Once upon a time, I asked every entrepreneur I interviewed if they were satisfied with their accomplishments. And without exception, they were not. Absolutely not. It was as if I'd inquired about criminal activity Or the prospect of death. Finally, I stopped asking. Here were great icons of entrepreneurship--many with companies worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, all constructed from nothing--and satisfaction was still a dirty word. They might admit to being successful. But if they were satisfied, they wouldn't say the word. Perhaps they thought admitting it would sound too boastful. Maybe they wereafraid of tempting fate.
But with the year 2000 approaching, Entrepreneur decided it was time to ask again, just in case the answers had changed. Are entrepreneurs satisfied with their businesses? Their lives?
In a word, yes. From Wunderkind and seasoned pros, the word came down, resounding and positive: Yes. It was yes, regardless of age or the size of their ventures; yes, regardless of past challenges or future expectations. It was absolutely yes. Here's why . . .
Gayle Sato Stodder, a freelance writer in Redondo Beach, California, has been writing for Entrepreneur for 13 years.
Full Of Life
Successful entrepreneurs are pursuing their dreams at full throttle. Whether they're after creative expression, personal empowerment or simply the freedom to manage their own futures, entrepreneurs feel they have the authority to realize their potentials--a privilege they couldn't get in an ordinary job.
"When I left corporate life [in 1984], everyone thought I was crazy. Back then, corporate life meant security," says 45-year-old Barbie Dallmann, owner of Happy Fingers Word Processing & Resume Service in Charleston, West Virginia, which saw $118,000 in revenues in 1998. "But starting my own business was a spiritual awakening. I found out what was important to me--being able to follow my own interests, having some control over my destiny, writing my own corporate mission statement. When I come up with an idea, I run with it. I can't stand waiting around for other people to make decisions."
Tracy Porter, whose Princeton, Wisconsin, company, Tracy Porter--The Home Collection, designs and licenses upscale home furnishings and accessories, lives by the mantra "Dream with your eyes open." For Porter, this is less a slogan than a description of her life. When she and her husband, John, moved to rural Wisconsin and started their business (then called Stonehouse Farm Goods) in 1991, they were in hot pursuit of a new lifestyle--one that touted such lofty goals as creating beauty and living with nature. Have eight years of hard experience made the Porters less idealistic? Just the opposite.
"Being satisfied means many things to us," says Tracy, 31. "It means that every day we're on an amazing journey. It means we're laughing no matter what is going on. It's about seeing everyone you work with grow in really wonderful ways, and knowing you've helped create a culture that's delicious to be in, surrounded by people who have their value systems firmly in place. We also find it satisfying to be able not only to put beautiful things into the marketplace, but to wrap a truly positive, encouraging and hopefully inspiring message around them as well."
Indeed, what's not to like about that?
"The key here is fulfillment," says corporate leadership advisor Marsha Sinetar, author of To Build The Life You Want, Create the Work You Love (St. Martin's Press). "When you're fully engaged in what you're doing, there is joy in the process and the outcome."
At The Helm
A second facet of fulfillment is control. Successful entrepreneurs have the power to make choices in their lives--about where they live, how they work and how their work impacts their lives. That's not to say entrepreneurs are enjoying a free-for-all, running their businesses from private yachts; taking 51-week vacations; and spending long, unfettered hours doting on their children. This is reality, after all.
But entrepreneurs aren't helpless, either--far from it. Deborah Rosado Shaw, 38, whose Chester, New Jersey, company, Umbrellas Plus LLC, specializes in designing and importing umbrellas, rain gear, beach chairs and children's patio furniture, sees power as central to her success. "I live a mile from my office," she says. "I have flexibility in my work--which doesn't mean I work less, but it means I can work on my own terms. I structure my life the way I want to structure it."
Shaw also explores new avenues of expression that have opened because of her success. In addition to running her multimillion-dollar company, she is an inspirational speaker and author of the forthcoming book Dream Big: Power Strategies for Women in Business. "I couldn't have [imagined] when I started [in 1987] that I'd be writing a book for Simon & Schuster or that I'd be making a lot of money from public speaking," says Shaw. "These are things I didn't even know I could do.
"Being an entrepreneur has given me choices," Shaw explains. "I started with nothing, in Spanish Harlem, and now I'm a self-made millionaire. I don't have to work another day in my life, and I'm 38 years old--that's power."
Drawing The Finish Line
Wielding power means different things to different entrepreneurs. Five years ago, at age 33, Greg Gianforte exercised the same power of choice when he and his partner sold their Tinton Falls, New Jersey, software company, Brightworks Development, for $10 million. "I loved being an entrepreneur, but I was on the road 75 percent of the time, and with a wife and small children, it just wasn't working," says Gianforte. The thrill was gone, but the adventure was only beginning.
