David Sax’s new book is The Soul of an Entrepeneur: Work and Life Beyond the Startup Myth.
I have spent the entirety of my professional life working for myself. Writing articles and books, giving talks and occasionally doing some consulting. I have never drawn a predictable paycheque. I have no idea how much money I will make this year or next. Working at home in my sweatpants, as my kids run around wild, while I worry about where the next job is coming from isn’t my new reality this past crazy month – it’s my default state of being. I am completely free to work on whatever I want, however I wish. I am my own boss.
I am an entrepreneur.
Being an entrepreneur is who I am and have always been. My parents are entrepreneurs (just like their parents), along with my wife (and her parents), my brother and many of my friends. Entrepreneurs have always fascinated me. I have written books about deli owners, food truck operators, the people behind independent bookshops and record stores, and countless others who wake up each day and face the working world on their own. I’m drawn to the entrepreneur’s stew of hustle and ambition, and the way that work seeps into their fibre.
Three years ago, I began to channel this obsession into a book about what it meant to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to find the deeper essence of the business owner’s soul beyond the hashtagged slogans and startup myths peddled out of Silicon Valley. I hoped the book would reclaim the definition of entrepreneurship for a wider range of people. Not just the young, brilliant founders of technology companies who dominated headlines, but the people who run businesses all around us: women and minorities, immigrants, mom and pops and small shops, freelancers and self-starters. It would be inspirational and aspirational. A celebration of the everyday entrepreneur!
What I never imagined was that I would release the book at the worst possible moment for entrepreneurs in modern history. Over the past gruelling weeks, the world of entrepreneurs has been completely upended. Businesses of every single description, from large multigenerational family firms, to well-funded startups, to individual freelancers such as myself have been decimated, frozen, closed up, or forced into bankruptcy.
In the five weeks since Canadians began practising social distancing, more than a million people have lost their jobs. And while the full scope of the damage to business owners and entrepreneurs has yet to emerge, the available info is as grim as the sight of the boarded-up shops and restaurants from coast to coast.
A survey by the advocacy group Save Canadian Small Business shows that more than three quarters of entrepreneurs saw a drop in revenue of 80 per cent to 100 per cent, and most have already downsized to survive. Another survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business shows that up to a third of Canadian businesses owners who had to close in the past month believed they will not be able to reopen.
I hear daily from friends who are crushed after just laying off their staff, and others who are ashamed at having to apply for government assistance, as my wife did, recently. With rents still due and revenue not returning any time soon, the future for Canadian entrepreneurs appears bleak. I’m no exception to this. My public speaking income disappeared overnight, and the prospects of my book selling anything close to the publisher’s expectations looks especially grim. This hardly seems to be a wise time to be celebrating the joys of entrepreneurship.
Or so I thought.
Here’s the truth: I have only had one job in my life.
It was the summer of 1999, I was 19, and I got a position at a small company in downtown Toronto that made newsletters for dental offices.
On my first day, dressed in a sweltering suit for no good reason, I eagerly knocked on the office of my boss, Nancy, and put my best foot forward.
“Where do I start?” I asked her, imagining assignments – interviewing dentists about their best practices, shadowing one for a few days – that would tap into my ambitions as a journalist.
“We do have something we need your help with,” Nancy said, with an inviting smile. “Follow me.”
She led me into a small, windowless room where I was greeted by the smell that would dominate the rest of my summer. It was the smell of business, of serious people, and important paperwork. Toner. A heady mix of carbon, iron and petroleum with an electrical edge, coming from the photocopier that Nancy pointed to with barely disguised glee.
My job was to tape a small sheet of paper with a dentist’s contact details onto the master printout of the newsletter, and then photocopy that page, over and over. The page had to be perfectly aligned, or the newsletter would come out crooked.
Sometimes the toner would run out, or a weird line would appear in the copies, and I would scrap the batch and start again, earning a reprimand from Jeff, Nancy’s partner, who was a caricature of an evil boss, complete with a framed MBA, pinstriped suits and his canary-yellow Porsche 9/11 parked outside.
