Updated on 10.06.08

The Entrepreneurial Drive (Or Lack Thereof)

Trent Hamm

Entrepreneurs by VMOS on Flickr!Whenever I write a post about careers, I usually receive a few comments or emails from readers who are heavily involved in entrepreneurship, chiding me for writing an article that wastes people’s time. “I’m an entrepreneur, and such articles are a waste of time,” they’ll say. “The only real way to get ahead is to start your own business. Working for ‘the man’ will never get you ahead.”

I think those comments are true – for them. At the same time, I don’t think it’s true for all people – or even for most people.

We’ve all heard the talk about how 75% of small businesses fail without ever turning a profit. What sets aside the other 25%? I argue that the big difference is the drive to succeed as an individual.

In order to stand out from the crowd and be individually successful at any endeavor, you have to stand out. When you’re an entrepreneur, that means you’ve invested a ton of your own energy in creating a product and promoting it to the point where you can sustain yourself (and hopefully others) with the profit from that effort while at the same time competing with large, efficient enterprises likely doing a similar thing.

No matter what else you bring to the table, success in that arena takes a certain kind of drive. You have to be passionate about creating your product and you have to be passionate about promoting it, too. Or, you have to be deeply passionate about one side of the coin and have a partner that feels similarly passionate about the other side. You have to be driven to make it work, devoting much of your life to transforming an idea into success.

To put it simply, some people don’t have that same drive. That’s not to say they’re somehow inferior – it just simply means that they are passionate and driven by different things. Perhaps their passion is their family, and work is just something they do to support that passion. Their passion might be social work and they’re driven towards helping others.

The entrepreneurial drive is a wonderful personal asset to have and I encourage everyone to see if they have it within themselves. Applied correctly, it can be the source of incredible financial and personal security.

But not everyone has that drive. Some like to believe that they have it – and those are among the 75% that fail.

Do you have a strong desire to run your own business? For some people, the question is such an automatic “yes” that they can scarcely believe that anyone would say anything else. But it’s not an automatic answer for most of us, and many people know that the answer for themselves is “no.”

People who answer “no” to that question find success in different contexts. Perhaps their skills are best met in a technical field. Or, perhaps they’re better suited for a socially oriented career. It’s far more important to know what you’re passionate about and what your skills are than to try to chase something you know you don’t truly want.

There’s another part of that pro-entrepreneur argument that’s off base: the idea that the only way you can really get ahead is through entrepreneurship, not working as an employee. That’s simply false.

It doesn’t matter whether you work for yourself or work for an employer, you can always get ahead by spending less than you earn. Save that difference and, when you begin to build up a fair amount, start investing it. That money will provide security through all the bumps in your life. Even better, if you do it strongly enough, you’ll eventually be free of the day-to-day demands of your job or your business – you’ll be independent and able to do whatever you want.

Entrepreneurship works for some people, and it teaches so many valuable lessons that everyone should consider whether they have the entrepreneurial drive. However, if you find your passion and drive leads you in another direction, you have a huge opportunity for success in that direction on your own terms. Use your own definition of success – raising great kids, helping a lot of people, building a following for your blog – and don’t let others define them for you, no matter what you do.

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  1. Trent,
    There is some merit that working for onesself is the only way to get ahead.
    In fact, building a business allows you the possibility to hire people to manage and run the business for you – essentially freeing up your time to build more businesses or do nothing.
    You will NEVER be able to hire someone else to do show up and work at your 9-5 for you.
    The liberation of time is the key.
    However, if all you do is create yourself another “job” and not a “business” then you lose that liberation of time.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for this, Trent. Over and over I read blogs and books that equate personal finance = entrepreneurship, and have felt bad or lazy that I simply cringe inside at the thought of taking on the kind of risk, effort, and potential heartache in starting my own business. Yet so many tout it as the only way to ‘real’ success …

  3. savvy says:

    I find comments like those laughable. If everyone started their own business, who would be left to work at the businesses? Not every business is a one-man shop…

  4. Thanks for adding a bit of balance to the blogosphere. After all, some of us aren’t looking to outsource our lives, just enjoy them the way they are.

  5. Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    having recently dove into the entrepreneurial ring, I find this article very interesting.