After selling Brightworks, Gianforte and his wife were faced with the rare pleasure of constructing their future, choice by choice. They moved to Montana, "the most beautiful place in the world," by their estimation. And they took stock of their lives.
"At some point, we drew a finish line--the point at which we knew we'd had enough," says Gianforte. "It meant having enough money to send our kids to college, owning two cars, owning our home, and having enough money left over to dabble in start-ups without having to worry about putting food on the table. We were already there."
Although reaching the finish line didn't mark the end of Gianforte's career, it did provide necessary perspective. As Gianforte cast about for his next opportunity, and then his next, knowing he had crossed this bar was liberating.
The same holds true as young upstarts take their Internet companies public and raise instant fortunes in the process. When questioned about this phenomenon, Gianforte displays not a trace of envy. "When I see how many ruined lives and ruined families are coming out of the Silicon Valley, I can't help but think that greed isn't the answer," he says. "When your sense of self-worth is tied to your most recent stock price, you're in a very bad place."
"Individuals who find fulfillment measure themselves by their own yardsticks," observes Sinetar. "The more you can say `This is my ball game. I play by my rules,' the happier you'll be. Sophia Loren was once asked why she didn't attend more parties. Her reply was, `The party is where I am.' That's the attitude you're looking for."
To the extent that satisfaction comes from attaining goals and measuring worth, taking stock can be a good thing. This is why Dallmann sits down periodically to determine the "value" of her business. "Every year I open the books and look at everything I get out of my business--the money, the perks, the flexibility," she says. "Then I calculate what I would have to make as an employee to replace what I get from my business. It would be very difficult to find an employer who [could give me that]. Even setting aside the [emotional rewards] of being an entrepreneur, I couldn't replace what I do with a job. That's satisfying, too. I know I have the best I can have for me."
Of course, those words--"the best I can have"--are loaded with ambiguity. And perhaps the biggest coup among the entrepreneurs we spoke with was their ability to deal with the ambiguities of success.
For instance, while entrepreneurs report feeling satisfied with their progress, they don't equate satisfaction with being "finished." Beth Cross, 41, co-founder with 38-year-old Pam Parker of Ariat International Inc., a San Carlos, California, maker of high-performance athletic footwear for equestrians, describes her seven-year entrepreneurial experience as "incredibly fulfilling." At the same time, Cross acknowledges the fun has only just begun. "As you grow a company, your goals become more ambitious and expansive," she says. "We're already the fastest-growing company in our industry--by far. In five years, we're going to be the biggest as well."
Even the happiest success stories didn't come without frustration, however. Entrepreneurship isn't just hard work; it's hard. "There are days when you have to put on your makeup three times because you've ruined it by crying," laughs Shaw.
But even the daily challenges and rapid-fire demands of running a business don't necessarily prove discouraging. "You definitely have your challenges every day," Cross says. "But it's the mindset of the typical entrepreneur to look around obstacles and move forward. You become such an intense problem-solver that problems don't have much significance. And you don't go home at night disappointed."
All this is consistent with Sinetar's view of the entrepreneurial personality. "These are people who like to test their talents," she says. "They like to ask: `What kind of mettle do I have? What can I accomplish?' Entrepreneurs are constantly seeking a kind of stimulating advancement. They're always thinking about what's next."
The Money, Honey
Enjoying the process of growing a business--ambiguity, imperfections and all--is crucial to attaining satisfaction. If you don't like a good, gritty challenge, entrepreneurship isn't for you.
But embracing ambiguity also comes into play when the subject is money. In fact, money may be the cruelest yardstick of all. Dallmann sums it up precisely: "There are two sides to money. There's the money you need to survive--your bottom line. And then there's money as a mark of success. And on that side, there's a potential for never having enough. Any increase means an increase in your level of success."
So where do you draw the line? Developing a healthy attitude toward money is essential whether your business is floundering or flourishing--indeed, it can be most important in the midst of a boom. Todd Krizelman and Stephan Paternot, both 25, know a thing or two about the dual faces of fortune. As co-founders and co-CEOs of theglobe.com, an online community with about 2.5 million members, they've built their business from a virtual zero five years ago--sliding by with a $15,000 investment from friends and family, and by paying employees with pizza--to a hot commodity. The partners pulled off a successful initial public offering last year, enriching themselves and their investors by millions. And independent analysts project revenues of $20 million for the company this year, up from $5.5 million last year.
Krizelman and Paternot are hardly euphoric, however. "We understand why people might hear our story and think we're living a fairy tale," says Paternot. "But from our perspective, we've been working very, very hard. There have been a lot of miserable times when we didn't know what we were going to do. When you've gone through everything we've gone through, none of it seems like a fairy tale. An adventure, maybe--a tough adventure."