By the end of that first day, the smell of toner clung to my clothes and hair, my eyes blurred from the lack of natural light, and my only reprieves were an occasional bathroom break, or a trip to drop off newsletters by the entrance. Here, I was greeted by the tinny blast of Ricky Martin’s voice from the receptionist’s speakerphone, which played Living La Vida Loca in a relentless loop, all day, every day, and caused her to exclaim “Oh I love that Ricky Martin!” every single time.
I quickly grasped the full depths of the hell I’d lowered myself into as a minimum wage employee in a dead-end job, and once the job ended (after the photocopier caught fire from running constantly) I vowed to never work for anyone else again. I think every entrepreneur has this moment at some moment in their lives. It’s the turning point, as they trade whatever security and certainty that a regular job offers, for the great unknown of entrepreneurship.
Ever since the pandemic hit, one thing many of us have noticed is the crucial role entrepreneurs play in our communities. I see this here in Thornbury, Ont., the town on Georgian Bay where I have been isolating since the start of this, back when we came to my mother-in-law’s house for March break. When economists talk about employment, they tend to focus on large corporations and businesses – banks, airlines, energy companies – with stock market listings, vast supply chains and the ability to create thousands of jobs.
Even the largest businesses up here – such as the apple farm and processing facility owned by the Botden family, who I wrote about in one of my previous books – employ just a few dozen people. But when you add up these farms, feed businesses, small manufacturing companies, restaurants and bars, shops and galleries, gas stations, dental and veterinary offices, massage therapists and personal trainers, plumbers and carpenters, butchers, bakers, and grocery stores, you have the foundation of a robust middle-class economy, where opportunity is within the grasp of most residents and becoming an entrepreneur is something anyone can do.
Because most of the businesses around Thornbury are owned by local residents, they tend to work together, helping each other grow and start new businesses - even if those are direct competitors. Last summer, when an investor from Toronto moved up here and reopened a shuttered restaurant down by the harbour, it was Shaun Edmonstone, the hard-working chef who owns the Bruce Wine Bar up the street, who helped him every step of the way. These entrepreneurs are the faces you see in the community when you walk its streets. They live nearby, send their children to the schools here, do business with their friends and relatives, and are invested in the community’s well-being in a way that goes far beyond money.
Elsewhere around town, the sign by Winifred’s Pub, put up as its owners closed the place temporarily for the pandemic, says “Take Care of Each Other.” Goldsmith’s fruit market is now offering free delivery to anyone who needs it, and Carol Hindle, who runs her family’s tightly packed hardware store in the nearby town of Clarksburg, told me, “We’re here for people as long as they’re here for us.” Jessica’s Book Nook has remained open for business, because people need words and games, and its owner, Dennis, walked me through the store on a video call the other day, so I could pick out colouring books, puppets and puzzles for my kids. Then he dropped them at our door a few hours later, with a smile that said we will be okay. The Book Nook has faced its challenges over the years, including competition from big box stores and Amazon, rent hikes, illness and the like, but the community has stepped up and watched the store’s back time and again. It makes sense to close that circle.
Right now, you see this everywhere across the country, and even online. Yoga teachers and personal trainers, authors and musicians are hosting free events because they simply want to contribute. Each weekend, I’ve tuned into the YouTube channel of Choir! Choir! Choir!, the popular Toronto sing-a-long group run by Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman, who are now giving anyone with a WiFi signal a free pass to belt out Lean On Me in their living room. They make no money from this. Their business is frozen, the bars and theatres where they perform are closed. But, hey, at least they can bring some joy into the world.
Every entrepreneur signs up for two things when they go out on their own: freedom and risk.
The freedom is what draws them into entrepreneurship. The freedom to pursue their ideas however they want, to work where and how they determine, and to change any of that along the way. This is the intoxicating draw of entrepreneurship, the cool sexy side with daydreams and dopamine hits, and endless possibilities around each corner. It’s what allows entrepreneurs to do things that seem entirely irrational, like leave a lucrative job in software sales to invent a revolutionary new laundry drying rack, as my neighbour recently did, or open a new restaurant in a space that seems perpetually cursed, because you believe, deep in your soul, that you are the one who can beat the odds.
