The Entrepreneurial Imperative

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

Though it might not be obvious, we live in a world of imperatives. These are not laws, regulations, or other legally-binding rules, but expectations made by culture. We are bound by what others believe is the right path in a given situation. They are norms that, when followed, have a record of producing success.

Perhaps the most basic imperatives involve family. When people fall in love, there is a cultural expectation of marriage. If possible, the couple should raise children and send them to school. It’s a structure that has worked for generations and for good reason. It has a record of success. Because it works, those who choose to live outside it can be suspect. How dare they challenge the imperative?

A less considered imperative involves business pursuits. Here, it is assumed that businesses exist to grow and make their owners as rich as possible. Like family, this is based on a system that has worked. Growing businesses have been an engine of wealth for generations and in the case of publicly traded companies, the organization has a duty to make decisions that benefit the shareholders. But is it required for every business? Must every business person follow this path?

The entrepreneurial imperative seems to be this: Business success is based on becoming as wealthy as possible.

The danger of any imperative is it becoming so baked-in that it escapes analysis or skepticism. It becomes assumed and therefore thoughtless. I’ve heard multiple parents say, “I never knew I had a choice.” when it came to procreating. That’s what imperatives do. They reinforce an idea to a point where it’s unquestioned.

And so it is in business. From my perspective, too many entrepreneurs assume there is only one “right” way to build a business and it’s aiming to grow quickly and become the next unicorn. It seems that anyone who doesn’t take that path isn’t a serious or respectable entrepreneur.

I believe this perspective is changing as people begin to understand the personal costs that come with this kind of entrepreneurship. Yes, building a billion-dollar business is an incredible accomplishment that deserves respect. But it’s also incredibly rare and the path to it is frequently littered with those who tried, but were left with massive debt, broken relationships, and unhappiness. The romantic notion that appeals to so many conveniently leaves out the realities.

For some, it’s worth the cost. These entrepreneurs are willing to trade it all for a shot at the big time. But is it the only way?

We need entrepreneurs who aim for the stars. But, I also want entrepreneurs to see that, despite the weight of the imperative, they have a choice. They can choose a different path with different goals and different outcomes. There are still trade-offs and it’s not easy, but there is a respectable version of entrepreneurship that’s decidedly smaller and more manageable.

Money is often seen as the only true metric of success. The person who dies with the biggest bank account is the winner, right? For some, that’s the goal, but more people are starting to discover that their success isn’t so one-dimensional.

I believe, for example, that having control of my time is an important part of success. In order to achieve that control, I may have to make sacrifices, like taking on fewer projects and/or making less money. In this way, time is a part of my calculus of success. The same is true with the success that comes with independence or location. I want to be independent and work from anywhere and to do that, I have to consider the trade-offs. What I trade in terms of income may come back to me in the form of a healthier lifestyle. Success isn’t a single note. It’s a song.

Many of us are living through changes of all kinds. Now is a time to think more critically about the entrepreneurial imperative and what assumptions you’re making about success. Money matters, but is it everything? If you can break out of the imperative, you might find that building a business that’s Big Enough is the song that’s been playing in the back of your mind for too long.

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