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Jun 11, 2018    Burn Book

The Malcontents


“With great power comes great responsibility” – the wisest words ever uttered in a film adaptation of a comic book about a spider bite victim and aspiring photographer. But what about when you have great responsibility without all the power? That’s the life of a business owner.

Everyone imagines owning their own business means greater freedom––the ability to do what one wants, without having to answer to anyone else. But that is not how running a business works in the real world.

It’s true that I can, to some extent, pick the clients my Austin marketing and advertising firm takes on, hire the people I want to work with, and make all the critical decisions relating to the business or at services. At the same time I a, then responsible for those clients, employees, and the brand’s reputation. Because my company exists in a complex marketplace, I have to do certain things for the sake of the business that I would not necessarily choose to do without those external pressures. I wish I could have more privacy in my personal life but I have to be vulnerable to truly share my narrative, which is inherent to why I started my company. I admit it: I want to be present and beg the whole world to take a week off from Facebook. But ultimately, I don’t get to choose what marketing my clients need – I have to do what works and what’s in demand. And I happen to be damn good at building target audiences.

Here is another quick example: every local business has to be on Yelp. There, the success of their business is in the hands of some of the whiniest and neediest people on the planet. The reviewing public is not always wrong. Sometimes businesses are bad and should not exist when better, comparable alternatives are out there. But a lot of the time people leaving reviews are being unreasonable. And when that happens, as the owner of the company being slandered, you want to tell that person to F off. You imagine it would be the most satisfying feeling in your life, comparable to seeing your first child graduate college. But you can’t, because the damage it could do to your business would outweigh the psychological reward to yourself. Unless that customer was overtly racist or was Martin Shkreli, you have to pretend to be polite to them. Lucky for me, this type of thing doesn’t happen to an ad agency, but it has happened for our clients, and my heart goes out to them.

That brings me to my point: our clients are often the people who founded and still manage the company. That makes them risk takers, visionaries, and some of the most stressed out people on earth. They have invisible constraints and pressures that are way different from those of, say, the CMO of a large, publicly-traded company. While that job is as demanding (I can’t imagine having to answer to the demands of a bunch of random shareholders), it does not carry the weight of the entire company’s success, your life’s savings, and the wellbeing of every team member.

Having bootstrapped my Austin, Texas-based ad agency in 2009, I feel a particular kinship with the other entrepreneurs who walk through our doors. I take extra care to make sure they know that we understand the gravity of what they are entrusting us with. I think about what keeps me up at night, and imagine having absolute trust in your marketing company adds at least ONE thing you don’t have to worry about.

When you own a business, there is never a moment of peace, or a state of rest, or even quiet in your mind. When business is booming, you have to be in the weeds around the clock. When things are slow, anxiety creeps in (is this a trend that could crash my company??) Let’s say you win an award. Can you at least bask in the glory for a minute? No, because you’re actually worried you might get TOO much new business and how could you meet a sudden demand? Is there a way to achieve balance? Not that I know of, for me or any other founder I’ve met.

Let me make something clear: this is not meant to be a complaint. The hardships of business ownership are easily avoided by getting a regular job. But owners and founders choose this life because the downsides are no match against the desire to create, grow, and helm a personally meaningful venture. I find it frustrating when my way of life is glorified to the point where my day to day in no way resembles the average person’s notion of what owning a business is like. I’m sure many of our clients feel the same, and that’s why we get along so well.

If you ever decide to follow down the entrepreneurial path, the upside is there are plenty of others who know the struggle, and that shared experience is a powerful thing.

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