"Certainly, we've made more money for ourselves, our investors and our families than we expected we would," adds Krizelman. "But we're always battling to grow the company. When you have competition like we do, it's not enough to be fiscally satisfied."
"We certainly can't say we've made a few dollars and are ready to cash in," agrees Paternot.
Neither would most entrepreneurs, at age 20-something--perhaps even at any age. In an era of prosperity--and sometimes even great wealth--money takes on a subtler significance. Clearly, business isn't much fun without it. But even with lots of money, business is still business. It's about creating jobs, developing a team, producing a product and contributing to the world. Or it'd better be. Because money is too volatile a thing to be the sole bearer of satisfaction.
With New Eyes
On the other hand, there's no denying it: People are making money today. And it's naive to think that prosperity doesn't color the way we view our achievements, for better or worse.
In the early 1990s, entrepreneurship was a struggle, a contest. Economically, everything was. To declare success in such an environment was ungracious--and potentially deadly. Who would want to do business with a braggart?
Today--whether from economic abundance, millennial fever or even spiritual maturity--the very opposite view prevails. It's not because entrepreneurship has changed. There are still the daily crises, the endless hours, the sleepless worry. Growing a business is no easier or more elegant than it ever was. It's only our perspective that's changed.
These days, you can find Gianforte at his new venture, a software applications company called Right Now Technologies in Bozeman, Montana. The company, which helps businesses develop customer service functions for the Net, is in heavy growth mode. To date, Gianforte estimates Right Now's annual sales are about $4 million; he expects them to accelerate to $4 million per quarter in short order. His work force has blossomed from one employee in March 1998 to 90 currently. The idea, says Gianforte, is for the company to generate a significant percentage of the 2,000 software jobs Gianforte plans to create in Bozeman during his career.
Gianforte works hard. But he keeps his business travel to just two or three days a month. And he tries to keep sight of the blessings in his life: rewarding work, a strong family, a sense of purpose and ample money. He's not the most successful entrepreneur who's ever lived. But he's pretty happy, just the same.
In the old way of thinking, humility meant acknowledging the shortfalls--the money you didn't make, the mistakes you should have avoided, the dreams you had yet to achieve. Now it's the reverse. "My glass is half full," says Gianforte. "My life isn't perfect, but I can only do what I can do. And I don't want for anything." And that seems more like a statement of gratitude than hubris. Yes, we are hoping and striving for more. But we also see what is here, now, and the great fortune it represents.
"Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I used to be up all night worrying about the opportunities I'd missed--the account my competitor got, the press opportunity I missed, the product I saw at a trade show that should have been mine. Finally, I came to the realization that it was like standing at the base of Niagara Falls, trying to drink all the water. It was impossible. Now I visualize my job as standing at the top of the falls with a harpoon, waiting for the biggest salmon to go by. I can't do everything. I can't control it all. I can only do what I can do." - Greg Gianforte
"I teach small-business start-up classes, and I see a lot of people who have ideas but don't have the skills to start a business. My best advice is to go out and get the skills. When you're working hard and not making any money, that's when the resentment and frustration come in. It's wonderful to have your own business--to be able to create your own destiny. But without the money side of things in place, it's not realistic--or fun." - Barbie Dallmann
"I started [my business] at 20 with no experience, scared as hell. If I'd known [what it would be like], I would have said `No way.' It's like telling a kindergartner what he's going to be facing in high school. It's enough to make you want to stay in kindergarten forever." - Stephan Paternot
"Today I live an impossible future. When I started out, my little pea brain could not have imagined what I have now. It would have said `You'll never have that, Deborah. Don't even want it.' That's why--whatever the destination is in 10 or 15 years--I know I can't imagine it now." - Deborah Rosado Shaw
"[Entrepreneurs] are huge dreamers and brainstormers, but none of that really gets you anywhere without some action on the back end. Inevitably, that means challenges, frustrations, brick walls and humbling experiences along the way. But these are healthy, because not only do they keep you centered, but they also tend to be the times when you do some of your best thinking." - Tracy Porter
"No entrepreneur would [work this hard] unless [he or she] loved it. There's never a day when I look at my watch and say `It's 6:30--time to go.' When that day comes, I'll know it's time to get out." - Todd Krizelman
Ariat International Inc., 940 Commercial St., San Carlos, CA 94070, (800) 899-8141
the globe.com, 120 Broadway, 22nd Fl., New York, NY 10271, http:www.theglobe.com
Right Now Technologies, (406) 522-4200, http://www.rightnowtech.com
Sinetar & Associates, (707) 575-5555
Tracy Porter--The Home Collection, (920) 295-0142, email@example.com
Umbrellas Plus LLC, 154 Rte. 206, Chester, NJ 07930, (908) 879-7450.