The recent spate of suicides have brought to light the pressures of entrepreneurship, but it seems to have reached a level that almost sounds like self pity. Yes, entrepreneurs deal with a lot of stress – I wrote about it myself – but let’s be very clear about one thing. Entrepreneurs are still the lucky ones.
We never even talk about non-entrepreneurs, which is strange because aside from those who got started while still in college, every entrepreneur reading this was something else before they started their company. We often forget that. Or even worse, we simply choose to ignore those who aren’t entrepreneurs. I’ve been guilty of it. PandoDaily has been guilty of it. In fact, all the tech blogs write as if entrepreneurs are the only people who matter, despite the fact that the vast majority of our readers are still “something else.” Does anybody even care about them?
The startup culture we’ve embraced has little sympathy for those who haven’t made the leap. We argue that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy, and it’s easier than ever to start a company. So people who don’t go for it have only their own lack of ambition to blame. But is this attitude fair? What if they have crushing student loans, or have to care for a child or a parent? What if their talents lie in areas not conducive to what startups need? What if they just don’t have a good idea? Do they really deserve to be classified as second class citizens?
Whatever feelings of jealousy or inadequacy founders feel when they see someone raise a big round or have a successful exit, at least they know they’re in the game. Day after day, week after week, non-entrepreneurs live in a place where they’re relegated to the role of an extra on a stage where entrepreneurs are the stars, close to the spotlight but still in the shadows. Imagine living with the constant reminder that you’re adjacent to the action but never really in it.
If we really look at the ecosystem, we need non-entrepreneurs. Bryan Goldberg made the case for being “only an engineer,” and in a rare case of recognizing them at all, Mark Suster wrote about the “unsung heroes of startups.” But how often does anyone really say it’s cool to not be a founder? Nobody wants to be part of the “unsung” support network or a cog in the machine.
As we pay more and more reverence to entrepreneurs, anointing them “visionaries” and “world changers,” we’ve flipped the expectations of what a solid career entails. While the rest of the world thinks doing the right thing is climbing the company ladder, we’ve decided that doing the right thing means being an entrepreneur. But this has created a new kind of trap. Much in the same way older generations may have felt trapped in corporate America, I wonder how many people in the tech world feel pressure to become an entrepreneur? And if our world is divided into entrepreneurs and everybody else, how many people are trying to be something that might not be right for them just so they can be in the “right” group?
I’ve built my business on separating the world into entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs so I’m as much to blame as anyone for helping to perpetuate this new class system. But while I’m guilty, I also wonder if we’ve gone too far in exalting entrepreneurs while demoting everyone else. Not everyone was meant to be an entrepreneur. And as easy as doing a startup might seem to some people, it’s a lot harder for others.
So while I’m happy people are starting to talk about the pressure and emotional roller coaster that comes with being a founder, don’t get too carried away bellyaching about the weight of the world on your shoulders. You’re still one of the lucky ones. We don’t even talk about everybody else.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]