Few tasks are as difficult or sometimes demoralizing as running small or new businesses.
Politicians routinely praise entrepreneurs as the “engines” or “backbone” of the economy, but that praise is cold comfort when you’re missing your kid’s soccer game to make a delivery or stuck at the office late trying to figure out how to make payroll, attract customers, or convince banks and venture capitalists to invest.
I’ve certainly been tempted to shut down the wholesale bagel operation in South Florida I have run since my father’s death in 2016. The summer months, when the region empties of snowbirds and vacationers, are an agonizing week-by-week struggle to make payroll. I’m also filled with dread when the phone rings at 2 a.m. as it can only mean a machine broke down or a driver crashed a van. I find myself watching the news for reasons the price of wheat might rise or fall. Most of this is well beyond my control, and none of it is enjoyable!
Entrepreneurship is hard, it’s stressful, and insecure. That helps explain why some 30 percent of startups fail within two years and about half don’t make it to their fifth anniversary.
So what keeps us going? We asked five successful business owners how they stay motivated so you have some wisdom in your back pocket when you feel like you’re up against too much.
1. Find a tie back to something you believe in.
Jesse Vollmar is the co-founder of FarmLogs, a software company for farmers that landed $14 million in venture capital funding. He recommends building a business around a product or problem that really matters to you. Vollmar left his family’s farm in rural Michigan to study computer science in college—only to realize that the folks who needed his expertise the most were the food producers he knew his whole life.
“You don’t just pick something to work on that isn’t something you deeply care about, right?” Vollmar says. “American farmers are people I care about, and I want them to have a better future with technology at the center of it. I have a deep connection and passion about the problem that’s being solved. And that is infectious.”
Passion also propels Boyede Sobitan, co-founder of Chicago-based OjaExpress, an online delivery service for hard-to-get Caribbean and African food items. “It’s easy to get demoralized when you don’t believe in what you’re doing fully,” Sobitan says. ”It’s easier for us to stay motivated when we get those positive affirmations from customers that you really helped me out or I’m glad I heard about you.”
|What you can do:
– Choose a business that fits your values
– Build your business around solving a problem you care about
– Remind yourself why your business matters to you
2. Be ambitious—but realistic, too.
“We learned early on that there are a lot of really good things that we have to say no to, but having the discipline to do that has been really helpful,” says nonprofit director Victor Boutros, who co-founded the Human Trafficking Institute. Boutros is a former federal prosecutor who started the Institute to teach developing-world governments how to properly prosecute human slavery rings.
He quickly learned the importance of staying grounded. Rather than taking on the world, the Institute is currently focusing on two countries: Belize and Uganda. “We did not want to be an inch deep and a mile wide. We really wanted to be a mile deep and an inch wide.”
Sobitan agreed. OjaExpress started in Chicago and now also serves Washington D.C. He plans to build up slowly to possibly add other cities—as soon as he believes scaling up won’t overextend him or harm the current business operations.
|What you can do:
– Recognize what you have the resources to conquer—and what you don’t
– Focus on a few big victories that will help you expand or get more of the resources you need
3. Know that pivoting isn’t quitting.
“It’s crushing when your sales team is hitting the phones and all of a sudden the conversation shifts from ‘Yeah, tell me more,’ to ‘Oh, well, don’t I already get that for free from so-and-so?’” Vollmar says.
After a long stretch of having the market to itself, FarmLogs discovered that a major international agriculture conglomerate had created their own version of the software and offered it to customers—for free.
“We went through a very dark period and had to shift some things around, let people go. But we are retooling our organization around a new model and that is making us a better, leaner company on the other end of it.”
Vollmar says he stayed afloat by cutting expenses and plotting out new products, which is also how my bagel business has coped with the loss of our largest client to a cheaper competitor. Six months ago, we added rye bread and challah to our product mix after hearing complaints from existing customers about the quality of what they used. It required some new equipment, but so far it’s helping stabilize us as we eagerly await the busier seasons.
|What you can do:
– Remember there’s no shame in downsizing if survival depends upon it
– Listen to your clients—they often have smart ideas for new products
– Don’t be blindsided; stay alert to competition and business trends
4. Find your version of “quality time.”
My father, in his early 70s, worked all night and much of the day at the bagel company. He missed my wedding and my nephew’s college graduation. He was even obsessed with finding a fax machine at his own 50th wedding anniversary party to send over instructions for that night’s bake.
