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How I became an entrepreneur (and why I may not stay one)

By Jim Flannery | September 13, 2016 | 1 Comment

Sometimes people ask me how I ended up down the career-path I’ve taken of being an entrepreneur.  I can tell you almost exactly when it happened – when it clicked – that this is “who I am” or “who I want to be.”

I was a senior in college studying biomedical engineering and was taking an elective course called “Intellectual Assets.” I often joke that I got a $160,000 education which consisted of a bunch of stuff I could have learned on YouTube plus this one course which probably made the biggest impact on my education that I could never put a price on.

The scope of the Intellectual Assets course was to cover 1) the creative process, 2) patents, and 3) starting a business.  I was attracted to the class mainly because of my interest in exploring creativity. It is an aspect of my mind that I try to strengthen as much as possible.  At the time, I’d felt my creative-side had been restricted and stifled as I spent most of my formal education focusing on science, math, and engineering which (unfortunately) are fields that often don’t emphasize creativity.

In our class, we studied some of the great inventors like Thomas Edison and some of the great “invention-workshops” like Bell Labs and IBM. Part of our assignment was to keep an “Invention Log” – a journal of ideas that we had for inventions.  This felt very natural for me, back then I had a wall in my apartment that was called the “Wall of High-deas” which was dedicated to papers filled with wacky ideas I’d come with while I was high. It’s no surprise that none of them manifested into anything valuable aside from being an interesting conversation piece at parties and a unique approach to wallpaper. I’ve learned that novelty alone doesn’t create value.

The fact that I had this zany wall was evidence that I had some desire within me to have valuable, unique ideas come from me. The course began to show me that there was actual a career path in there.  It aligned with me interest in science and engineering but the job title was not scientist or engineer…. the title for the job I wanted was “inventor.”  I dreamed of building something which would not exist if it wasn’t for me.  That seemed to be what inventors did – and ideally it would be an invention that would change the lives of millions (or billions) for the better.

While the Invention Log I kept for my Intellectual Assets course was a private, self-reflective process, we also learned about creative collaboration as a team.  One particular thing we learned in the creative process was to separate the brainstorming and filtering stages.  The idea is this: during a brainstorming session you come up with any and all ideas without judgment.  You want to be outside the box to the point of absurdity – that’s completely all right.  In this stage, there is no room for judgment only an expansion of your mind.  You’re not allowed to say “no”.  Some may be familiar with the “yes, and” philosophy – I’d say that the brainstorming stage takes that philosophy to the extreme.

It is during a later session where you start eliminating the crappy ideas for inventions. Those that don’t provide any value, are impossible to execute, are not fun, etc. This filtering stage is less fun but is still exciting because you start to believe in yourself that some of the shit you’ve stewed up is legit. It is also fun to play the “is this impossible to execute” game with crazy ideas.

At this stage, you started with an idea.  Maybe it’s a new household appliance, a way to detect cavities, an organic deodorant, a revolutionary app (of course it’s an app!), a board game, who knows.  A –now you have a patent.  What does an inventor do next?

I learned the next stage is to get a patent on your idea. To legally protect it, to own it, maybe to name it after yourself.  A patent gives you about a 20 year period where you are the only person to use your idea to make money. Keep in mind it’s doesn’t need to be a physical invention, software counts too, though they are harder to get patents on.

After you have a patent, now what do you do?  You find a way to bring your invention to life. You want it to be real. You want people to use it. You want to change the world! This is where a realization came. As it turns out, being an inventor really meant being an entrepreneur.  There was once a time where the job title “Inventor” existed but it really seemed that in order to bring an idea to life, you needed to start a company to develop, produce, and sell your invention.

I realized what I really wanted with my life was to build something that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for me. And I learned being an inventor required being an entrepreneur.

I had been studying science and engineering for some reason… was it really to work on someone else’s project?  I could never really see myself truly happy doing that. It didn’t feel like it was “mine.” There is an arrogance or naivety that must be present for that believe in this. Naivety feels more innocent, so let’s stick with that.

Everything that followed was a natural extension. I found a classmate who I worked well with who was an engineer minoring in business and said “Let’s do what I learned in class. Let’s brainstorm ideas.  We filter down the best ones.  We get a patent.  We start a business.”  There was nothing else professionally that even remotely compared to the excitement of this route.  The alternatives everyone around me seemed to be pursuing was 1) go to graduate school to get a Ph.D. where I’d spend 5 years working on a project I didn’t get to choose in advance and 2) going to work at an engineering company  where I’d have no idea even what the project would be? Where I’d be just another piece in a large puzzle?

I naively or arrogantly believed I was destined for better things.  Or maybe capable of better things.

