It was around 6 pm on a cold, November evening. I was making the rounds at a local networking event and gauging how much more energy I had left before I made my way home. There had been a speaker from TechStars talking about Building a Tech Startup Ecosystem. As someone who was active in the entrepreneurial community, it was the type of event I went to regularly (pre-covid).
As I was slowly making my way to the coat rack to make my exit I was stopped by another networker. We exchanged names and pleasantries and he asked me the usual, “What do you do?”. I told him I was the co-founder of a software company and had been doing it for, at that time, about 9 years. He asked me how large our team was and I told him (we were a team of 3).
The minute the words were out of my mouth he said, with undisguised distaste:
“Oh, so you’re a lifestyle business then…”
I don’t remember what I said back, only that I quickly exited the conversation, collected my things, and made the cold trek to my car feeling a bit upset. It wasn’t the first time I had been talked down to (figuratively, of course, I’m 6 feet tall and was wearing power heels) but it had been a while since someone had so openly disparaged my business (in tone if not in words).
I could have told him any number of reasons for why we were a small team and the intentional decisions we had made. I could have told him the many ups and downs we had been through.
But I shouldn’t have had to.
I ruminated on it the whole drive home. I tried to remind myself that the opinion of this one tech bro, who I had never met despite my near-decade in the local businesses scene, didn’t matter. But it bothered me that he used the words “lifestyle business” as though they were something to be ashamed of.
I talked about it with my husband, who, fittingly said something along the lines of, “F*&k that guy,” but it lingered in my mind.
It became another data point in a long line of hearing similar stories from my entrepreneur friends and clients who had been made to feel like they were somehow, not doing it right.
“It” being entrepreneurship.
As though there was only one way to be an entrepreneur and it was something along the lines of an 80-hour workweek, pitching to investors to get venture capital funding, suddenly achieving hockey stick growth, and a splashy exit, going public or being acquired. You know, a unicorn.🦄
The culmination of the significant life challenges I have faced throughout my entrepreneurial journey was the realization that the unicorn narrative we hear and romanticize is only one way of being (and a rare one at that).
There is nothing wrong with that dream and that story! But there are a million other ways to be an entrepreneur. What success and failure mean to one person is not the same for another.
The key is knowing what success and failure mean to you and protecting your entrepreneurial story from outside influencers like that tech bro.
Navigating the language of entrepreneurship
I have written in the past about how important language is. It’s how we define parts of ourselves and give context to what we are doing and how we feel.
There are all kinds of labels that feel reductive or at the very least lower on the hierarchy of importance when referring to different kinds of entrepreneurship like:
- Mommy blogger
- Mom-and-pop shop
- Lifestyle businesses
- Indie startup
Depending on the context and how some of these are said, they can be completely innocuous or downright patronizing. (Really anything that references mom or mommy would be in the latter category, in my opinion).
Specifically in my experience, when the phrase “lifestyle business” is used, there is an underlying assumption that either you lack ambition or you are not skilled/savvy enough to build an “actual business”.
Taking back “Lifestyle Business”
The definition of a lifestyle business via Wikipedia is, “A business set up and run by its founders primarily with the aim of sustaining a particular level of income and no more; or to provide a foundation from which to enjoy a particular lifestyle.”
I dunno, that seems pretty cool to me. But that’s me.
Maybe that doesn’t sound great to you. Maybe you want to earn a prestigious award or have 10 locations or grow to 10,000 employees. That’s cool too!
Everyone’s goals are different. It’s ok to want the Unicorn path and try for it. But it’s equally ok to NOT want that. It doesn’t make you any less of an entrepreneur. Every path has its pros and cons. It becomes a matter of articulating them, weighing them, and making intentional decisions about how you go forward.
Define what success and failure mean to you
The things that matter most to you will evolve and your perspective will change with the seasons of your life. Being able to say what those things are will help protect them when the outside world gets noisy. It’s good to question and reflect to make sure you are on the right path for you, but you have to be able to block out the noise of other people telling you what you should want.
Which is hard.
Think about what’s important to you. What words would you use to describe the things that matter to you and the things that don’t?
- …and a million other descriptors.
Having the clarity to know what you want out of your life and business, and the luck, skills and perseverance to make it happen is pretty impressive, regardless of what size/scale/form your business takes.
Whatever path your journey takes you, be it a unicorn, lifestyle business, or something in between, I hope you can own it, live it for you, and let the rest go.
Reach out if you could use a hand defining what success and failure mean to you and what that means for how you build your business.