His family assumed he really needed to work so hard—until he died suddenly.
Then I took control of the company and realized he could have easily delegated a lot of the administrative and oversight work to his employees. He just couldn’t let go, and it’s seriously possible he worked himself to death because of that.
The families of entrepreneurs are going to be neglected sometimes. But whenever possible, says John Wylie, founder of Grouchy John’s Coffee in Las Vegas, it’s key to make time where you can.
“I’ve missed weddings, I missed birthdays and different events in my nieces’ and nephews’ lives, my brothers’ and sisters’ lives,” he says. “But we reached the point where my schedule is flexible enough that I can build in one- and two-hour segments to break free and go attend an event or just to have some family time. That’s very important.”
And if that’s just not viable, Sobitan says, try bringing the family to work. Sobitan brings his son Michael with him on OjaExpress delivery runs. “He might be doing homework or something, but we try to make it part of the lifestyle,” he says.
|What you can do:
– Keep family and friends informed about what the business requires of you
– Reassess from time to time whether some of your duties can be delegated
5. Don’t go it alone.
Sobitan says his co-founder helps remind him he’s not in it by himself. “We really try to keep each other up, like we’re never both down at the same time.”
Even if you’re a solo founder, you can still find support. These days there are online communities for just about any sliver of the population—LGBTQ, women, racial minorities—brimming with folks who can relate to your experiences, offer advice, and even offer leads on customers. And many entrepreneurs say they turn to inspirational books or podcasts, too.
Universities also offer resources and guidance through startup incubators and public forums, says Robert Grajewski of The Wond’ry, a center for entrepreneurship and innovation at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. As a serial entrepreneur himself, he suggests founders use such outlets to recruit an advisory board of non-relatives and non-investors who can “provide introductions, connections, and valuable feedback.”
“Build out a team of people you respect, fellow entrepreneurs or advisors, people with maybe a little more gray hair than you to help,” says Grajewski, noting that you may offer to reciprocate in return. “Ideally they’re in your industry and can give you that unbiased constructive criticism while you’re going through it so you don’t feel as alone.”
|What you can do:
– Google it! You’re a quick search away from peers who know what you’re going through
– Don’t be afraid to ask for help or seek out instruction
6. Know your “why.”
Every business has an impact. When the going gets tough, Wylie from Grouchy John’s Coffee reminds himself how much is riding on his shoulders.
“For us, it’s the fact that I may not be making a whole lot of money personally, but I am creating dozens of jobs and hundreds of connections in the community,” says Wylie, who has two locations and two mobile units. “You just have to hope that in the future that’s going to be worth it.”
This is precisely the same reason I keep my father’s business running. It’ll never be a huge moneymaker and it isn’t changing the world, but it provides income for my mother and keeps about a dozen people gainfully employed.
For entrepreneurs like Sobitan, the son of Nigerian immigrants, the goal is much loftier. He remains motivated by the prospect “that what we’re working on could potentially change the trajectory of my family.”
|What you can do:
– Remind yourself as often as necessary who you’re helping—and who would be harmed if you quit
– Take stock of the good your business is doing
You’re not alone. You’re not the first to face these struggles, to feel overworked and underappreciated, to agonize at all hours.
“Any kind of startup, even the companies that on the outside look really insulated, if they’re not facing some existential crisis, they’re facing an internal one,” Vollmar says. “I don’t know a single other company that doesn’t have some sort of big scary challenge that they’re working on.”
Personally, I find most crises of confidence are fleeting because life comes at you too fast when you’re dealing with orders, customers, employees, and your personal life. Some business problems are unfixable, and it’s important to be able to tell when you’re at that point.
But short of that, I find it easiest to accept those hard moments as another cost of doing business and the price of the freedom earned by being an entrepreneur. And I remind myself often of the coda from the musical “Avenue Q” where the main character asks, “Why does everything have to be so hard?”
The answer: “Everything in life is only for now.”