So my friend and I chose a different path and we didn’t look back.  Keep in mind this was in 2008, startups didn’t seem to be quite as fashionable back then.  We had no idea what we were doing and there wasn’t an instruction manual. We took in all the information we could. We read about entrepreneurship.  Took classes and workshops.  Went to events.  We read.  We found mentors when possible.  We made it up as we went along.  And I can’t imagine having done it any other way.

So that’s the evolution: I started off being good at science, math, and engineering…  That led me to realize I wanted to be an inventor…. which led me to realize that I wanted to be an entrepreneur.

There remains a doubt in my mind about this path. At the moment, it feels like the greatest way to make an impact in the world is through entrepreneurship.  Building something that changes the world.  But over time I’ve wondered if there are different paths.  I’ve observed that there are different ways to change the world – to be influential.  Maybe what I really want is not necessarily to build something but, as the slogan read on the walls of the engineering build in college, instead to “change the way the world works.”

If the goal is to change the way the world works, then what I am really after is to be influential. I would argue (in another blog post) that the issues with society are not technological but social.  If that is the case, there are routes to change the world which don’t involve entrepreneurship.

Teaching, for example, is a way to change the world without building or selling a product. I’ve done some teaching and tutoring in many difference capacities and love it.  I think education is a tremendously impactful use of my time. Many artists and entertainers also find ways of being influential in the world – that set me down the road of pursuing stand-up comedy. I’ve even looked into politics and law – two things I generally would have despised – but maybe the way to change the world is through changing public policy. The point is, all of these alternatives to entrepreneurship exist and maybe I’d make a bigger difference pursuing them. The wanna-be-polymath in me says I can do all of these in some combined format but being a jack-of-all-trades may not be effective.

There is another face of doubt to my choice to be an entrepreneur.  Over time I’ve started learning more about consciousness, the Universe, spirituality, mysticism, meditation, Buddhism, mindfulness, etc…. all of that wonderful new age stuff.  And I find that I believe a lot of it.  And much of what I’ve learned often tells me – just let things be.  Why work so hard to change things? Maybe you just need to “be.”  That the desire to change everything may be the ego talking. That I may even have some kind of pathological obsession to feel the need to save the world and help everyone.  Maybe the solution is to just let go, relax, be at peace with the world, and stop pushing so hard to change things.

One last thing I can add to my doubts about entrepreneurship – how effective are entrepreneurs in maintaining a “work-life balance.” How many sacrifice their family relationships for their businesses.  What sacrifices do they make? And are those sacrifices worth it? Maybe all the effort that goes into changing the world on a grand scale is actually hindering my ability to impact the world on a small scale – the whole “think global, act local” mindset.

That’s where I stand now. I feel like I’ve become pretty self-aware in understanding my motivations. But making decisions is a challenge.  I “think” I’ve been able to resolve some of these issues by building a startup in the education space.  Starting an education company will let me use entrepreneurship and technology to drive a social change while feeding myself. It’s more of a mission than a company in many ways, but creating something truly valuable ‘should’ lead to some level of financial success.

I also am interested in bringing healthy lighting to places where people are trapped – nursing homes, psych hospitals, prisons, schools… I have a passion to help people who are trapped. And I have a knowledge of how new LED technology can help these people who are trapped.  But maybe the real problem is the social issue of how these people are trapped in the first place!  Do you spend your time trying to get these people out or making the conditions inside more comfortable?

I find myself going on a tangent.

Let’s leave it here for now. I want to help the world.  Entrepreneurship seems like the way to make the most impact. But it may not be. And it may be that I am better off not striving to save the world.

Seven dirty words you can’t say on LinkedIn

By admin | July 6, 2016 | 1 Comment

Sh*t, p*ss, f*ck, c*nt, c*cks*cker, m*th*rf*cker, and t*ts… George Carlin made these words famous in 1972 during his epic tirade, “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television.” Unknown to him at the time, a father and his 15-year-old son would (allegedly) hear this routine play on the radio one afternoon and complain to the Federal Communications Commission that it was inappropriate. This eventually led to a ruling that said “indecent” language can’t be used on radio or television between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Words can have a profound impact — not only on the radio and TV but also on our public profiles and resumes.

Carlin’s list inspired me to create and discuss a list of seven words equally frowned upon to use on a LinkedIn profile: stressed, lost, failed, sucked, depressed, devastated, and quit. You’ll never see these anywhere on anyone’s Linkedin profile — not even mine. I understand the idea of putting your best foot forward, but it feels like such an inaccurate representation of oneself. It feels disingenuous not to list my failures next to my successes.