    While I take time to save money for my new business, I’m still working a desk job for a medium corporation and I can see that there are people who are perfectly happy putting in their time, working hard, getting promoted, and using the experience and resources of a large well-established company to become successful in life. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s commendable, and a perfect fit for those people.

    It comes down to doing what your passionate about. If your job seems to be keeping you from pursuing your passions, then it may be time to tap that entrepreneurial spirit to see if you have what it takes to take control of your life and explore your passions. But you should also be aware, as Trent said, that there are alot more people who WANT to be entrepreneurs than REALLY CAN be.

  6. I’ve thought the same kind of thing as I’ve perused personal finance blogs. Everyone is not cut out to be the owner of a business…some people just function better as employees. For instance, it takes a lot of self-discipline to run your own business, and some people don’t have they. They need a job that provides more structure for them.

    I do just fine working for myself, but my husband is one of those that needs structure, so he has a job, and I work from home.

  7. Eve says:

    I don’t think “drive to succeed as an individual” is the reason why some small businesses succeed and others fail. I know successful small business owners, and I’ve known a few who have had to pull the plug on a business that never made it off the ground. In some cases, they are the same people, with the same drive to succeed.

    Among my friends and acquaintances in small business, the difference between success and failure is mostly due to how much money they had saved to live on while getting their business off the ground. Those who estimate correctly that they’ll be profitable within a year (or 5 years, or however long), and who have put aside enough to live on during that time…succeed. It is tempting for someone with a strong drive to succeed to set a high goal for themselves and believe that they can achieve it very soon. But when small business owners estimate too optimistically, they find themselves stuck without enough capital on hand to meet expenses for a business that is not yet profitable.

  8. Excellent post. This site continues to offer up really well, thought out and intelligent material. The dichotomy is useful, but often having only two options is limiting. For example: i think small businesses also need to have a good idea or product, all the drive and passion in the world can’t make money out of something that doesn’t inspire anyone else. Some success is just about being in the right place at the right time for an opportunity to present itself. Luck plays a part, and any entrepreneur who doesn’t recognize the luck aspect is kidding themselves.

  9. Owen says:

    To survive in business you have gotta be flexible, your customers and the market change constantly.

  10. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Eve: that has to do with drive, just misdirected drive. That’s why it’s very useful to find a mentor.

  11. Jim says:

    There is no single “only way” to get ahead in life. I’ve seen just as frequently people declare that investing in real estate is the best way to become wealthy.

    Some of us simply don’t have the aptitude to run a small business and are better off putting our efforts into a job and other investment areas. The book The Millionaire Next Door had plenty of examples of people who had accumulated high net worth while working regular jobs and simply being frugal and making good investments.


  12. I agree not everyone is meant to be an entrepreneur. Some got it some don’t. Just because you don’t own a business doesn’t mean you couldn’t still have your bit of financial freedom. With sound savings habits and a simple understanding of how money works you still be successful.

  13. Trent, there certainly are different paths to the same goal. I hear what you are saying about “drive” being a primary factor. I have several friends that ask me about my Internet business, but when I tell them they could easily do the same thing, they pretty much say they just don’t want to invest the time in learning some basic web-building skills, promoting products, or even spending 5 minutes each evening documenting their work day to help reduce their taxes.

    Their drive is to spend their time differently, which is fine. I support their decision 100%. I especially liked your final paragraph of this post. Very positive and unselfish, Trent.

  14. Izabelle says:

    Finally, a bit of balance!

    I have always felt a bit “looked down on” when I tell people that I much prefer being employed. Truth is, I absolutely hate working alone (which freelancing in my field would entail), and I am not attracted to managing a company itself, however small. I just put all my drive on getting promoted and employing 100% of my time doing what I love, surrounded by able mentors! In my field (graphic design), this is pretty much a dream. And it also means no all-nighters :)

  15. jake says:

    To each his own. Some people just like the idea of going to work and then just going home. My line of work allows me to put everything down and walk away at the end of the day.

    You can claim freedom and not working for some body, but here is what a friend told me. You do not work for anyone person but your new boss is Money. You drive yourself crazy trying to turn a profit, and it’s hard work, mostly failure. You stay up late and constantly crunch numbers. You never rest because a small mistake can cost you your business.

