Book Excerpt: How to build a startup with a different measure of success — your own satisfaction

[Editor’s Note: Lee LeFever shares lessons learned from building Common Craft, a Seattle company known for its distinctive explainer videos, in the new book, “Big Enough: Building a Business that Scales with Your Lifestyle.” Excerpt published with permission.]

I had been dreaming about this moment since the first time I visited the Pacific Northwest, in college. I was sitting in my truck, about to drive 3,000 miles from Charleston, S.C., to Seattle, where I would start a new life.

It was 1998, and the rise of the internet made everything feel possible. Seattle seemed like an innovation hub and I wanted to be in the middle of it. I knew that if I got my foot in the door, I could begin a new phase of my life, build connections, and eventually start my own business.

At the time, I was seduced by the stories of young entrepreneurs who founded businesses that grew to have thousands of employees, and offices around the world. I wanted, someday, to appear in the pages of a magazine like Fast Company or Entrepreneur, the ultimate validation and marker that showed my company had made it. With the income from being a successful founder, I could live the good life and have the freedom to decide what lifestyle I wanted.

This dream might sound familiar. Most people who are interested in entrepreneurship see it as a path out of debt and dependence. With enough money, conventional thinking tells us, life could be fundamentally better. I was not immune to this perspective. In starting a business, I saw a way to be independent and earn an income that could afford a comfortable lifestyle. If I got lucky, I could become rich and have ultimate freedom.

Today, I’ve come to understand that it’s possible for business success to create life-changing wealth, but it’s rare. And often, the stories portrayed in Fast Company (or today more often on podcasts and YouTube) present a romantic notion that conveniently leaves out the day-to-day realities of owning and running a business. We’re led to believe that outside the walls of corporate jobs, fame, fortune, and a life of happiness await those who are ready to accept the challenge.

The problem is that this version of entrepreneurship can become a trap. Talented people dream of starting a company that offers them the opportunity to earn a living based on their skills and passions. By owning a business, they can finally be independent and free to work on what matters to them. The trap appears when a business becomes successful and suddenly, they’re filling the role of a manager, bookkeeper, or salesperson. Their success has come at an unexpected cost.

While some may be happy running a business that aims to be stable to growing, many entrepreneurs dream of unicorn success and long for the day when they can sell their business, profiting themselves and their stakeholders. The allure is undeniable, and for a lucky few, it happens—a big exit from the business pays for their years of toil. And good for them.

But the stark reality of entrepreneurship is it’s inherently risky and can make life a struggle. Even owners of profitable businesses find themselves stuck—they can pay the bills, but not retire. Or their business becomes too big to evolve, or there isn’t a buyer interested in their model. Sometimes, the exit ramps don’t appear.

In reality, owning a business can be a long and rigorous grind, and the grind takes a toll. Business success often comes with a growing list of commitments that eat away at lifestyle, happiness, and health. Visions of independence and wealth are replaced with long hours, endless meetings, volumes of email, hustling for new clients, and feelings of obligation to investors and boards. The hours in each day are consistently filled. True vacations and downtime become rare. And weekends? What’s a weekend? Hiring and managing employees takes incredible dedication. Personal lives suffer. And did I mention all the meetings?

Lee Lefever

This sort of professional life is now the norm. Entrepreneurs keep the dream in sight, value the drive, and sacrifice time and lifestyle today for the potential of more tomorrow. It can seem that landing the next big client, winning an award, or reaching a desired revenue will unlock the potential to sell the company or retire comfortably. For many entrepreneurs, this goal always seems just out of reach.

I certainly don’t wish to denigrate entrepreneurial pursuits. We need more people to take risks and push through to create great companies and products. Many of these people are my heroes. My point is that entrepreneurship takes many forms and produces numerous outcomes, some of which are not traditional measures of success.

Having lived in Seattle for more than 20 years, I’ve seen many friends devote their lives to building high-growth startups. They put in 80+ hours a week for years, in part, because they see an opportunity for a life-changing exit in the form of their company selling for tens of millions of dollars. Maybe even billions. Their version of entrepreneurship is high risk and high reward. Some have seen success, some are still waiting, and many have moved on.

Because these kinds of startups make the news, it’s easy to assume they represent the ultimate form of business with the ultimate outcome: enough money to retire and circle the world on a mega-yacht, or buy a tropical island. When everyone is chasing unicorns, it can start to feel that doing it “right” means trading your life and your wellness for a shot at the big time. Carpe diem. After all, it’s only your life.

Over a decade ago, my wife, Sachi, and I set out to test what was possible in life and work. Our dream was to develop our company into a reflection of who we are.

We asked ourselves: what does it mean to design a business that doesn’t make constant growth the goal? We agreed that one of our key values is happiness. Being a married couple and working from home, happiness was one of the necessary ingredients of our lives. If our work didn’t produce it, or worse, removed it, all parts of our lives could suffer. The problem is that happiness is squishy. Everyone wants to be happy and has their own idea of what that means. Was it really happiness that we were after?

One of the leaders on the subject, Daniel Kahneman, believes that many people confuse happiness with satisfaction. In a podcast interview with Tyler Cowen, he explains that happiness is a fleeting experience. It’s an intense feeling that you may remember, but it fades with time. Satisfaction, on the other hand, builds up over time and indicates the overall success of one’s life.

In thinking about Common Craft in this context, we came to see that business success and happy customers are connected to satisfaction, but it was an incomplete picture without considering quality of life. With this in mind, we committed to a set of constraints in 2008 that became our guide. Common Craft would remain a two-person home-based business focused on scalable business models like licensing and distribution partnerships.

Today, twelve years later, we remain committed to a sustainable version of success that’s big enough for us and the lives we want to lead.

Some of the key takeaways from our experience:

  • The chances of striking it rich are very small. Your time may be better spent focusing on what you value in life, and how your business can support that lifestyle.
  • When considering a new opportunity, ask “what if it works?” This simple question will help you anticipate the long-term effects of a decision.
  • Pursuing a “business idea” isn’t enough. To stay engaged for the long term, it’s important for you to care about the business and its customers. Choose wisely.
  • Size often relates to agility and the ability to pivot when your business model falters. Assume it will happen, keep your options open, and continually look for models that align with your values.
  • Time is the new wealth and unlike money, it can’t be saved up and used later. The only way to have more of it today is to design it into your life. Taking control of a life that’s out of balance starts with making deliberate decisions about how you spend your time and the willingness to say “no”.
  • As a small company, you may be the only shareholders. Ask yourself: along with profit, what shareholder value matters to you? Could it be quality of life? Control of your time? Independence?

What I’ve realized is that the dreams I had of developing a high-growth startup, being written about in magazines, and counting my fabulous riches were, ultimately, not healthy or productive for me. Over time, I realized that my real dream was building and running a business that suits the person I am and the life I want to lead. I don’t need an IPO or huge exit for validation or respect.

Today, I believe entrepreneurs are questioning the personal cost of building large companies and looking for ways to be productive, successful, and independent without trading quality of life to achieve it. That may mean turning away from the culture of hustle and finding satisfaction in a kind of success that’s big enough for you and what you truly value. By connecting your values to your business, you can create the lifestyle and level of satisfaction that works for you.

Through years of business models and experiments, we discovered a healthier approach to business that’s focused on being lightweight and agile, with the potential to scale easily. For us, that’s a version of success that is better prepared for an unpredictable future.

Excerpted from “Big Enough: Building a Business that Scales with Your Lifestyle,” by Lee LeFever, published by Page Two Books, available in paperback and e-book.

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