Being an entrepreneur — an owner, a starter, a founder — is pretty sexy right now. It’s seen as being a job with freedom, flexibility, control, and enormous money-making potential. These days, it’s seemingly every millennial’s dream to start and run a successful company. Everyone wants to be a CEO and pitch to billionaire investors on Shark Tank.
Entrepreneurship is seen as the best way to secure a great and fulfilling career, bar none.
What’s often missing from this picture, however, are the downsides of being your own boss.
When you peel away the shiny veneer of entrepreneurial life, it’s an exhausting role that requires long hours, great personal investment (of both time and money), and far more stress than your average gig. As CEO, you’re the one dealing with lawsuits, paying taxes, firing or laying off employees, filling in menial administrative tasks, and really, well, everything. There’s pretty much no clocking out time. Ever. Especially in the early stages.
Yet even when people are at least somewhat cognizant of these downsides, they still try to force themselves into taking that route. Even when their heart’s not in it — they don’t want to put in the hours, they don’t have a solid business idea, and they’re always planning rather than executing — they still beat themselves up over this fact.
Why? Because they fear the alternative even more.
Many men only see two options for their career: 1) being their own boss, or 2) working for the man, grinding it it out as an employee in some deadening, unfulfilling, soul-sucking job.
Fortunately, this is a truly false dichotomy.
It’s in fact very possible to have all the makings of a great, satisfying job and the majority of the benefits of being an entrepreneur while still working for someone else. As long as you find a job with the 4 P’s.
The 4 P’s of a Fulfilling Job
According to Noah Kagan — who, though a founder of multiple companies himself, acknowledges “being a founder actually kind of sucks” — being an employee can be just as good a gig as being an entrepreneur, as long as your job excels in 4 categories: Product, Purpose, Pay, and People.
I personally think Product can actually be subsumed into Purpose; the output or service you help facilitate through your work is inextricably tied into its overarching meaning. I think, too, that another “P” can be added in its place: Position — the role you play and your day-to-day functions.
To find out what these categories mean, I interviewed Noah for his insights. If you don’t feel like starting your own company is for you, it’s still possible to secure employment that’s just as satisfying as entrepreneurship, if you look for the following Ps:
Purpose: You care about the product, service, and/or mission of the company.
People are drawn to starting their own business because the service/product is often something they’re passionate about. That’s all well and good, but you can also seek employment with a company that’s already doing something you care about, and has the infrastructure in place to continue doing it for many years. That’s a far easier path than starting from scratch. Noah told me that he always looked for jobs with companies with a great product or mission (and he worked for many of them!), and only started his own companies when he truly couldn’t find anyone that was providing what he wanted.
Understand that even if a lot of people think a certain company or job is “cool,” it may not personally line up with your unique interests and values. When Noah worked for Facebook in their games department, part of him felt like he should feel lucky to work for such a cool, “relevant,” well-known company. And the other people in the department indeed loved being there; they thought it was just plain fun, and they enjoyed bringing a smile to people’s faces through games. But, Noah hated it. Facebook games annoyed him to no end, and because the purpose of his job didn’t personally resonate, the job wasn’t fulfilling.
It’s a lot easier to come to work every day when you believe in what a company is doing. It’s more enjoyable to do your job when you feel that, even in small ways, you’re working at something that makes people’s lives a little better, healthier, or just more fun.
Position: You enjoy most of your day-to-day tasks and job functions.
So you’ve found a company that has a mission you really align with; do you also have a job function that you enjoy? Do you find fulfillment in your day-to-day tasks?
Many would-be entrepreneurs think the day-to-day work of being a founder is far more glamorous than it really is. Rather than being in meetings with important prospects and doing creative, big-picture dreaming and blueprinting, the reality is a bit more dull. You end up doing those things to some extent, but more of your time is taken up with administrative tasks, legal business, accounting and HR work, and answering emails and phone calls out the wazoo. It’s more like 80% busywork and 20% fun, big picture company-building.
Being an employee with more of a niche title may better suit your skills and interests, and actually significantly increase the amount of time you spend on fulfilling tasks. Even if that title is somewhat generic — like “Manager” — you still have a more narrow framework for your daily and weekly tasks than a business owner. You have more of a defined purpose and role. While no job will be 100% fun or fulfilling, if the core of what you do is enjoyable, you’re in a good position.
Rather than being fooled into thinking that being an entrepreneur is all fun and games and day-to-day freedom, seek out roles that are a little more defined and that actually line up with where your skills and interests intersect.
Pay: You’re paid what you’re worth.
A large part of job satisfaction is feeling like you’re being paid what you’re worth and in line with what you offer your company. This may seem shallow at first blush, but that’s just the truth of it. As Brett learned from Jonathan Clements, money does in fact buy happiness (up to a certain point, of course).
If you think being an entrepreneur would net you more cash than working for the man, think again. It can take years — in Noah’s case a full decade — before you’re making more money than you would as an employee somewhere. And in that decade, you could have moved up the ladder to a high-paying managerial or executive position. In fact, the average salary for entrepreneurs is declining, and is now lower than the average middle manager’s salary.
