A recent study, featured in an opinion piece by Bloomberg’s Noah Smith, found that entrepreneurs make more money (and earn a better financial return) than salaried workers after taking into consideration their lifetime earnings.
“The lifetime risk-return tradeoff of starting a business looks pretty attractive after all,” he writes. But there is one dilemma, he notes. That is, if people can make more money over a lifetime running a business, why don’t more do it?
Oh, I’ll tell you why, Noah. It’s because running a business can suck. I should know. I’ve been running a business for more than 20 years. Even though I wouldn’t want to be working for anyone and I enjoy the control it gives me and the money I make, I get why many people would prefer not to be a business owner. Want some examples?
1. I deal with collections every day.
Every. Day. We have hundreds of clients and most of them are small- and medium-sized companies. People think nothing of just not paying, or waiting until my bookkeeper calls them for payment. Some unapologetically send in money months after services were performed and our invoice was due.
As a small business, my open invoice is well down the list of “must-pays” for my clients, stuck behind bigger, more important suppliers, credit-card companies, salaries and country-club fees, so I often have to fight for the money that was promised or be compared to the devil if I dare to withhold services or products until payment is made. I can’t win.
2. Speaking of promises, those get broken a lot too.
Go ahead, have lunch with any person who’s been running a small business for more than 10 years and you’ll meet someone beaten down by hundreds of broken promises. Ever wonder why some business owners become naysayers and skeptics? It comes from years of dealing with people who lie without remorse: employees not showing up for work when they said they would, suppliers not delivering on time, customers not paying, prospects suddenly getting cold feet, vendors changing agreed-on prices, partners not holding up their end, contractors making dumb mistakes. Did I mention customers not paying?
It's rare to find people who actually, always, consistently do what they say they will do. Everyone else just causes headaches to the business owner.
3. The hours can be killer.
Sometimes I go to a larger client and am amazed how the place clears out by 5:01 p.m. “I work to live, not the other way around,” a person who works there told me. Good for her. Me? It’s the other way around.
Yes, I do have more control over my hours (a big reason why I love being a business owner), but in the end I’m literally on call 24 hours a day. Every problem ultimately affects my bank account which means that every problem is my problem, regardless of when it occurs and who caused it.
Vacations, weekends and holidays are workdays for a business owner. I can never just leave things alone. I don’t have one boss -- I have hundreds, demanding services immediately. I have competitors standing by, waiting for me to screw up. Ask any business owner: no one just leaves their business behind at the end of the day. It’s always on our minds.
4. The government is often a headache.
From yearly tax increases, health care costs, overtime pay rules, paid time off, treatment of independent contractors, department of labor regulations, state audits, local permits to workmen’s compensation claims, a huge amount of time and resources are spent by business owners dealing with the government.
Every time there’s a new rule with the intention of making life better for employees, it usually means more paperwork, more documentation, more stress and more cost pressures on a business owner. After working weekends and nights for decades, taking risks, losing sleep and (at least in my case) lots of hair, it would be nice to enjoy the fruits of entrepreneurship instead of giving almost half of it back to the government in the form of taxes, fees, duties, levies, tolls and the added expenses of being a good employer.
It can really get a guy down sometimes.
5. We worry about the abyss.
What if there are no sales next year? What if the economy suddenly tanks? Or that big box retailer opens up down the street or someone else comes up with a better product? What if our competitors come up with a way to provide services and products much cheaper than ours? What if a key employee leaves or another employee slips in my lobby and sues me? What if a customer injures himself using one of my products or gets sick eating at my restaurant?
It all falls on the business owner. Sure, there’s insurance. But insurance doesn’t cover your reputation and it doesn’t protect against acts of God (or the Federal Reserve). We worry, worry, worry about this because our employees, partners, customers, vendors and their families, not to mention ours, rely on the decisions we make for their own livelihoods. It’s a lot of pressure.
I’m not complaining about business ownership. I’m just stating the facts. In life, nothing is as good as it seems and nothing is as bad as it seems. It’s all about attitude. So if you’re thinking of running a business, you better have the right attitude. Because there are a lot of reasons why owning a business can suck, and maybe that’s the reason why most people don’t do it, regardless of the potential earnings.