I remember the time and place when I decided that I would someday be an entrepreneur. I was sitting alone in my college apartment, a senior at the University of Minnesota with a heart full of ambition and a blank resume to show for it.
Both my own parents and my then-girlfriend’s (now-wife’s) parents had given me an example of life as a business owner. My mom owned a successful tailoring business through which she had staked a corner in the wedding-dress category. She was an artist with dresses and people were willing to pay handsomely for her services. My would-be-father-in-law also ran his own company doing industrial construction and again, reaping the benefits. Both had a life that came with their business ownership: flexible schedules, interesting problems to solve, complete ownership over their product and their company, and, most importantly, a love for their work. Both were CEOs in their “company of one,” meaning they had no employees. Both worked from home and made a reasonable but not exorbitant wage.
My vision of business ownership was only slightly different. Skewed by the Silicon Valley culture of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk who flashed across Rolling Stones Magazine and Business Insider, my image of entrepreneurialism was more extravagant. Zuckerberg, the hoodie-wearing college drop-out induced awe. He and his Silicon Valley billionaire peers set a new standard for fame and wealth, replacing the rock-star images of previous idols such as Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Silicon Valley’s start-up culture had created a media-driven image of young geniuses who were living the dream.
I wanted that dream and I wanted it bad. But reluctantly, after graduating college I was forced to look for work in the real world with little experience and zero expertise in anything. I ended up working part-time jobs in marketing, sales, and operations, until I finally landed at the company I still work for today (where I have been very happy, I might add). Yet through many years working for big corporations, I still resolved that my ultimate goal was to be an entrepreneur. The appeal of freedom, solving interesting problems, and loving my work plagued me with the ideal that nothing other than starting my own company would ever satisfy.
This, my friends, is what we call being a wantrepeneur, someone who thinks, dreams, and talks about being an entrepreneur but still has not taken the leap to start his own company. And of all Wantrepreurs, and there are many, I rank among one of the biggest and best.
It wasn’t until recently that it struck me that even my own understanding of the word entrepreneur is ironic. Coming from the French origin “entreprende” which means to undertake, the word itself wasn’t used until the year 1800 when Jean-Baptiste Say coined it, saying “The entrepreneur shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.” (source). That makes sense, sure, but to me the word carried more meaning; it was completely synonymous with someone who had achieved great wealth and fame. Although studies show that over 50% of businesses fail in just the first few years, my image of an entrepreneur was that of a rock star.
“Wantrepreneur” casts a more ridiculous image. A poser comes to mind; someone who often sits with friends brainstorming great new ideas for mobile apps or ground-breaking technologies that could be built, never to actually take action on said genius ideas. But more silly than the surface value of this word is the way it actually sounds if you say it out-loud slowly. “Want-Trap-Manure.” When I first realized this I couldn’t help but chuckle at the obviousness of my own ignorance.
A desire for fame and riches like that of Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs is actually a want-trap. It is a never-ending cycle of idealizing others and desiring to have more than one already has. It’s a never-ending lack of contentedness. Being a wantrepreneur is a vicious mental trap of always wanting more. Excuse my French, but obsessing over becoming an entrepreneur is, frankly, a big pile of manure. A want trap manure. Say it five times fast.
As a wantrepreneur extraordinaire I set my life goals on a pedestal: become a business owner, a start-up prodigy, and a creator of something great. This ambition gave me a fiery entrepreneurial attitude, always seeking to understand business and what makes the economy tick. I grew especially interested in capitalism, the stock market, and why companies are good or bad. I listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts like How I Built This by NPR and StartUp by Gimlet Media. I read books like Behind the Cloud by Marc Benioff and Zero to One by Peter Thiel.
On the upside, all of this ambition, study, and thought gave me an edge in my jobs because I saw business from a CEO’s perspective (or at least tried to) and it made me work harder and smarter and it kept me focused on the profit-line of my company.
But being a wantrepeneur was also exhausting. It left me feeling empty as if a void in my work-life was unfilled and I wouldn’t be happy until I would find my Big Idea. This dream played like a movie I had seen: a lightbulb moment followed by sleepless nights working on my new passion which then led to securing millions of dollars in funding and finally hitting it big, making millions, and writing a book to tell about how I did it. It was all a beautiful story yet untold, and it was also a want trap — nothing but a pile of manure. It stunk.
Believe it or not, this realization, this “wake up and smell the manure” moment, was earth shattering for me. First, the realization that I may never have that great big idea, as sad as that may be. But secondly, and more importantly, the epiphany that my constant desire for more was a trap that I had locked myself into, one that would never allow me to feel fulfilled unless it came to fruition.
In order to enjoy life and be content in my work, my eyes would need to be opened to new possibilities in which my dreams were fulfilled without actually becoming a Silicon Valley stereotype. Maybe I would never start or run a company. Heck, maybe I would even be “stuck working for the man” all my life, as if that is the worst of all things.
For the first time in ten years, I was actually at peace with this possibility. I no longer feared the regret of not becoming an entrepreneur. I stopped dreaming unrealistic-big-goals and looking too far into the future. Instead, I started thinking tactically about tomorrow and looking at what and who was standing right in front of me. I realized that every day actually provides an opportunity to entrepende, to undertake. Every hour at work provides multiple opportunities to think like a CEO or a business operator. Every transaction can give the experience of running a business, solving interesting problems, and loving one’s work.
Even the lowest employee in the most established company has an opportunity to think like an entrepreneur, to work with grit, think outside of the box, and be obsessed with her work. In fact, I believe that companies should seek to hire more employees who think entrepreneurially. These will be their leaders in the future, those who care about the business as if it is their own, rather than simply looking for a paycheck; and those who will find opportunities to adapt the company to a changing economic landscape, rather than jumping ship when the company struggles. Hire these entrepreneurially spirited people, as long as they can get out of their own way, have realistic expectations, and focus on what is in front of them.
My advice to myself, and anyone else who has felt like a bit of a wantrepreneur, is not to stop thinking and dreaming big. No, it is these hopes and dreams that will eventually bring you to new heights. If your ultimate goal is to own your own business, hold on to it, but don’t expect it to happen now. Instead, I urge you to harvest these desires and interests by planting seeds in the garden right where you are, rather than thinking about what is far in the distance. Make sure that while you are planting and harvesting you don’t get stuck in the Want Trap Manure. Instead, realize that your entrepreneurial ambitions can be fulfilled in-part wherever you are. Exercise your skills and passions to the best of your ability today, even if you are working for someone else, and let tomorrow worry about itself.