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Op-Ed: Being Self-Employed Doesn’t Make You an Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship is not intrinsically better than being self-employed. What matters is making an intentional choice between the two paths.


We all have pivotal moments in our careers that change the course of our lives.

Mine occurred during a conversation with Dr. Randy Blass of Florida State University. He was interviewing me for an entrepreneurship program for veterans, and I was proudly telling him about my boutique (read: small) consulting firm. He asked me why I wanted to be an entrepreneur.

I was stunned — I thought I was an entrepreneur. I was running a company. My partner and I spent our time servicing clients. At the end of the month, we issued invoices. What else was there?

Randy explained that a self-employed person takes on as much client work as he can handle. An entrepreneur dedicates the majority of his energy to growth.

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Randy explained that a self-employed person takes on as much client work as he can handle. An entrepreneur dedicates the majority of his energy to growth.

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He was right. I wasn’t working on the business; I was working in it. We had no staff, no strategy, and no long-term vision. If we wanted to evolve, we’d have to become entrepreneurs.

 

Entrepreneurship and Self-Employment

Entrepreneurship is not intrinsically better than being self-employed. What matters is making an intentional choice between the two paths.

Here are four questions to consider when launching your business:

 

  1. Do I want to personally deliver our core service to customers forever?

    If you do, pursue self-employment. You started a business because you’re passionate about working one-on-one with clients. Only take on as many customers as you can handle; otherwise, you may begin to hate the work you once loved. But if the prospect of running the business excites you more, choose entrepreneurship. Before you jump in, know that you’ll have a grueling workload that includes not only strategy and management, but also accounting, HR, marketing, business development, and auditing. If overseeing all the moving pieces of a growing business sounds appealing, go for it.

  2. Do I have the skills to effectively run and grow a business?

    When I started my company, I had never taken a business course, and my ignorance hindered us. You don’t need an MBA to be a successful entrepreneur, but you need to invest in learning and professional development. There are plenty of high-quality educational resources online. You can learn everything you would in an MBA program through independent study; it just takes persistence.

  3. Do I have a network of mentors, allies, and resources?

    Every entrepreneur needs a support system. If you can’t ask someone for guidance, advice, or emotional support when the going gets tough (and it certainly will), you’re at a severe disadvantage. Seek existing networks of support, and build your own. As a veteran, I have access to several specialized business associations. I also rely on guidance from my mentors. Two years ago, we formed a board of advisors as well to provide us with targeted, continuous feedback. The input we receive is invaluable.

  4. Am I willing to make personal sacrifices and take risks?

    For many entreprneurs, work-life balance is often a fantasy. My success came at the expense of sleep, time with loved ones, and my savings. If you’re not prepared to make sacrifices, entrepreneurship may not be for you. There’s intense pressure to succeed as more people (and their families) come to depend on your organization for their well-being and prosperity. Growth means assessing, mitigating, and taking risks. No successful entrepreneur is completely risk-averse.

 

Evolving Into an ‘Entrepreneur’

Entrepreneurship is the most challenging — and potentially rewarding — path in business. If you’re ready to take the leap, here are a few strategies for a smooth transition:

 

  • Be proactive in working on the business, not in it. That means building a solid team, establishing a workflow, and stepping back from the front lines.
  • Develop and implement repeatable processes. Processes boost efficiency, improve the ability of others to do the work to your standards, and lay the groundwork for scaling.
  • Create a solid organizational infrastructure. You must be able to accommodate more clients as you grow without the wheels falling off.
  • Find mentors and support networks. Entrepreneurial veterans can offer critical guidance, which could be the difference between failure and success.
  • Focus on culture. Your organizational culture influences every part of your business, from employee satisfaction to company performance. Establish a set of core principles that will guide every decision your team makes. This will empower your team to live your vision without having to rely on you to make every single decision.

 

The Growth-Oriented Path Ahead

After the conversation with Randy, my business partner and I realized that it was time for our business to evolve.

Moving ahead as entrepreneurs meant actively preparing for growth. So, my partner became the point person for client relationships, and I moved into the management role. We began hiring passionate people, and we soon had a staff that shared our mission and vision. With this foundation in place, we were able to expand our reach. We now have clients across the globe.

Because I love the service we provide, I still spend 10 percent of my time consulting with clients. However, the majority of my daily energy goes toward growth.

Transitioning from self-employment to entrepreneurship isn’t easy, but it opens up a world of opportunity. Don’t be afraid to take that step — just be sure it’s the right choice for you.

 

Chris Cancialosi, Ph.D., is Managing Partner and Founder at gothamCulture, a consulting firm that focuses on identifying the underlying causes of organizational obstacles and assisting leaders in developing and executing breakthrough strategies to elevate performance. The team provides critical, thought-provoking insights to leaders who desire to use organizational culture and leadership as key drivers of performance.

 

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