Wantrepreneur is a derogatory term in the West. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists use it to describe people who like the idea of entrepreneurship, but fail at execution.
- Think that entrepreneurship is easy. Set your own schedule, be your own boss, you’re Facebook.
- Like the idea of being an entrepreneur. The identity of entrepreneur. The extroverted ones go to meetups and stuff and feel super cool, like they always have a great conversation piece.
- Think they have come up with an original idea and are terrified that someone will steal it. Their business is crippled by attempts to protect the idea, either through isolation or the black hole of patents. But they don’t google the idea to see if it already exists. And they direct no effort to validation or getting their first customer. And oftentimes, successful business takes a village that they can’t create if they don’t talk to anyone.
- Think that entrepreneurialism means being in control, often after a lifetime of feeling like they lack it. But true entrepreneurialism is about focusing on what they actually can control, which is typically only themselves.
Chapter 1: A Hustler
I started my first business in 6th grade selling lists of the hottest boys to local socialites. This was before printers, so it was a handwritten list that I updated whenever I felt like (usually weekly), and for $5, you could look at it.
Then I sold concert tickets. Which failed miserably because as it turns out, I was the only one willing to pay premium prices for tickets to sold out festivals and concerts. I had convinced my Dad to be an investor in this one, and I lost all of his money.
Fast forward through a bunch of shitty and not so shitty businesses to undergraduate school.
I thought that I needed this piece of paper to do real things and real businesses. I did not see it as an opportunity to explore, discover, experience, and learn, so I asked my Dad what I should major in. He said biochemistry, and at the time, it was an excellent choice. I ended up with biology, and it took over six years. It was here that I discovered that I’m not someone who can accomplish a goal that I don’t fully buy in to. Buy-in is so important!
Why do I want to go to college?
Because I was told that I needed it to get my ticket punched.
What is getting my ticket punched?
An easy ride.
Yeah, I was one of those. A super super senior. On the upside, in addition to Biology, I’d thoroughly meandered through English, Psychology, and Film.
But I desperately wanted that easy ride. And turns out, the path of least resistance results in a waaaay longer path.
Chapter 2: A Quitter
The search for the easy path started when I heard, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Instead of asking why this was true, I asked, “Why bother being strong at all? It sounds terrible. Let’s just avoid the trauma altogether.” I didn’t know about post-traumatic growth.
To me, the X-Men were the ultimate easy-riders. Xavier said to mutants, “Come live at my estate for free and be a hero because you won the genetic lottery of magical abilities and superhuman hotness.” I saw what I wanted to see, which wasn’t how powers were extremely challenging to control and being a hero meant persecution, fear, and loads of baggage. I saw Jean Grey as a badass, not as a target for love triangles, enemies, and cosmic entities. My filter blocked the broken bodies, death toll, and persistent tests of moral fiber and strength of will. Plus the time toiled away in the Danger Room, where everyone worked hard. I never saw their failures and how they just kept picking themselves back up and trying again.
Unfortunately, my lizard brain, after decades of denying my cravings for challenge, invented a self-defense mechanism I’ve named Self-Sabotage Sally. Whenever I’d lose sight of possibility, I’d quit.
The most tremendous instance of this was ARCBio. I was introduced to some folks at IBM who had a problem that I could solve. I didn’t know how to solve the problem, but I knew that I could. And after two months of figuring it out, I landed a year-long contract to do it.
At first, I wanted ARCBio to revolutionize in vitro (non-animal) testing. The European Union had just banned animal testing for cosmetics, and I wanted the US to do the same. But by the end of the first year, I burned myself out and got fat. By year two, I revolutionized non-animal testing, but didn’t share it with anyone because I didn’t think anyone respected or listened to fat women. I hated myself. In year three, I focused on maximizing shareholder profit. I was the only shareholder, so I had a pretty sweet lifestyle business. I ate my money. By the beginning of the fourth year, I could see myself doing ARCBio forever, but was miserable as hell. I refocused on scaling the business and hiring some full-time people to run the lab. But by the end of the year, I quit.
Here are a few of the thousand reasons why I chose to close ARCBio:
- I was so unhappy that my experiments were no longer reproducible. After spending years optimizing scientific protocols to the point of absolute reproducibility, all of my experiments failed. With clinical precision, I tested every single perimeter to figure out what was going wrong. At the end of the day, the common denominator was me.
- I was a horrible boss who made an intern cry through an email. I was the villain.
- One of the people I was working with was incredibly toxic and we all knew it. He’d spent years 2-3 blaming me for a mistake that he finally confessed to (he hadn’t taken good enough lab notes…::facepalm::). He was brilliant, which is why he was kept around, but he and I were like, “oil and water.” IBM was my biggest customer, and I worked with other groups, but I couldn’t see a way to avoid him.
- I had fallen out of love with the life sciences after hearing the same story for the twentieth time:
“I found the cure to cancer and big pharma bought it up. I thought they were going to bring it through clinical trials because I couldn’t, but they locked up the cure and threw away the key.”
The same went for diabetes and others too. I was heartbroken and jaded. Other things about the life sciences were crushing including the regulation and corruption. I swore off the whole industry.