    Some love that sense of entrepreneurial drive, but not everyone has the heart and patience for it. I for one do not.

  16. Peaches says:

    Nice article, Trent.

    It really depends on what you’re good at. Some of us would prefer to be part of an organization -feeling more secured in a 9-5 job. Others would like to be on their own. These are the risk takers who love the challenge of creating his/her own place in the business world. Whatever it is, putting 100% effort in whatever you do, is still the key to success.

  17. Prakash says:

    Another great post.Being an entrepreneur myself at times I felt that people who are working under someone or who don’t want to set out on there own are in some way scared or as you put it inferior. Well your post has made me look at things in the right perspective.
    Different people have different leanings and one needs to respect that

  18. Battra92 says:

    I have a passion for photography, yet I found when I tried to start my own photography business selling art prints I was killing the thing I loved.

    So I’m happy working for “the man” for now (it certainly is nice to have a steady job with an emergency fund and basically be all set to weather the oncoming hurricane we can expect for the next few years (save for nuclear war or the Rapture) and if all goes well, I will be able to “retire” to a lesser job at 40-45 and enjoy my life. :)

    My boss at my first job literally worked himself to death and died at the ripe old age of 60. He worked 12-14 hour days smoking like a chimney to deal with the stress and his body just gave up on him. He died a millionaire but yet I was the only one at his funeral who could stand up and say something nice about him. He had no friends, just money.

    So being an entrepreneur is alright for some but don’t let it kill you for the sake of a few dollars.

  19. Yup! I’m one of that 75% with the failed business & I’m still paying for it. But it turns out that my drive isn’t really directed at getting rich – or even working for myself. I’m now happily earning a little pin money (my husband has a conventional wage) & learning much more about achieving a more sustainable lifestyle thru frugality & finally getting out of the debt trap. Thanks for all the useful & informative advice/opinions that you post – you have helped me see the light!
    Beverley (England)

  20. Gwen says:

    One objective in being self employed is the narrow mindedness. You must focus on building your business allocating money to pay your bills and taking care of the business so much that sometimes the business owner is forgotten. There is a certain personality that can make it as a business owner.

  21. Penelope says:

    Thank you for the reminder. It’s not about what other people want; just be true to yourself!

  22. Melissa says:

    Hi Trent,

    This is another great article! I also sometimes feel like I am looked down upon because I don’t want to start my own business. Thank you for describing the other perspective. I take the long view on freedom: I want the security now so that I can save as much money as I can. Then when I’m older (maybe 45 or so) I can “afford” to take a part-time job and do something that I love. People ask me if I would regret saving so much money and not “enjoying” life while I was young, but I think it’s a noble endeavor to plan for a secure, happy future! I could never regret that. To me, this philosophy seems to be the same as the willpower/delayed satisfaction that so many people describe. I still do the things I love now, but having the freedom later to do whatever I want without worry is something that has no price.

  23. Susy says:

    Mr Chiots and I started our own business 6 years ago and it’s thriving. We love working from home, for ourselves. I think lack of an entrepreneurial drive is one reason businesse fail, but I really think the big problem is lack of financial knowledge.

    We have so many friends that have started businesses and they did not take the time to learn the how to deal with the financial aspects of business. They have great drive, but they don’t know how to manage months with no income, months with huge incomes, spending/saving, budgeting.

    I think most small businesses fail because people live by the motto: you have to spend money to make money. They spend it all and don’t make enough to cover all their expenses. It’s just like personal finances, you have to spend less than you earn in business as well.

    That being said, it’s definitely something you have to be passionate about to do. It is much harder to work for yourself than to work for the man. You have to log longer hours and you have to be really driven, otherwise you won’t work when you need to. I would never give it up, but I know lots of people aren’t cut out for it.

  24. Bill in NC says:

    What “misdirected drive?”

    People often forget about the survivor bias in books like “Millionaire Next Door”

    Regardless of how much drive one has, or whether or not one has a mentor, most of the small businesses started each year will fail.

    General market conditions can sink businesses that would otherwise have succeeded.

    That’s especially important to remember now, as we’ve not had a real recession in over 25 years.

    This one, however, could be as bad as 1973 or 1981.