What does the real story look like? My first startup: I became immensely stressed during my senior year of college when all my classmates were looking for jobs while I was pursuing a startup with no idea what I was doing and no guidance whatsoever. I became depressed after I had been locked up in a psych ward and told I was crazy, just weeks after raising the seed money for the startup. I was devastated when our experiments wouldn’t work. I sucked at pivoting and confidently adapting to adversity. I lost half of my investor’s money when we couldn’t scale up our technology. I quit after we knew it was pointless to raise additional funding for a technology that wouldn’t make it to market. I failed to transform our global energy consumption the way I had envisioned.

What about startup #2? It would appear this one was a major home run. After being in business for only 18 months, we acquired one of the fastest growing manufacturers in the commercial LED space. The reality? I felt so stressed during the acquisition that I was losing weight and friends were worried about me. I sucked at maintaining control of my company and let people I trusted take advantage of me. Just days after the deal closed, I was informed I had lost my job. I was so devastated that I ended up in the hospital twice with cardiac issues in the following weeks. I failed (again) to transform our global energy consumption the way I had envisioned. I quit trusting people. I became depressed that I hadn’t done something to prevent this mess.

And startup #3? My current venture is in the education technology space. I don’t have a full list of dirty words yet … I am certainly stressed. I’ve lost my patience. I’ve failed to generate revenue. I feel like I suck at structuring an altruistic venture that has a clear business model. At times, I’ve felt really depressed. I often feel like I’m on the brink of devastation. But I have not quit.

How many people would ever put that type of information on their resumes? I’m not claiming that I’d be willing to. It’s buried in a blog nobody reads, several paragraphs after using the word c*nt. From my perspective, all of my startups have failed because they didn’t achieve the vision I set forth in the beginning. But they certainly were successful in many rights.

People say if you don’t fail, you’re not trying hard enough. Yet nobody can talk about their failures because it is incriminating to show weakness in a world where we seek perfection, at least from a public perspective. I’ve heard a lack of failure is one of the great criticisms of the Millennial Generation. People say Millennials all got trophies and never experienced failure. Yet, at the same time, this generation is not encouraged to discuss failures. So how does anyone know how frequently failure is occurring?

All bullshit aside, the golden metric for success for an entrepreneur is: “Did I give my investors a return on their investment?” My first startup was a no. But we also completed our initial development way under budget and returned that money to our investors. The second startup is still operating but hasn’t reached a liquidity event, so success is still to be determined. As for my current one, I haven’t taken on any investors, so how can I measure success?

To raise money to pursue a startup when you’re 22, and then execute on your plan is great. To get back on the horse and launch another one is awesome. To perform an acquisition before I’m 25 is sick. Has there been failure? Yeah. I’ve lost all my money, been kicked out of a company I started, been hospitalized against my will for “manic episodes,” slept inside a tent in shitty roach-infested apartments, and more … And there’s really no setting that makes sharing these details with people acceptable (aside from performing standup comedy: flimjannery.com). I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to suffer. I have no issue with it, but it’s rough doing so in secret.

And that’s the understated problem entrepreneurs face — wherever we go, we are forced to “sell,” to show the world a positive spin. We can’t discuss our personal issues with friends, because they “don’t get it.” We can’t talk to our family, because we don’t want to worry them. We may discuss things with our significant others … but we’re equally likely to hide things purposely from them for the same reasons we do from family. Around other entrepreneurs — the ones who would “get it” — we do our best to look impressive, because these people could all be potential partners, referrals, customers, investors, etc. So where do we turn to?

See, society doesn’t encourage entrepreneurs, especially in the Millennial Generation, to talk about the challenges we face. In 2013, Inc. Magazine published an article titled “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship” that discusses this, and researcher Dr. Michael Freedman and his team published a study titled “Are Entrepreneurs Touched with Fire?” The researchers found that entrepreneurs, when compared to non-entrepreneurs, are:

– Twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression,

– Six times more likely to be diagnosed with ADD/ADHD,

– Three times more likely to report substance abuse, and

– Eleven times more likely to have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Keep in mind the causality isn’t determined here, so we don’t know whether people exhibiting these traits are more likely to become entrepreneurs or if being an entrepreneur causes these traits. Regardless of the cause or effect, it’s hard not to agree something is going on here.

I found myself with a problem: where can I discuss these issues with people without judgment or consequence? I found no solutions – so I created one. The solution is called Entrepreneurs Anonymous, a peer support group for entrepreneurs to discuss their challenges anonymously. My research shows there are 27 million entrepreneurs in the U.S. alone. The stats from Dr. Freedman thus suggest there are millions of people who need help. At Entrepreneurs Anonymous, that help is immediate and free. Who knows? This experiment may turn into my most successful venture yet.

Jim Flannery
Founder, Entrepreneurs Anonymous

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