“The things you own end up owning you.” So said Tyler Durden as he opened a round of Fight Club in the cellar of Lou’s bar. That statement feels right because it is. We get attached to goals, to things, and we lose ourselves.
When you’re starting out, the excitement of doing carries you along. Each new success, each milestone achieved places you closer to where you believe you want to be. The late nights, panicked preparations for demos, the sweaty palmed waits in law office lobbies, they take a toll. You think you’ve rounded the corner to easy street, things fall apart. Just when your heart is about to shatter, you catch a break.
It’s exhausting and exhilarating, but it brings your team together. You become more than friends or teammates. You become stronger than family because you live through more intense experiences in one month than most families go through in a year. This bonding continues as you struggle with one mind to achieve a kind of birth. You believe that nothing will come between you and your partners after all you’ve been through.
And after months, years, and for some, decades of struggle, it happens in a flash. Suddenly, there are investors and term sheets. It was just yesterday that every meeting was at Starbucks. Now you look out of the window of your corner office, stacks of product ideas and financial reports littering your desk. Board meetings to attend. Ideas to defend.
Your product succeeds, you add employees, you move to bigger space. Now there are status meetings and performance dashboards. Now you and your partners, once more important than family, are no longer sharing a single table. Now you see each other less and less frequently, first once a day, then every few days, eventually only when you have business to conduct.
You try to meet outside of work, for golf or sailing or a meal. But work seeps into every conversation. The struggle long past, now office bureaucracy and investor relations are your common currency. There are flashes of the old unity, but as likely as not, one of your partners will be complaining about another, jockeying for position.
Then comes the day when you find you’re the subject of the board meeting. Whether it’s a blow up, or a slow rolling coup d’etat, you’re handed a huge check and some cardboard boxes. The journey is over. Martin Dietrich, founder of both Kean and Dietrich’s coffee companies said his termination from Dietrich’s was the lowest, most demoralizing day of his life. “I saw myself doing this for my lifetime,” he told me, “I just found that I had too much lifetime left.”
Then what do you have? A large house, trophy spouse and outsize bank account are some comfort, if that’s what you planned on ending up with. But if you weren’t prepared for the hollowed out friendships, the one note sambas that maturing firms become, you may feel a little cheated. You may regret the football watching, bar crawling and date nights you missed. And if you have children, forget it. Those moments missed come with a huge karmic price tag that no amount of money will settle.
At that point, the old farts will tell you there are three options: Get back on the horse with a new company, count your money and enjoy yourself or start an entirely new life. That’s why you see Mark Zuckerberg having a child and finding Jesus. Or Sir Richard Branson starting a space tourism company.
But the real secret, not just of being an entrepreneur but of life itself, is listening to that small voice that tells you when something is right for you. Being able to hear, among the accolades and the cheering that comes with success, that you are in the wrong place.
True story: One entrepreneur lights the world on fire with his gift for understanding and explaining technology. Business ideas fly off his fingers like sparks. Over the course of a decade, he works hard to launch three thriving companies and builds a network of talent and money that will come together at his call. Then he becomes a husband and eventually a father and learns that the love of his family is the most important thing to him. He walks away. He’s happy.
Another entrepreneur, equally brilliant, struggles to find her fortune. Cunning and tenacious, she hangs in through several failures. She too is married but loses her husband when the weight of her absence becomes too much. She despairs, tears down her life to the frame and rebuilds with new commitment and focus. She gathers up two partners and together they build a social media platform that stands on the verge of a huge breakthrough. Her phone is ringing. Money is on the other end of the line. An exit is forthcoming. She is happy.
Which is the right choice? Both. You must learn, through your struggles and trials, what that small voice is trying to tell you. You must decide what success looks like.