  25. Kevin says:

    Entrepreneurship is risk/reward just like anything else. There are great rewards to be gained if you do have a good product/service and the desire to make it happen. But there is also great risk in starting something from the ground up. That’s the nice thing about living in America – there are a ton of ways to “make it”.

  26. Andy says:

    I recently retired at age 54 with a net worth of $2.5 million. I worked the last 28 years as a sales manager for a pharmaceutical company. My wife and I have lived a frugal life and put two sons through private schools and private colleges.
    II was Iowa born and raised and my passion was coaching Little League. Never had a desire to own mmy own business, however, my oldest son does. To eeach his own.

  27. Melina D. says:

    Wonderful post. I have to echo Jake’s post and your comments – I enjoy working for other people, since I have no desire to have my own business. I’ve always felt that my “real” life is what I do away from work. Work is just what pays my bills. Thanks for emphasizing that this doesn’t mean I’m lazy or unmotivated!

    As a person who used to have zero interest in money, I have to admit that this is now the only website I visit every single day and recommend to everyone. After one year of reading your posts, we’re now about to pay off our debts and establish our emergency fund. Keep up the wonderful work!

  28. Rimbaud says:

    “We’ve all heard the talk about how 75% of small businesses fail without ever turning a profit. What sets aside the other 25%? I argue that the big difference is the drive to succeed as an individual.”

    – Maybe the big difference is luck?

  29. Carol says:

    It has been very rewarding to read a lot of the comments associated with this entry! I, too, am one of those people who is very happy being an employee. I want to be a success at exactly what I’m doing. I agree with other comments that so much written today does seem to have the slant that if you’re not aiming for the absolute top that there’s something “less than” about you. Everything is so geared towards “Be the Best, Have the Best, Settle for Nothing Less than the Best and if you don’t subscribe to that philosophy then you a clearly a loser”.
    As an introverted person, I would like to see more “self help” articles in all forms of media about finding happiness in the middle of the pile – and respect.

  30. Chris says:

    Carol – God bless you.. Some of us are perfectly content to live in the middle. I don’t need a Lexus, nor the biggest house on the block. I enjoy spending time at home, not toiling away 80 hours a week as an entrepreneur or crawling up the coporate ladder.

    Case and point: My Father in-law is a driven, type-A guy. He is a corporate guy (not an entrepreneur) and paid his dues in his 30 years at the company. Now he is President of the company and he makes more money than God. The problem is that he is such a driven workaholic, I don’t think he has the ABILITY to enjoy the fruits of his labor. It is almost sad.

  31. Grace says:

    This is an important post though I would dispute that it is a lack of “drive” that takes one out of the entreprenuerial ranks. Focusing all of one’s energy on production or marketing is just not how some of us envision spending our lives. If we had to do it that way, we and our families and even society would be the worse for it.

    Thanks for the thoughtful words.

  32. suzy says:

    My father ran two successful businesses for 20 years. He was much happier working for state gov’t for the last 20 years of his career. He was a slave to his own businesses, much more so than as an employee. And the secure paycheck and health benefits allowed him to get further ahead–by, as Trent says time and again, spending less than he earned. He also spent time with me in the evenings–never was able to do that with my older brothers and sisters when they were young, because he was always tending his business.

  33. Del says:

    Agreed, good comments, and it’s high time someone tackled these misconceptions. To be fair though, the non-entrepreneurial ways of “getting ahead” you mention are what some folks would call “slow lane to success” ideas (then again how different is the “fast lane” from “get-rich-quick”?). Nevertheless the salient point is that if you’re not happy doing it or well-suited to it you probably won’t make much money as a business owner anyway.

    This post also refreshingly speak to the myth that all you need to be an entrepreneur is a good business idea (skewered mercilessly in the videos @ garybuseyonbusiness.com). You do need that, sure, but running a business and the task of selling are a whole other ball game.

