Small Business

Starting a Business: The Romance vs. the Reality

Alexandra Levit, The New York Times
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Some people who toil discontentedly in corporate cubicles regard entrepreneurship as the cure for all workplace ills. Only when they’ve experienced running a business personally do they find that the reality is much different.

Mike Cleary, for example, left his job as a sales and marketing executive to become an entrepreneur because he was tired of office politics. But after buying a franchise and an existing business about eight years ago, Cleary sparred with difficult vendors and suppliers. “It seemed very one-sided, with many commitments and obligations on my part, and much less required of the people I was buying from,” he said.

In an effort to establish trust, he says, he extended credit to a client of the previous owner. Unfortunately, he says, the client was not forthcoming with payment, costing him tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

The Hiring Hurdle

Finding loyal employees was no picnic, either. “It was a harsh wake-up call,” said Cleary, adding, “to find out how many employees are not truly committed to the business they’re working for.”

The recent recession was particularly hard on the revenue and cash flow of his small business. Eventually, he found himself too deeply in debt to continue, and he returned to working for an established organization.

Today, he is content in his role as senior vice president for strategic marketing and field operations at the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield, S.C., where he feels that he is living his personal mission to help conserve natural habitats. “I love that I’m finally in a position to worry about the high-level strategy instead of the other stuff, which just sapped my energy,” Cleary said. “It’s really freeing.”

Many prospective entrepreneurs fail to realize that office politics are everywhere, and that you can’t escape them when you strike out on your own. You may still have to contend with rude clients and partners, with many situations feeling eerily similar to those of your days by the water cooler. And you often learn the hard way that people tend to clash regardless of the environment.

Challenges to an Entrepreneurial Path

There are other reasons you may want to steer clear of the entrepreneurial path. First, there’s the sheer difficulty of finding a market niche for your product or service, as well as the proper resources to make a new business happen. Then there are the minutiae. As the founder, you will find that anything and everything is your responsibility. You will oversee production, distribution, marketing, sales and turning a profit. You’ll have to manage employees and vendors, and pesky details like accounting, taxes, insurance and licenses.

Would-be entrepreneurs who want to have a better work-life balance are in for a rude awakening. For at least the first few years, you may be on the job at all hours. If a customer has a problem in the middle of the night, you are the one who’s getting up to address it. And if the company goes under, you are solely accountable for that failure, sacrificing your financial livelihood in the process.

These days, the traditional business world gets a bad rap. But there are some highly valuable aspects of regular jobs that we don’t think about until they are gone. These are the three P’s: peace, prestige and perks.

When you are one employee out of 1,000 or 100,000, you have much more peace. It’s actually possible to leave your work woes at the office and turn off your BlackBerry without jeopardizing the company’s future. Life is simpler. You have a defined set of responsibilities, and if you carry them out well and get results, you can go about your business with the certainty that the rest of the company can take care of itself.

And if you are intelligent and personable, you can rise to a respectable place in an esteemed organization. Your friends and family won’t fidget nervously when you tell them about your job. Being able to put a known company on your résumé equals credibility and opens career doors.

Remember the Perks

Finally, don’t forget about the perks. At a large organization, your compensation package is just that: a package. Besides base salary, the money your employer contributes to your health insurance and retirement plans can be essential to surviving in today’s world. And don’t discount the value of possible benefits like cars, gym memberships, child care, on-the-job lunches and big discounts on company products.

The corporate world also gives you the opportunity to be around lots of people all the time. And, inevitably, some will be executives in a position to help with your career. The ability to establish relationships with powerful people in the context of your daily work is the best kind of networking out there.

The entrepreneurial lifestyle isn’t for everyone. It wasn’t for Cleary, and it may not be for you. Before you decide to take the plunge, think long and hard about what you’ll be getting yourself into, and what you’ll be giving up.