My very first “big kid” job was writing online pitch decks for founders in search of investments for their startups.
And I. Was. Starstruck.
It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that people started things for themselves. That there was a way of living and working other than commuting into the office every Monday-through-Friday, putting in your eight-to-ten hours working for somebody else, and calling it a day.
Businesses didn’t just happen — somebody made them. How cool was that?
I thought the people who chose this path were gods. Geniuses. I felt lucky just to be near them, helping in my own, infinitesimally small way to advance their singular vision to Make the World a Better Place.
This view was not-so-subtly encouraged in the flashy startup culture I had adopted as my own. Entrepreneurs rule, everybody else drools was basically the startup motto. People would talk pityingly about people with Corporate Jobs. Those sheep, those drones. They don’t have what it takes. They’re not “special.”
I don’t know about you, but when a circle like that gets drawn — when I hear this language of “insiders” and “outsiders,” people who have “it” and people who don’t — my immediate instinct is to put myself on the outside of that circle.
I got the message — and I internalized it. I didn’t have what it takes. I was lucky just to be there.
Entrepreneurs: They’re just like us. Really.
The longer I worked in entrepreneurship, the more the cracks in my assumption started to show.
It started with some of the founders I worked with:
- Founders who very clearly had an idea … and not much else. No strategy. No special expertise in their field. Certainly no superhuman powers like the ones that I had attributed to them in my mind. (Okay, some of them knew how to code. Some.)
- Founders who were trying to build seven different products at once — when even I knew that the way you built a company was to do one thing really, really well and expand from there.
- Founders who were buying followers on social media and paying journalists to write favorably about their product — when I knew that if you couldn’t earn those followers and that press just with the quality of your product and the clarity of your message — then what were you even doing?
Gradually it hit me: These weren’t the superhuman perfect decision-makers that I had built them up to be in my head. They were just people who were trying to make something exist — and making some pretty imperfect decisions along the way.
Meanwhile, something crazy started happening: my coworkers started quitting. And not just quitting — starting something of their own.
My former manager quit her “dream job” (and mine!) as editor of a startup publication to start her own greeting card business. Another coworker quit and now runs his own financial advising company.
These were people. People I knew. Smart people, sure. But still — just people. And it started to hit me:
Maybe entrepreneurs aren’t superhuman visionaries after all. Maybe they’re just people.
Maybe they’re just … like me.
A lot like our ideas about superheroes, cowboys and, yes, even our first president with his cherry tree — what we think of when we think “successful entrepreneur” doesn’t match reality.
Myth: The average entrepreneur is a hoodied college dropout in the style of Jesse Eisenberg-as-Mark-Zuckerberg.
Reality: The average entrepreneur who employs at least one person is 40 years old — and the average CEO of a high-growth company is a fresh and youthful 45.
Myth: Entrepreneurs quit their jobs to go all in on executing their world-changing vision while subsisting on a diet of ramen and unwavering faith.
Reality: Most successful entrepreneurs stay in their “day jobs” for a year or more after starting their business.
Myth: Entrepreneurs are led by this singular vision to change the world, which they execute from start to finish.
Reality: If you listen — really listen — to the stories of successful entrepreneurs, you realize: hardly any of them follow a linear path. Entrepreneurs aren’t rocket ships — they’re heat-seeking missiles. They recognize an opportunity when they see it, and they change course accordingly.
(My personal favorite: Stewart Butterfield and his team weren’t even trying to build a chat platform when they created the game-changing team communication tool Slack. They were trying to build a video game — which still doesn’t exist, by the way. The tool that became Slack was just their way of communicating within the team.)
The question you have to ask yourself if you subscribe to these myths is the same as the one you have to ask about any belief you hold about the world that turns out not to be true: what does that belief cost you?
What are you not doing that you could be doing if you just let go of this assumption that entrepreneurs are somehow fundamentally different than you are?
Nobody is special — which means that everyone is
After realizing all of this, I went through the stages of grief. But eventually I got over my disillusionment and betrayal.
It’s the classic journey from innocence to experience. We all grow up thinking that our parents, teachers, leaders are perfect decision-makers. Then we realize we are the grown-ups now, and all of the stuff we assumed our parents just instinctively knew — now we’re expected to know it, and a lot of the time we’re just making it up as we go along.
It’s the same with entrepreneurship: we start off idolizing these fearless heroes that went before us and assuming that they’re just made of sterner stuff than we are. But then we “grow up” and we realize: the only difference between us and a lot of these people who go out and start something for themselves is that they got started — and we haven’t yet.
There’s a scene in the Pixar movie The Incredibles when Helen (AKA Elastigirl) tells her super-speedy son: “Everyone is special, Dash,” to which he responds, “Which is another way of saying no one is.”
When Dash says it, it’s a statement of despair and disillusionment.
But in reality, it’s kind of liberating. An interesting thing happens when you let your heroes die a little: you realize that you can become them.