  34. eileen says:

    hi im new here and this entry caught my interest by a lot. i have to say that a person will go far if he/she is his/her own boss. Entrepreneurship is the best job in town if it’s a big business however one must learn that it’s really a lot of hardwork, sacrifice, patience, money and stress!! I helped out my sister in her SPA business, less than a year it failed miserably and we sold it off. It failed because there were not a lot of research done. You must go an extra mile to really build a business. Like no sleep, weight loss, hair loss etc. If you are ready to face this problems then you will be able to face any challenges ahead.
    Sometimes a 9-5 job will keep you content but for some people it’s not bout being content, car, bungalow etc. It’s about achieving something in Life and many like the challenge of building a business. It’s a challenge that will never have an ending obstacle.

    -To Retire is to Expire!

  35. Megan says:

    Trent, I don’t understand why those people are chiding you. This blog IS your business; you started it and you are an entrepreneur. It’s so obvious. I don’t get why they don’t see that.

  36. Dana says:

    I think there’s more to business failure than simply whether someone has drive. There are many reasons that businesses fail. Drive only gets you so far when the customers literally will not come to you because they’d rather save five bucks going to the chain down the street. Or when a major corporation steals your idea (see Hallmark vs. Blue Mountain Arts–BMA was just lucky they had a fair judge on that case). Or if you get sick, or someone cheats you, or whatever.

    Certainly drive means the difference between letting a disaster beyond your control drag you down to failure, and picking yourself up and dusting off and trying again. But that *specific* business has still failed.

    Let’s look at this from a different angle. How many of us can honestly say we have had the same job with the same employer for 20 years running (or for our entire work lives, assuming we’re too young to have worked somewhere 20 years)? Not very many, especially these days. It would seem that people are just as likely to fail as employees in one way or another as to fail as entrepreneurs–even if “failure” in this context is only defined as “found a better opportunity elsewhere and quit to pursue it.”

    Supposedly, there is a greater percentage of entrepreneurs in the millionaire population than there are among people with less net worth. I suspect that’s because they tend to treat their personal finances as a business. Most likely the folks who succeed as employees to the point of obtaining financial security achieve that goal for similar reasons.

    But there’s definitely something to striking it out on your own. And I think that if it were easier (in terms of infrastructure, degree of competition, etc.) for people to start and run their own businesses you would see a lot more people doing so. I’ve been interested to note that there are a lot more entrepreneurs in poor countries, as well as poor neighborhoods here in the U.S. Nobody else wanted to bother with them so they filled in the neglected economic niches themselves. It’s kind of sad that our current regulatory climate punishes the little guy more than the big guy who’s taking his customers away, even though those regulations were meant for the big guy to begin with.

  37. Rob in Madrid says:

    My Wife’s family is full of frustated entrepreneurs none who have done very well. In fact the only entrepreneur who has made any decent money is my sister in law and she’s a lowley panio teacher!

  38. Noadi says:

    I run my own little business but I learned my financial sense from my parnets who don’t. They have a nice house, no credit card debt, healthy savings, and retirement.

    My dad has no aptitude for running a business, he just wants to fix cars and leave all the paperwork to his boss. My mom is a special education teacher who works at a rural public school for far less than anyone with a Master’s in Special Education should be paid but she does it because that’s her calling. Most people in their situations would be piled under debt and struggling to make ends meet, they’ve been savvy financially and can enjoy themselves as they’re getting closer to retirement (not that I can imagine either really retiring unless they had to, they both love what they do too much).

  39. Kim says:

    We had enormous problems with our construction business. Some were poor decisions, some were union contract difficulties that forced us to hire some inadequate, lazy thieves. Some were contractors who dealt dishonestly.

    Perhaps the biggest problems is that my husband wanted this. I wanted it FOR him, but I never wanted this kind of stress. When the stress had me throwing up from the ulcers, and we hadn’t been paid in 2 years, I was longing for my husband to finally say ‘enough.’

    He still has the drive to work for himself and be his own boss. I cannot take it. I see the spots where he is blind, but could not get him to see them and deal with them.

    I don’t blame myself for the failure of the business, but I AM the reason we are not doing this again. He can sign my death certificate first. Or the divorce decree. I am not up for the stress of seeing the problems but being unable to get him to listen to me/deal with them. He did parts of the business brilliantly. The parts he did not do brilliantly he should have recognized. Until he can look back and admit to those things I see no hope that he would correct them in the next venture. Until then there will not be one.

    I will never again risk one of our retirement funds, never again pull equity out of the house for this kind of thing. Never.

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