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There is a sense of romance in starting a business. There is novelty and a childlike naivety but, most importantly, there is romance. You have to love an idea and be so much in love with it that you forgo all rational thought and plunge into a world of the unknown.
What could be more irrational than to take on the responsibility of building a successful business and ownership of the livelihoods of employees? Why would you choose to leave a well-paying job to begin a journey that is, given the numbers, likely to fail?
Welcome to the unhinged romance
“It is the ultimate juxtaposition — the ultimate romance,” Jason Njoku, CEO and co-founder of iROKOtv, tells me. For him, starting a business means loving the company with every fibre of your being and at the same time letting it “zap every last drop of energy”.
It’s a roller coaster ride really. There is a chance you will succeed and an equal chance that you will fail. “Think of it as one of those theme park rides at Universal Studios,” says Rapelang Rabana, founder of ReKindle Learning.
“There are days when you can almost hear internal screaming, when it feels like you are hurtling down to what must surely be the end of it all,” she says. “Then there are sudden unexpected lifts when your blood is racing and you are sure you made the right decision starting this business.”
For both entrepreneurs there is nothing more important than understanding the delicate balance of the first few years of starting a business. If you want to sustain this somewhat toxic love affair that you have chosen to embark on, then you have to be prepared to lose everything — an unhinged romance.
“Your business is your family, your lover, your best friend and your worst enemy,” Njoku says with no trace of hyperbole. Because the way he sees it, “nothing will prepare you for the full spectrum of emotions that are thrust upon you as a startup owner”. Absolutely nothing, he emphasises.
This week, Chris Poole — founder of 4Chan — had to shut down his other startup DrawQuest. In a blog post he honestly accounted for why his seemingly successful startup failed. Poole hints at the heartbreak that can follow this romance. Startups fail, and the truth is more of them fail than succeed.
“No soft landing, no happy ending — we simply failed,” he writes.
For Poole, this loss wasn’t just a company, but a community, a family and a life partner:
I’m disappointed that I couldn’t produce a better outcome for those who supported me the most — my investors and employees. Few in business will know the pain of what it means to fail as a venture-backed CEO. Not only do you fail your employees, your customers, and yourself, but you also fail your investor-partners who helped you bring your idea to life.
The quest for brilliant alchemy
What Poole had with DrawQuest, was two parts of the three components that make up business alchemy. He created a great product and found an audience that wanted it — the only problem was finding a way to monetise it. Starting and running a successful business is a sort of brilliant alchemy, the perfect turn in a chaotic dance. It’s the moment when it all begins to come together in the way it should.
This brilliant concoction of how success happens can take a lifetime.
“Your perception of success and failure morphs over time,” says Rabana. For her, the very pursuit of success and the immersion of events that may, on the surface, be considered success or failure are quite subjective.
“Now I know that it is just a journey with widely varying experiences, and that success can descend into failure and failures can be transformed into successes.”
Like any journey, the first step is easy. The next hundred are near impossible, even if you’re prepared. For entrepreneurs though, it is a Catch 22 situation because nothing can really prepare you for what will most certainly come.
“Starting a business is easy,” he says. “However sustaining one isn’t for the faint-hearted; it is brutal, violent, unnerving — but ultimately, it is one of the most satisfying and exciting adventures you will ever undertake.”
In the end the evil genius wins
It is a sort of mad science in the end, a formula of careful components that make up the world of an entrepreneur. One part luck, two parts dedication, one part idea, three parts emotion and four parts determination. It’s popular to say “it’s business not personal” but the truth is it is personal. How can it not be?
“You learn to be an observer of the roller coaster, so you can stay objective and stay sharp and focused and think of solutions and ways to progress forward,” says Rabana.
A savage beast that almost eats away at your humanity, your business keeps you locked on because, in the end, your only goal is its survival. Your emotional allegiances are to the business alone.
“Over time, the roller coaster continues, but you learn to vest less emotions and ‘less screaming’ in the ups and downs because you have been through this too many times,” she adds contemplatively.
When your world is “suffocating” yet “liberating at the same time” then you know the genius has found its home. That’s what this world of entrepreneurship means for Njoku.
“You have the freedom to create and to build and to dream, but you’re also tied to this ‘thing’ you’re creating and it’s very difficult to be distracted from it,” he says plainly.
In all that suffocation, unhinged romance and brilliant alchemy nothing makes it more worth it than watching your “small, crazy idea grow into an international venture”.
For the mad genius that lives in every entrepreneur the work may never be done, for the committed it is an unending journey — a dance that will continue as long there are moves left.
“I am still waiting for the day when I am ‘successful’ once and for all,” Rabana says without regret or sadness. “Because when you are in space when something has gone really well, you realise you are not done… that in fact you may never be done.”