The Real Cost of Becoming an Entrepreneur Isn’t Financial

Entrepreneurship comes with a cost. It looks glamorous on the outside, but all entrepreneurs will tell you that it comes with a cost that has taken a toll on their relationships. Most importantly themselves.

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When I went into business for myself, I began with the happy illusion that I could work the hours I wanted. But I soon discovered the truth about entrepreneurship: that the freedom it gives you is usually the freedom to work twice as long and twice as hard as you ever did, even if you thought you were working too much for someone else.

Most people don’t know this, sometimes they don’t even see it. But to be a successful entrepreneur, there is a toll that must be paid to ride that road. Whether you pay it financially, personally, mentally–you will pay the toll. If you can’t afford it, then don’t do it.

The cost of entrepreneurship

The kinds of toll I’m talking about for a successful entrepreneur include (but are most certainly not limited to): a sacrifice of your personal life (it’s hard to be a serial entrepreneur and give anyone in your life a sense of stability or reliability), and financial costs (you have the potential to make an obscene amount of money, but up front, it is all negative, it’s all out of your pocket, and in the end the returns are not guaranteed).

I can’t count the number of weddings, holidays and family gatherings I’ve had to miss because I needed to travel for work or attend a business event. For many, the financial toll makes the personal life toll a reasonable price to pay (assuming that
one day it’ll pay off and you can dedicate your time to family, friends, life). But as you grow and expand, so does your risk. It grows exponentially. There was one year where I lost $2 million. How many people can take that hit and keep going the
next year?

How to ensure you don’t lose focus on what makes your company valuable

During the chaos of the entrepreneurial life, while you’re helping your business take its first steps, it’s easy to lose focus on what really makes your company valuable: yourself. Entrepreneurs who aren’t careful will toll themselves out of the job; they’ll spend too much time in operations, in the weeds, correcting and supervising the day-to-day instead of adding value, and then wonder why their company is failing.

When the boat is leaking, it’s natural to want to patch the holes right away, but if you don’t focus on getting out of the storm, it’s not going to do anything. One of the most important lessons entrepreneurs don’t learn is how to take care of themselves. They put themselves to the side (their physical and mental health, their life), just to make the business succeed. They think that when they finally get to where they want to be, they’ll get back in shape, travel the world, or take a vacation. It rarely happens that way.

Entrepreneurs put their health on the line, working 18 hours a day, paying all the tolls they hadn’t anticipated. It’s a hard lifestyle to leave behind – once you’re set on the entrepreneurship path, there’s no point where the “urgent issues” fade away. They’ll always be there, someone will always want your attention. Someone will want you to pay for your tolls.

4 keys to being a successful entrepreneur

But here’s the secret that successful entrepreneurs have discovered: there’s a way to pay your tolls without it taking a big hit on your body, mind, and soul. Here are four keys I realized, after paying far too much, for paying your entrepreneurial tolls without them destroying you.

1. Put yourself first.

This isn’t being selfish, it’s being realistic. Just like Coca-Cola protects its secret formula behind a vault door, you must protect the most valuable asset of your young company: your mind. Take care of your body. Remember that your output will only be as good as your input, so read more, learn more, practice more. Sleep! Take a vacation.

People will make mistakes while you’re gone; it’s part of the learning process. Do you expect to run everything by yourself your whole life? Companies can die and be reborn, you can’t.

2. Stop repeating your mistakes.

Even if you run a perfect company, you’re always going to pay some kind of toll, but bad mistakes increase the amount you must pay each time. A repeated toll on the same mistakes is what I like to call the “stupid toll,” because only stupid entrepreneurs will continue to repeat the same mistakes, paying the same toll, over and over again. Learn from your punishment, move on, and make new mistakes instead.

3. Realize delegation is more than just doing less work.

Are you an expert in payroll, HR, creative design, web design, creative writing, or whatever else your company needs to do? No? Then stop doing it. Those to whom you delegate might not be the best in the industry, but they’re better than you. Stick to what you’re good at and leave the rest for others to do.

They might not do it exactly how you would, but is that worth wasting mental energy over? At the end of the day, would you rather have spent your day redoing someone else’s spreadsheet, or doing what you enjoy? Unsuccessful entrepreneurs second-guess and edit their company into bankruptcy, but hey, at least it looked good doing it.

4. Focus on your goals.

I can speak from experience that a lot of the frustration of entrepreneurship comes from moving away from your goals. The life we choose is hard, so why make it harder on yourself by working on things that don’t match your values or goals?

When I started Idea Booth, I wanted it to be a disruptive think tank that worked on provocative marketing campaigns. But after just a couple of years, we were stuck in the mud of doing social media for small, annoying, local restaurants, just to make ends meet. Sure it helped us make payroll, but was it worth all the time, frustration, and resources we wasted?

No. It annoys me to think about where we could be today if we had focused on our goals instead of worrying about things that didn’t matter.

These four keys are things we all learn, one way or another, sooner or later, painfully or easily. I wish I had known them before I began, which is why I share them with you now. Hopefully, you’ll pay less tolls than I did.

  • Originally published March 15, 2019, updated April 26, 2023