
“Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”
And almost always I have had the urge to look him back in the eye and say:
“Anywhere but here I hope.”
I have never really had the ‘right answer’ to this question.
I’m not even sure if there is a right answer. I have made up stuff I thought they would like to hear but wasn’t sure if it sounded convincing enough. Not because I couldn’t see the path in front of me but because I wasn’t sure I really wanted to tread that path. I never really saw myself working for someone else for too long. Every now and then I flirted with one big idea or another. And too often I would ask myself “what if?” That kind of ‘free thinking’ is detrimental to corporate ambition. And it usually leads to only one logical consequence – entrepreneurship.
When I was asked the same question during an interview at the fag end of my corporate career, I actually told the recruiter I was going to work for myself soon. He paused, looked at me for a moment, leaned forward, smiled and said, “I believe you will”.
Not too long after, I quit my successful career at a major multinational CPG and took the plunge. Those were difficult yet very exciting days. I think we created the shared desk concept long before Regus made a multimillion dollar business out of it (why the heck didn’t we think of that?!). What I didn’t realise at the time was that I had landed myself the loneliest job in the world.
Being the CEO of your own business may look great on a business card, but in a startup venture it doesn’t mean much. The transition from an unsure, struggling startup to a focused, steady business is long and arduous in most cases. And as the one driving this evolution, the entrepreneur himself goes through a metamorphosis of sorts.
I suppose the biggest challenge for a new entrepreneur is trying to lose the ego-baggage from his past. Corporations have a way of indulging their stars with corner offices and efficient (read expensive) personal secretaries. Sharing a small desk in a dingy office and getting your own coffee after having lived that life for a while can be more than a tad disenchanting to begin with. Different people have different ways of dealing with this quantum shift. In the end, all unshakeable entrepreneurs must let go of their ego.
But ego is only the first thing from the past that you need to let go. Soon to follow are your friends from where you used to work before. You are no longer interested in the corporate grapevine or mundane job and career discussions and you soon realise that your old buddies are still living in the shell you just broke out of. There is hardly anything common and being with them doesn’t stimulate you anymore. You cannot draw any parallel with them either. While corporate workers compare jobs, titles and pay cheques to gauge success, entrepreneurs draw comparison with other businesses. A business or a project may not see any money for months in the beginning, but this is part of the equation, not detrimental to the potential of the venture. And the risk of failure is just as much a part of that equation – real and personal. Something most corporate workers don’t have the stomach for.
During the growth years entrepreneurs see lots of possibilities and opportunities. It is easy to get excited and be all over the place, often spreading oneself too thinly. The big question always is what to do and what not to do. Twenty-four hours in a day just don’t seem enough. Weekends can be a drag. You actually look forward to Monday mornings (really, no kidding). The merits of such a lifestyle are debatable. But this is how it is. It is rare to have someone who can relate to all this and be able to emotionally share your wins and losses. Mostly you are on this journey all by yourself.
By now your best friends are probably magazines, books and the internet. An entrepreneur reads anything and everything ranging from politics in China to the latest research on shifting consumer purchase patterns to online articles on website makeovers and SEO techniques. It is almost as impulsive as picking up a pack of Ice Breakers at the store checkout. Soon, as you get a flash, you want to look it up. The next thing you know, you have spent two hours reading up on creating effective online content for key ethnic market segments.
Along the way the entrepreneur also learns to deal with people. It usually takes a trip or two before you become a better judge of character. You learn to say no to people if you weren’t already capable of doing that with ease. And as you grow, you feel more comfortable with the idea that you cannot do everything yourself. To free up your time for more strategic engagements, you must delegate responsibility and authority, set smart objectives and hold managers accountable to those objectives. While you focus on business growth, don’t overlook the personal growth of your employees. Evaluate them regularly and train and guide them to overcome identified weaknesses.
One of my favourite quotes about human resource development goes like this: A CFO asks his CEO, “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave the company?”
The CEO looks at him and asks:
“What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”
With all the evidence in favour of casual style of management (although I am an advocate of a ‘hybrid’ casual style, not the classic), an entrepreneur realises he cannot really be his colleagues’ friend in the true sense. Unlike the career CEO, he has no friends at his workplace. He is and always will be the lonely supremo.
So why do entrepreneurs do what they do? Because past all the struggle, uncertainty and loneliness, no job can ever give the personal satisfaction of dreaming up an idea and living that dream every day.
Raza Mankani is an experienced professional corporate marketer turned entrepreneur. He has set up and managed several startups in diverse verticals, both domestically and internationally.