- I hated California. But the business was in California, and I couldn’t see a way to move it elsewhere.
California was a whole other story.
I lived in San Jose, my first time living in a big city. This part is going to be very not PC, but this was my experience. Skip down to Chapter 3 if you’re from Seattle.
In Baltimore, people of color are so frequently and publicly beat down (figuratively and literally), that you can give unwanted attention a single look, and they would start heading the other way. To this day, I cannot imagine what it is like for super attractive women who are constantly threatened and harassed physically and verbally. To this day, I cannot imagine what it is like for people of color who are constantly oppressed and disempowered.
But I digress. In Baltimore, I felt like I had power and control because of my white-looking privilege. San Jose was completely different, where I was a target.
In Man Jose, men outnumbered the women 1.23 to 1. One-third was Hispanic and one-third was Asian or Asian Indian. It was a tough place to be a woman, where I would get the same attention I got in Baltimore except these men were relentless. I was seen as a white hole that could be captured with a wide enough net and enough intimidation, heckling, and body-shaming. Not a great selling point for diversity. Perhaps they should include an equity workshop with every work visa.
But I digress.
I was at dinner with a Korean and two Indians. One of the Indians said that he was only in the US to fool around, and that if he got a white girl, great. But if not, whenever he was ready, he would call his mom and ask for a wife. She’d send him a binder with Facebook-like profiles of all the suitable girls in his village, and he would pick one. Did the girls have a choice? Yes, but they never said no. The other Indian guy chimed in and agreed. Ultimately, they did not see women as equals, but as something to be acquired. The Korean guy was jealous.
Another time, I was downtown at night when an Indian guy yelled at me across the street. He was with his friends, and when I smiled and shook my head, he yelled, “Whatever. You are fat and disgusting anyway.” And this was my experience in San Jose time and time again.
The Hispanics would drive alongside me in their unmarked, white vans while commenting on my appearance out their window. As a single, white-looking female in a big city for the first time, my mind would run with the horrific possibilities. The best case scenario was when they’d just yell at me and drive away. Other times, I’d have to walk to places other than my home until they went away. The same went for when we were both on the street, but they were much more aggressive when in their vehicle.
I didn’t know how to handle any of this and didn’t have any friends or support. I would have nightmares and was afraid to go to sleep or leave the house at night. I constantly strategized escape and fight scenarios.
At some point, I got so fat that the harassment stopped. Then I’d be told I was fat and disgusting, so I’d start to lose weight. Then I’d get fit, receive unwanted attention, and would binge eat again. This was a vicious cycle. Well, it still is. Damned if I’m fit, damned if I’m not. And I let it cripple myself and ARCBio.
Chapter 3: A Wantrepreneur and a Hypocrite
When I first moved to Seattle, I spent a year and a half working on over 100 businesses. I used to say that as if I was bragging, like I’d defeated 100 businesses.
During the era of 100 businesses, I found myself overwhelmed and stressed. When I counted, I realized I was working on 9 different projects, both with others and individually. I was unfocused and there were always reasons to not do something.
- I didn’t want to do a STEAM coworking space because two people I respected didn’t give me its blessing, Seattle already had 37 coworking spaces at the time, and a well-publicized and funded makerspace had recently failed.
- I didn’t want to do decorative, portable plastic raincoats because plastic. And plastic is based on the petroleum industry and so on. And I’m not going to do better than China.
- I didn’t want to do purse inserts because they’re already a thing. And I’m not going to do better than China.
- I didn’t want to pursue Refreshing Renton because all of the industry people I spoke with gave me dozens of reasons why it wouldn’t work. I wanted Washington to be the first VOC-free state. Turns out, I was too early because a year later, almost all new Seattle buildings were tested for indoor air pollution and VOC’s.
- I didn’t want to do Caffeine Vape because of, well, the target demographic. It felt wrong. Turns out, caffeine vapes are now a thing.
- I didn’t want to do a restaurant that focused exclusively on business lunches with inhalable cocktails that had you buzzed in seconds and sober in 15 minutes. Because food was hard.
There are tons more that can be found in countless pro formas, pictures of whiteboarding, lean canvasses, and Evernote’s up the wazoo. A lot of them are at Ideas from Last Night, a graveyard for my killed ideas. You’ll find that most of them are now real businesses run by other people.
After watching this happen over and over again, my Dad finally worked up the courage to ask me something that had been bugging him. I’ll paraphrase.
Are you a wantrepreneur?
There are two things to point out here.
- Validation of an idea didn’t mean whether or not it worked. I never had any doubt that any business I wanted to do would be successful. But what I did doubt was whether or not a business was for me. Tim Urban of Wait But Why points out that every economic revolution has people freaking out about what to do with their lives – create widgets or come up with something new? For me, it was also, “Is this what I want to do for the next five years?” And, “Is this going to make a big enough impact on the world?”
- I also noticed that when I got serious enough about a business to have a cofounder, my cofounder would often leave to become an employee. I have a graveyard of cofounder agreements. I don’t know what the problem was. Was I getting the cofounder too early? Was I picking the wrong cofounders? Was it me?
