To Get Through COVID-19, Entrepreneurs Need to Embrace These 2 Truths
There are only two certainties in an entrepreneur's life -- and they can help us get through anything.
Here’s how it all fell apart for me.
It was mid-March, and I was told my kids’ school will close for at least three weeks (yeah, right). My wife and I packed the car with food, toys, laptops and a few other essentials. We drove to my mother-in-law’s house, where there’s at least some space to run around. Between nervous walks and attempts at playing amateur epidemiologist, I hid out in a closet, on phone calls with my publisher, trying to salvage the book that I had been working on for two and a half years, due out in late April.
At that point, everything was unknown. Book tour events and talks were being canceled, but would they ever be rescheduled? Would the printer be able to print the books? Would the warehouse be able to ship them? And if so, to who? My speaking agency, which arranges the talks that account for more than half of my annual income, sent out a letter essentially saying, “Hang tight; we are in uncharted waters.” I gazed at the money in my bank account. Each morning I woke up and felt a growing tightness in the center of my chest. I called my doctor to see if I should get a COVID-19 test. “What you’re describing is stress,” he said, reassuring me that I have no other symptoms. “You need to breathe.”
I had never felt so powerless in my life. For entrepreneurs — all of us who work for ourselves in some capacity — this can feel like the moment we’re least prepared for. Most entrepreneurs are underfunded, unsupported and far too emotionally tied to our businesses to face this alone.
But then I realized something. This is also the moment we’re most prepared for — because we have always been self-directed and forced to survive by being resourceful. We can work from home with children dangling off our arms, in sweatpants, and find opportunity where others see none.
The only way entrepreneurs will get through this is by embracing our two core truths — the only two certainties in an entrepreneur’s life. They’re not money, fame, innovation or disruption. They are this: risk and freedom. You cannot have one without the other, and so an entrepreneur must have both.
Right now, the risk of entrepreneurship is being laid bare. When we chose this life, we knew something catastrophic could happen — the results of an unpredictable income, and the toll it all takes on your ego, your relationships and your health. We knew there’d be no sick pay. No unemployment benefits. No company to provide us with resources or support or a pension plan. We knew we would often have to work late into the night from home, taking calls in the closet if need be.
We have always been on our own. Were any of us truly surprised at how various government promises of help for entrepreneurs and small business have fallen disappointingly short? Please. The only ones who are going to get us out of this is ourselves.
That’s where the second part comes in: It’s the entrepreneur’s freedom. Freedom is our payoff from the cost of the risk. The freedom to pursue ideas however we want. The freedom to work on the things that have meaning, to chase opportunities as they come up, to make up a job and define it in the way we feel. To take control of life through our work, without anyone’s permission. That’s the intoxicating promise of entrepreneurship, and it is the one that ultimately draws every single entrepreneur into her arms, despite the obvious risks that entails.
To get through this crisis, we now have to double down on that freedom. We have to try new things, create opportunities, pivot, shift, experiment and swing for the fences. We need to find a way to move forward. And from what I’ve seen so far this past month, that is exactly what we are doing.
When this began, my friend Fred Sztabinski, who owns a bike café in Toronto called Fix, instantly shifted to a takeout window for coffee and food; then, when that didn’t feel safe for his staff, he began delivering coffee beans to homes by bike, and found a way to continue offering bike repairs with an outdoor drop-off point, online payments and sanitized equipment. Jaime Harris, another friend who makes leisurewear under the brand This is J, started designing masks a few weeks ago that she plans to give away with purchases of her bamboo pajamas. Bill Levey put his environmentally friendly water bottle company NAECO on hold and started Give Masks, a nonprofit organization that donates personal protective equipment to healthcare workers all over America. My wife, Lauren Malach, a career coach, shifted to host free seminars on resilience, open to anyone.
None of these entrepreneurs plan to get rich on these ideas. In many cases they’re losing money. But they all felt compelled to do something, and they did it, because they had the freedom to act. They took the powerlessness they experienced at the start of this — the panic and fear that gripped them as their income dried up and their identity as entrepreneurs were threatened — and they turned it into power. They embraced the risk and ploughed ahead.
The essence of the entrepreneur’s freedom has always been action. That is what makes us entrepreneurs. It has nothing to do with hashtags and startups or even ideas. Entrepreneurship is, and will always be, the freedom to act when you need to, and the risks that come with that. No excuses. No permission needed. It is the ability to go out there and sell something, make a living, survive, thrive and reclaim the one thing in this uncertain world that you can control: what you do with it.
Let me take you back to the second week of this endless spring, when the shock died down a bit. One morning I woke up seized with ideas: Articles I could write about entrepreneurs and what they are going through now. Plans for virtual book tour events. A long list of people to reach out to and harass with marketing schemes. A campaign to celebrate everyday entrepreneurs. A podcast. Another book I could sell! I started writing emails and making calls, and a few days later was back at work, too busy to worry about the world or what I would do. My chest felt fine. I could breathe again.
There is still no guarantee of success for any of this. I haven’t seen a cent yet from this work and probably most of these ideas will fail. But I took action and regained control. I accepted the risk and embraced the freedom I will always have as an entrepreneur.
I had no choice. It’s what we do.
Want more? David Sax's new book is The Soul of an Entrepreneur: Work and Life Beyond the Startup Myth.