Sometimes the people we love most are best at helping us see our faults Photo by Carly Rae Hobbins on Unsplash
I used to treat my startup like it was the only thing that mattered in life. If I was awake, I was either working on my startup or annoyed I was doing something that prevented me from working on my startup.
In retrospect, I’m not sure if that kind of obsession with the companies I was building was a good or a bad thing. On one hand, successful entrepreneurs are always preaching about the importance of work-life balance, but, on the other hand, I’m pretty sure it’s a lie. Or, at the very least, it’s an aspiration. By that I mean successful founders tell themselves they should have spent less time working and more time enjoying their lives, but none of them actually did, and that’s how they became successful. After all, ask any successful entrepreneur how much balance they had between work and life in the early days of building their companies, and I guarantee none of them will tell you they worked a typical 9 to 5.
Whatever the case, if work-life balance is a real “thing,” it’s a thing I’ve never personally had, nor will I ever have it. I can’t help myself. I love building startups too much. Simply put, I’d rather be working on a company than watching whatever show everyone is talking about on Netflix. Building startups is how I entertain myself.
Therein lies my problem. I get so much personal joy out of building whatever startup ’m building that I often ignore the true purpose of building startups. I’m admitting this problem here because I suspect I’m not alone. In fact, I’m guessing it’s a flaw most entrepreneurs have, and, whether they realize it or not, it’s preventing them from achieving their startup goals.Discovering my fatal entrepreneurial flaw
My biggest shortcoming as an entrepreneur finally became obvious to me thanks to my wife — the person in my life I can always rely on to remind me when I’m being a terrible person.
I was roughly 18 months into building whatever startup it was I was obsessing about at the time, we were on the brink of either getting funded or having to shut down, and my wife signed the two of us up to do some volunteer work for a local charity event early one Saturday morning.
On the morning of the event, as my wife and I were driving to the place we were volunteering, I remember being annoyed. While I didn’t voice my frustrations, I was wearing them clearly enough in my body language for my wife to notice.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
“I’m just mad about some work stuff,” I responded vaguely.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “Hopefully doing something to help other people will make you feel a little better.”
“Yeah… hopefully,” I replied, but I knew I didn’t mean what I was saying. After all, the real reason I was mad was because of the charity work she’d signed me up for. It was preventing me from working on my company!Forgetting the purpose of entrepreneurship
My wife was wrong. Volunteering didn’t make me feel better. Instead, the thing that finally put me in a good mood was locking myself in my office as soon as we got home from volunteering and getting back to work on my startup.
I spent the rest of that Saturday with my head buried in my computer until dinner, when, realizing I’d been a bit of a selfish ass to my wife, I invited her out for an impromptu date night at our favorite Mexican restaurant.
As we sipped margaritas, my wife pointed out my changed mood. “You seem happier,” she said. “Did you fix whatever it was that was causing problems?”
“There wasn’t any specific problem,” I admitted, sheepishly. “I just wasn’t excited about volunteering. I’ve got some major deadlines coming up, and I guess I let them get the better of me.”
“I figured that was more the issue,” she said with a smile. “I knew you’d be annoyed when I scheduled us to volunteer.”
“If you knew I’d be annoyed, why’d you do it?” I asked.
My wife shrugged. “Because volunteering is good. Sometimes it’s good to think about other people.”
“I know it’s good to think about other people,” I replied. “But I just don’t have a lot of time right now. I’ve got to get more sales or my company is going to fail.”
“Whatever you say,” she said as she popped a chip in her mouth.
My wife and I had been together long enough by that point for her to know arguing with me about my startup obsession wasn’t going to lead anywhere good. I knew it, too, but I guess I’d had a bit too much margarita by that point and couldn’t bite my tongue. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“I just don’t get it,” she said. “You always talk about your startup like it’s the most important thing in the world for you to be working on… like it’s some sort of divine calling. Apparently it’s even more important than doing a little volunteer work to help other people who aren’t as fortunate as you. But isn’t that basically missing the entire point of building a company in the first place? Isn’t building a company about helping other people?”
I opened my mouth to respond but closed it after a few seconds when I realized I didn’t know what to say. What she’d just pointed out made too much sense.Reevaluating my entrepreneurial purpose
My wife’s comment helped me realize the real reason I was struggling with my startup. It wasn’t because I wasn’t spending enough time on it. It was because I was obsessed with working on my startup because I enjoyed it, but that’s not why we build startups. We don’t build startups to solve our own problems. We build startups to help other people with their problems.
In my early days of building companies, I didn’t appreciate this distinction. Instead, I was obsessed with working on my startup because of what success could mean for me. It could make me rich, it could make me famous, and it could make me just like all of my entrepreneur heroes I read about. In fact, I was so focused on what building a successful company could mean for me that I never spent time thinking about how I needed to be helping other people. Heck, I couldn’t even be bothered to spend a few hours one Saturday morning volunteering.
But my wife was right. I was missing the entire point of building companies and being an entrepreneur. Building companies isn’t about helping ourselves. It’s about helping other people. Somehow, that was the one part of entrepreneurship I seemed to care least about, and, in retrospect, it’s why my companies were failing.
Don’t make the same mistake as me. Yes, startups can be your passion, and you can obsess about your company as much as you want, just be sure you’re obsessing about your startup for the right reasons. Ultimately, you’re not trying to help yourself. You’re supposed to be helping other people. If helping other people doesn’t excite you — whether in the context of your startup or in the context of any other type of volunteer work — then maybe you’re in the wrong business.Want more lessons about startups and entrepreneurship? Take a (FREE) mini-course with me right now!
My Wife Helped Me Realize I Was a Terrible Entrepreneur was originally published in Entrepreneur's Handbook on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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