The Point of No Return - Mark Harrison

Things no one told you when you started your own business

I was reading an article in the Times this week about the cost to your career of taking the step of becoming an entrepreneur and starting your own business. The basic conclusion of this academic study was, there is no way back once you have crossed that divide into the start-up world from working in the corporate world.

It did, as everything seems to do these days, make this all about the difference between men and women and that men are disproportionally more affected by this and somehow this was sexist as it meant that women being accepted back into the corporate fold as they are not perceived to be too independent, headstrong or difficult to deal with as men are and somehow this is unfair on women; not sure what the downside is for women here.

This is of course hokum, I’ve met many women entrepreneurs and I see no difference in them than I see in men taking the same path, they are non-conformists who feel constrained working in corporate life and are ill-equipped to deal with the entertainment branch of corporate life, Politics.

Entrepreneurs at least the successful ones are all Alpha Dogs and believe me women are just as likely to be Alpha Dogs in an entrepreneurial setting as men.

The best part of the article for me was the empirical data that proves what I already know, and no one tells you when you start on this path to being an entrepreneur. You are not burning your bridges to your previous corporate life; they are being blown up behind you by the conformists you left behind. Somewhere deep inside I had doubts it might just be me!

This is of course a terrible waste of talent by the companies that have the resources to best harness their abilities and build on the ideas and energy they bring to the companies they work for.

The entrepreneurs, non-conformists the ones who question the status quo are the innovators every company large or small need to keep moving them forward, without deviation from the norm progress is not possible. The conformists that make up the majority of every major company can’t deal with the non-conformist let alone embrace them as the necessary agents of change.

I, like every non-conformist I’ve ever met is painfully aware that we need the majority of people to be conformists and you have to work with them to be successful. If everyone was like me it would be a nightmare, just anarchy. Sadly, the conformists haven’t fully embraced the idea that they need us as well.

A long preamble even by my standards but necessary context as I dip my opinionated solider into the warm soft yolk of the stress and strain of being an entrepreneur.

The word entrepreneur is much over-used these days and although it is a desirable lifestyle when it goes well, it frequently doesn’t. Unlike corporate life it doesn’t come with a good salary, 25 days holiday, business class travel, 5-star hotels, private health care and a pension plan.

The potential upside of success is fantastic, not just monetarily but having created something with value and longevity, created jobs populated with your tribe around you. You will never achieve that working for “the man”. This is of course the sales pitch we all buy into, the dream.

The reality is very different. You are the last person to be paid every month, you carry the responsibility for everyone who works with you and their families, when you require external investment, you are the one who has to give the personal guarantees or give up your equity to investors. You are also the one who knows how long your runway is before the money runs out, the reality of your sales pipeline.

Every day, you have to take all of that and somehow put it to one side to rally the troops with your vision and force of personality to ensure that you give yourself every chance of being successful, knowing that it might not be enough, you need luck as well.

Take all of that and the knowledge that you are on the path of no return for yourself and your own family will give you focus and ruthless edge to make the decisions you need to succeed. If you weren’t an alpha dog before you are now.

The pain of starting a company and the energy that it requires is why most of the businesses that get over the start up challenges stall and grow no further. Having gone through all that and got yourself in a situation where you have a viable business, you are getting paid well and approaching a comfort zone, do you really want to risk it all again with a roll of the dice to scale your business? The answer is usually, no and who can blame them, there is no shame in a lifestyle business.

The ones who take the step to scale up their successful start-ups are the people who will create the success stories of the future and create the jobs that the conformists can move into and bring much-needed structure but hopefully leave a little room for the non-conformists one of whom started the corporation they work for.

Before taking the step to become an entrepreneur you need to be aware of the consequences for failure not just the dream of success. Once you’ve started your business and been successful, you should be celebrated and given all the support we can muster as a community to ensure you can scale your business if you choose to roll the dice again. We should also applaud those who choose to go no further.

This isn’t an episode of Who wants to be a Millionaire, whereby going for the million you might lose £100,000 you never actual had, if you lose in the start-up game you lose everything.

Mark Harrison

RTC North is delivering Scaleup North East in conjunction with the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). The programme is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). It is aimed at supporting North East-based businesses that can demonstrate both the hunger and the potential to achieve high levels of growth. 


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