I can recognize a wantrepreneur more easily than I think others can for two reasons.
- I was a wantrepreneur to the tune of 100 businesses.
- During this time, I did pro-bono small business consulting at Impact Hub, a coworking space in Seattle. I did paid work for small businesses too, but they were already up and running. I really thought that I could help founders, but soon became frustrated at the inaction. They would talk on and on about their idea, would say they’d do the next step, and never would. The most popular was due diligence or a pro forma. Have you googled to see if anyone else is doing this? Have you made a pro forma to see how this could meet your financial expectations? I realized that this procrastination was not only a form of self sabotage, but a self-defense mechanism. It’s easier to imagine being an entrepreneur than to find out that the idea your whole future hinges on won’t work. By the way, no one’s whole future hinges on one idea.
Chapter 4: A Student
So I decided to give school another shot and do it right this time. No more easy ways out for me!
I joined a Sustainability MBA program with a heavy emphasis on leadership and personal development.
From this, I finally got that I could have it all: positive environmental, social, and economic impact. But it had to start with figuring out my own shit.
Here are a few things I’ve learned these past two months:
- Once I figure something out, I lose interest. No matter how much I think the world needs it. And come hell or high water, I won’t bring it to the world or finish. The best of example of this was when I was holding women’s events. I discovered that most of my attendees were looking to make a career transition. So I informational interviewed and researched my way to the secret sauce of a successful career transition. But my writing didn’t keep up with my learning, so it just sits on my Evernote and a few blog posts.
- Someone on my school team thought I should bring more of my own experience to the table. At first, I was like wah. My experience is mostly in the life sciences. And we don’t do any life sciences. But now I realize that I tend to just translate my experience and skills immediately into action. Then, I communicate the action with no explanation.
- I have a fear of abandonment in teams. For years, I peeled myself like an onion only to discover that my fear of abandonment started when I was a baby. My Mom had read a baby book that said she should never pick me up when I cried, because otherwise I would never be independent. Sadly, this was incredibly damaging, even though my Mom had the best intentions. What I didn’t know was how this manifests itself when I’m working with other people who I deeply care about. I will do absolutely fantastic work for the first half. Then I will react to an externality such as competing commitments or negative feedback, hopelessly decide that I’ve let everyone down, and will hide lest I screw up things even more. I will communicate the whole time and complete my work, but it won’t be my best and every task feels like an avalanche. Others will be supportive, but I won’t hear it. Because…
- I don’t hear or remember good things. I literally filter and forget them. For example, shortly after Trump got elected, I was leading Circle at school. When it was over, I spent half the day pondering what I’d done wrong and what I could have done better. While talking with a classmate about this, she stopped me and asked, “Do you not remember when [the cofounder and Director of the school] thanked you, talked about how much of a difference this had made for him, and everyone clapped for you?” Suddenly the memory came back. But I don’t remember the other times.
- I want to save the world from climate change. It is my deepest desire. But I am doing nothing to fight climate change right now, and it’s all rooted in ego. I just want to be the hero.
- Nothing makes my heart swell more than heros. Like Dumbledore’s Army or the Order of the Phoenix. Or all of Hogwarts in The Deathly Hallows Part II. I watched all of Harry Potter over the holidays and it was glorious.
- I’m a liar.
- I’m a hypocrite.
My latest experiment.
Chapter 5: A Balance
I have an undisciplined pursuit of more.
But by having an undisciplined pursuit of more, I’ve ended up with less.
What we have here is a balancing feedback loop. A problem presents a challenge. The greater the challenge, the greater the impact. The greater the impact, the greater my interest in it. The more interested I am, the more I strategize. The more I strategize, the more actions I come up with. The more actions I try, the more solutions I come up with. The more solutions there are, the less challenging the problem.
If we started with a less challenging problem, the whole loop would repeat again with less challenging, so less impactful, so less interesting, so I quit. I’m not enough of a perfectionist to do a third redo to include the quitting, but just know that there’s a line that goes out of Interest to something like Rate of Quitting.
My goal is to stick with something, so I want to turn this balancing feedback loop into a reinforcing loop.
What are the leverage points? What variables do I focus on?
For starters, I’ve found 100 problems and didn’t commit to any of them. There’s no shortage of problems. If I redid this again, Problem could be a stock with unlimited supply.
Next, I’ve definitively proven, at least in my mind, that I love, love, love challenge. No more easy ways out for me!
Impact is tough. I can’t save the world, at least not singlehandedly. And knowing how systems work, it can’t be by doing one thing. Since it’s the challenge that influences the impact, maybe the challenge needs to be big enough that problems need to have a constant flow.
Oh, shit. I just realized that the goal of this system is to be heroic. Yikes!
Okay, okay. Here’s a redo. Click to enlarge.
I find out about these challenges and once I understand them and have solutions, sometimes I’ll go straight to feeling heroic and QUIT. Wtf.
So, the leverage point is somewhere around ideas to tackle the challenge. Feelings can be pretty powerful, but in this case they’re causal!
Time to head to work. Happy New Year!