Risk, however, is the flip side to an entrepreneur’s personal freedom. The two are inseparable. This is the burden each entrepreneur bears, and it goes beyond the financial consequences that most Canadian entrepreneurs are experiencing now. Entrepreneurs identify so personally with their businesses that one study, out of Finland, actually measured these feelings in an MRI machine. It found the bond that an entrepreneur has with their work was equal to that with their immediate family.
When business is good, entrepreneurs feel elated, empowered and comforted. But when things are down, as they are now, that burden is a crushing weight. Failure isn’t just the decrease of income or assets, but a personal loss, like a death in the family. Many entrepreneurs never recover from it. It can trigger anxiety and depression, marital strife and even suicide. This isn’t the failure of Silicon Valley software startups, where failing “fast” and “up” are just stepping stones on the path to success. This is failure beyond an entrepreneur’s control, rendering them utterly helpless, for no fault of their own.
My paternal grandfather, “Poppa” Sam Sax, was an entrepreneur who wrestled with this personal toll all his life. Like many Jewish men of his generation in mid-century Montreal, he was a garment worker in the city’s burgeoning shmatte business, sewing, cutting and designing women’s clothes along the factories that once lined The Main Boulevard. A man of too many ideas, he struck out on his own, again and again, launching companies that made sweaters, accessories, dresses and other items, with elusive success.
Failure haunted him, and though he always had money for fresh bread and a new car, the bills piled up and his marriage frayed (my grandmother, who had come from “means,” never let him forget this). He was continually drawn to the freedom of entrepreneurship because of its promise and excitement, but in the end, when he died of a heart attack in his early 60s, the burden proved too much to bear.
But what all of this has clarified to me is that despite the risk and the odds of failure, entrepreneurship is ultimately about rebirth. Over the past two decades, as most of the attention around entrepreneurs focused on startups, we played down those who become entrepreneurs because they simply need to start their lives over. But when people think about the entrepreneurs they know, it is unlikely they can point to a great inventor or billionaire founder. Instead, they likely think of someone like my wife’s grandparents, Sam and Mary Gelbard, who arrived in Toronto from Poland in the late 1940s as refugees. Each had fled the Nazis, while their families perished in Auschwitz. With no English, and less money, the job market here was closed to them when they arrived, so they did what they could on their own: ran a convenience store then a stationery shop, sold scrap metal and collected feathers. They were able to buy a house, raise two children, vacation in Florida and live a life filled with everything they could ever want, thanks to their ability to reclaim those lives through entrepreneurship.
Today, that same story is being written by new Canadians, such as the brothers Rasoul and Ismail Alsalha, who came from a family of bakers in Aleppo, Syria. A few years back, they fled to Canada with just a few dollars, and worked until they could open Crown Pastries in Toronto, a faithful recreation of Rasoul’s own short-lived bakery in Aleppo. They poured everything they had into opening that business; every last cent of savings and the limits of their credit cards, working days so long that one barely ended when another began, all their hopes, dreams, emotional and intellectual capital. But what they ultimately achieved isn’t measured on their balance sheet. It is the pride they have in the baklava they bake, the role they have assumed as mentors helping other Syrian immigrants become entrepreneurs, and the life they have been able to build for their wives and young children here. Entrepreneurship is the means the Alsalha brothers used to retake control over lives that were seemingly uncontrollable when they fled Syria, and the sense of empowerment that their business gave them.
Entrepreneurship has always been a process of rebirth, and knowing that gives me hope about our current situation. When we emerge from this, there will be millions of entrepreneurs who are itching to get back to work, reopening businesses or starting something new, and many more Canadians who will have to become entrepreneurs out of a sense of necessity. The entrepreneurship they pursue may have nothing to do with startups, venture capital, innovation or other buzzwords we’ve come to associate with entrepreneurs, but it is the fundamental spirit of entrepreneurship that we need now, more than ever.
Each entrepreneur has hope that they can set out on their own and make something work. And they seek the freedom of being able to do it without asking for permission, without qualifications, investment, or anything other than an idea and the willingness to act on it. The same thing that drew me away from desk jobs and copy rooms years ago, and toward a life as an entrepreneur, may not make me rich, or ever certain, but will somehow always feed my soul.
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