Entrepreneur – the word sounds good. It brings to mind, ownership, power, wealth. But do not be deceived. While it’s probably true that many entrepreneurs do spend their days telling people what to do from their snazzy offices equipped with Nespresso machines and personal bathrooms, or having important tele-conferences on-the-go on the iPads. It must also be true that a large number of ‘entrepreneurs’ spend their days like me, fighting traffic on the way to make a delivery which probably pays less than what I have to spend on gas for that trip, staying up all night trying to design a flyer on Microsoft Powerpoint and then being only able to print 10 copies on my deskjet printer which has run out of ink, dashing home to grab a bag of ice from my freezer because we’ve run out of ice at the shop, or spending half the day trying to figure out why the power suddenly went out because nobody knows and everyone is expecting you to come up with the answer because you’re the boss. But hell, how am I supposed to know I am just a 28 year old struggling entrepreneur and NOT A BL**** ELECTRICIAN.
What they don’t tell you
Now do not let them fool you into thinking that it’s going to be a glamourous life. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. Until you are big enough to hire a person for every role and requirement your company may have, you have to do everything yourself. As a start-up business owner, I simple can’t afford to hire my own mechanic or purchasing manager or staff supervisor. No messenger boy to deliver or collect your mail, no dispatch driver to make your deliveries. Problems with the wi-fi? Stay on the line for hours troubleshooting. Run out of gas for the grill? Lug the gas tank to the nearest station to be refilled. (The two employees I could afford to hire already have their hands full serving customers at the shop.) Need to find a cheaper supplier? Email or call (or if you are in Africa like me, you have to actually visit) all of them yourself, barter and bargain, and then compile your own price-comparison spreadsheets. Staff don’t show up? You find out only the day itself and so you put on your apron and call your spouse/children/babysitter to come and help you in shop, and then spend the next day sitting down with the staff to deal with their marital/medical/monetary problems which was the cause of them abdicating their responsibilities the day before.
It’s lonely at the top
What they also don’t tell you is that it’s lonely at the top. (Someone please tell me I’m not alone in saying this!) When your staff are completely confused about ‘the new state-of-the-art stock-taking system’ you are trying to implement, you have to act like you know exactly what you’re talking about, even though you have actually never done this before and that this “stock-taking system” was simply something you Googled and keyed in on Microsoft Excel just the night before. When a customer is nasty and everything seems to be going wrong that day, you bite back the tears and the urge to scream at someone or break something, but instead have a pep-talk session with your staff on “How to Deal with Difficult Customers in a Calm and Respectful Manner”. When you make a mistake or a wrong decision, you are the only one who bears (and feels) the consequences – it literally hurts you physically. When business is bad, you can’t sleep.
Something else they don’t tell you
Now that you’re having second thoughts about being an entrepreneur, I would also like to share something else which they don’t tell you. What they don’t tell you is that you’d also be biting back tears – when you see your employees thriving and enjoying their work, when you receive a card thanking you for being a great boss, when you see your coffee beans packed in bags which you’d spent hours sourcing on the internet with labels printed by printers that you’d spent hours comparing the prices of, bearing your brand name and sitting prominently on supermarket shelves. And when the supermarkets increase their orders every month; and when you finally are able to go on vacation and come back to find that contrary to what you feared everything has not gone up in flames and is still there, and the shop is full of happy customers who actually seem to like what you have done.
And what they don’t tell you is that when business is good, you can’t sleep either. Because you’re so excited and filled with adrenaline thinking about how the work you’ve put in is paying off. And then you simply can’t wait to wake up and spend the next day figuring out how to fix the generator, pep-talking your errant staff, making deliveries in a traffic jam, calling up suppliers, making spreadsheets, printing flyers, refilling empty gas-tanks, all over again.
Rebecca is a 28-year-old attorney from Singapore turned struggling social entrepreneur in Tanzania, East Africa. She is co-owner of Wamama Kahawa Coffee Roasters, a start-up social enterprise which seeks to empower unemployed/unskilled Tanzanian women through fair wage jobs and skills-training in the art of hand-roasting coffee beans and the creation of coffee beverages. She dreams to someday be part of a successful, self-sustainable and growing social business, taking people out of poverty, even if only one person at a time. Rebecca’s personal blog on travel and lessons learnt from living and starting a business in Tanzania is at Fleeting Fridays and she may be found on Twitter @changpqr.Subscribe to the Podcast