Being an entrepreneur is hard. With the endless and well-publicized stories of billionaire college dropouts, we romanticize entrepreneurship, worshiping at the altar of The Founders Who Got It Right.
But no matter how much the media wants you to believe it, you should assume you are not Mark Zuckerberg.
The amount of new businesses in the United States has been cut in half over the last 40 years, with the majority of the decline taking place in the last 10. The budding narrative among entrepreneurs nowadays is “we don’t compete with Amazon, Apple, Facebook, or Google… but we’d make great acquisitions.” If there’s a shot you’ll be bought by an enormous company (while simultaneously not competing with them), you can raise billions. Every other good idea raises zero.
The traits of successful entrepreneurs haven’t changed much in the digital age: You need more builders than branders, and it’s key to have a technologist as part of, or near, the founding team.
But there are still a few tests or questions. Ask yourself, and some people you trust, the following questions about your personality and skills. If you answer positively on the first two, and you’re not skilled at working at a big company, then step into the cage of chaos monkeys.
Most failures are private: you decide law school isn’t for you (bombed the LSAT), to spend more time with your kids (got fired), or to work on “projects” (can’t get a job).
However, there’s no hiding your own business failure. It’s you, and if you’re so awesome, your business must succeed… right? Wrong, and when it doesn’t, it feels like elementary school, where the marketplace is a sixth grader laughing at you because you’ve wet your pants… times a hundred.
The word “entrepreneur” is a synonym for “salesperson.” Selling people to join your firm, selling them to stay at your firm, selling investors, and (oh yeah) selling customers. It doesn’t matter if you’re running the corner store or Pinterest—you’d better be damn good at selling if you plan to start a business.
Selling is calling people who don’t want to hear from you, pretending to like them, getting treated poorly, and then calling them again. I likely won’t start another business because my ego is getting too big to sell. I, incorrectly, believe our collective genius at L2 should mean the product sells itself—and sometimes it does. But there isn’t a product that doesn’t require you to get out the spoon and publicly eat shit over and over.
That’s even true of Google. It has an algorithm that can answer anything and identify people who have explicitly declared an interest in buying your product, then advertise to those people at that exact moment. Yet Google still has to hire thousands of attractive people with average IQs and exceptional EQ to sell the shit out of… Google. Entrepreneurship is a sales job with negative commissions until you raise capital, are profitable, or go out of business—whichever comes first.
The good news: If you like to sell and are good at it, you’ll always make more money, relative to how hard you work, than any of your colleagues, and… they’ll hate you for it.
Being successful in a big firm isn’t easy, and it requires a unique skill set. You have to play nice with others, suffer injustices and bullshit at every turn, and be politically savvy—if you get noticed by key stakeholders doing good work, you’ll garner executive-level sponsorship.
For me, entrepreneurship was a survival mechanism, as I didn’t have the skills to be successful in the greatest platforms for economic success in history: big US companies. But if you’re good at working at a big firm, then, on a risk-adjusted basis, you are better off doing just that—and not struggling against the long odds facing a small firm.
Adapted from The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love, and Meaning by Scott Galloway, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Scott Galloway, 2019.