How do know if you’re being compensated well? Payscale.com, salary.com, and glassdoor.com offer good looks at average salaries for various industries and geographic locations. A New Yorker’s salary will be higher than your Midwest salary, but cost of living in NYC is also wayyy higher. Another factor to consider is your benefits package. Vacation, health care and other insurance, retirement contributions, and additional benefits can be worth up to 30% of your salary. So for a $50,000/year salary, your benefits would be another $15,000 or so, making your total compensation $65,000. Take those numbers into account when considering jobs and the various benefits packages they offer (if they offer benefits at all).
While there’s no single number that will satisfy everyone’s salary and lifestyle desires, it should be noted that research shows that your day-to-day happiness and well-being plateaus once you make about $75,000 a year. Keep that number in mind when considering which types of jobs you’re going after (also keep in mind that that number goes much further in Omaha than in San Fran — you’ll have to do some cost of living calculations in that case).
People: How are your coworkers? Are they hard-working? Kind?
If you’ve been in toxic work environments, or on the other hand very pleasant workplaces, you know how important the people around you are to your job satisfaction. You spend 40+ hours a week with your coworkers, just during scheduled work time. When you factor in lunch breaks, networking events, and company social outings, many folks are spending more time with coworkers than their own family. That makes for some pretty miserable days and weeks if your coworkers are disrespectful, mean-spirited, lazy, or just plain unpleasant.
When you’re the boss, though, you have the ultimate say on who comprises your team. You can be sure that everyone you hire will be not only hard-working and trustworthy, but fun too. Right?
If only it were that easy! Hiring people is remarkably difficult. Someone can be a great interviewee for an hour, then turn out to be a bad employee. The opposite can also be true; someone who didn’t interview well and didn’t get the job may have been an excellent employee. The reality is that you won’t know how your team gels until they’ve been at it for a little while.
As the boss, you also have some intrinsic separation from your team. You can’t really be their friend or their peer (except in unique cultures, and sometimes very small operations). And unfortunately in a startup, layoffs can be common, which will fall on your shoulders.
When you’re an employee rather than an owner, you can commiserate and enjoy camaraderie with coworkers on a level that just isn’t the same. It’s like the difference between military officers and enlisted men; the latter are expected to be friendly with their men, but not get too familiar. They have to stay a little aloof while the men on the ground cut loose and form deep bonds. It can be lonely at the top.
While you may think that being an entrepreneur is the only way to end up with a good team around you (because you’re in control, dangit!), that’s just not the case. There are a lot of great companies out there that are full of great people. And the reality is that no matter where you are, there are bound to be both good apples and bad. Even when you’re the one in charge.
Applying the 4 Ps With Nuance and Good Sense
If you can find a job with all 4 of the above P’s, you’ll have almost certainly landed a gig that’s just as good (and maybe better) than being an entrepreneur. But it’s important to note that you don’t have to have all these things in place right at the outset of starting a job (and maybe ever).
First of all, a certain P can take awhile of being on the job to come online. For example, while you may find a company that already has a Purpose you’re passionate about, you might also find that you become passionate about a job after you’ve been at it awhile, and find mastery in that field. You may not initially think you’re interested in a certain area, but come to find out later you are. Or, even if you never become passionate about the field per se, you may become passionate about simply doing a good job in it. You come to find a Purpose in the job that you didn’t see when you started.
This is especially true of career fields that aren’t “cool,” but can offer opportunities for satisfying work. For example, a plumber won’t necessarily love wading around in people’s crap, but he’ll enjoy honing his trade, and become interested in solving stressful problems for homeowners and businesses, and successfully troubleshooting complex issues. It’s possible to find real purpose, even in the absence of “passion.”
A second consideration to keep in mind is that if 3 of the 4 P’s are really strong, it may not matter, at least for awhile, if one is missing. For example, you may not believe strongly in the company’s Purpose, but if you’re compensated well and enjoy your coworkers, that may be enough for you to be satisfied and even really enjoy your job.
Finally, it’s possible for a job to start out having all 4 P’s, but then lose some as your coworkers change, your responsibilities shift, or the fulfillment you find in your tasks ebbs over time. In fact this scenario is rather likely!
When this kind of situation arises, many people will just call it quits and start looking for a new job or think about starting their own business. I’d suggest a different path though. If you like the company you work for and other P’s are satisfied, talk to your supervisor or your HR department to see if your role can take on some new responsibilities; or maybe you can change titles altogether and do something completely different with new people. Your first efforts should always be internal rather than external; as Commander Whitehead wisely noted, “Sometimes a lateral move provides the solution.”
Popular culture would have you believe that if you don’t become an entrepreneur, you’re doomed to the life of a bored, unsatisfied, underpaid worker drone. But in reality, while going into business for yourself can be a great path for some, it’s equally possible to find a fulfilling career working for someone else.
Be sure to listen to our podcast with career coach Joseph Liu for even more insight: