The dark side of entrepreneurship

Are entrepreneurs born or made? They're made. In the fire. Whatever the challenges, success depends on constantly and consistently testing, learning, failing and starting over. Over and over again. Mashudu Modau, entrepreneur and founder of podcast network, Lutcha It's not difficult to sell the attractions of being an entrepreneur. You get to pursue your passion on your own terms. You work in a dynamic, fast-paced environment alongside people who match your drive and dedication. Freedom, diversity and adrenaline come with the job description. And, of course, there's always the chance of winning fame, fortune and celebrity.

So far, so good – but what about the very real downsides? Because for every glowing profile of a Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg, there's a shocking suicide report about an Ilya Zhitomirskiy (co-founder of the Diaspora social network) or Aaron Swartz (co-founder of Reddit). Or just the friend of a friend whose passion and dreams simply weren't enough to save their latest venture.

Harsh reality
Without dismissing the positives, the fact is that disproportionate levels of stress and depression – even suicide – among entrepreneurs remain a harsh reality. The Gallup Wellbeing Index, for example, established that 45% of entrepreneurs report feeling stressed compared to 42% of other workers. They also admit to ‘worrying a lot' (34% versus 30%). If these differences seem relatively minor, consider a more recent study published in the Small Business Economics Journal, which stated that:

Mental health differences directly or indirectly affected 72% of the entrepreneurs in this sample, including those with a personal mental health history (49%) and family mental health history among the asymptomatic entrepreneurs (23%).

Numerous other studies have helped to throw light on the dark side of entrepreneurship. For example, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) reported that 30% of entrepreneurs experience depression versus 15% of the general population. America's Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that addiction is an issue for 12% of entrepreneurs versus 8.4%. Pointing out these facts is not morbidity. It's step one towards addressing a serious issue.

Identifying issues
One South African who understands the dark side first-hand is serially successful entrepreneur Mashudu Modau, founder of the podcast network Lutcha and community and partnerships manager at Yoco, a technology business that specialises in building tools and services to help small enterprises succeed. Variously described as a youth entrepreneurship evangelist, African start-ups lover and small business supporter, Mashudu remains passionate about a vocation that can be notoriously cruel.
One downside he identifies is the potentially overwhelming volume of support, tools and resources on offer to individuals starting out as entrepreneurs. Counter-intuitive, perhaps. But as Mashudu points out:The challenge lies in selecting the support, tools and resources that are right for you at whatever point in your journey you have reached. Unless you navigate your options correctly, there is a real risk that you end up wasting valuable time and brain space on programmes and courses that are simply irrelevant to you. In this sense, well-meant support can become an obstacle to your growth.

Adding value
While this may be a global problem, Mashudu also identifies a number of downsides that are specific to South Africa.Let's start with our entrepreneurial culture, he says.It's all hustle, hustle, hustle – and, to me, that's all wrong. The key to success lies in building value not in chasing bucks. It's about being patient, but patient with a purpose. It means investing yourself in things that matter, that make an impact, that has value. If we keep chasing money as a form of validation, then the failure rate among South African entrepreneurs will remain unacceptably high.Which leads Mashudu to another downside that South Africa's entrepreneur community needs to navigate: social expectations, starting with family and friends.When you become an entrepreneur, you take your entire social network with you, he argues.Without a strong social network, you risk ending up very isolated. But the fact is that many people in our networks are reluctant to offer this support because they are fixated on earning a living. Obviously, it's a survival thing. But it certainly doesn't help to foster the type of risk-taking, a game-changing mindset that will help South Africans to carve out a brighter future.

Positive outlook
The good news is that supporters and funders outside the entrepreneur's immediate circle are now taking this type of cultural factor into account. But as Mashudu warns, South African society needs to be a lot more enlightened in its attitude to entrepreneurs.Again, it comes down to patience. Patience and persuading people by showing them what is possible.
Despite the challenges, Mashudu's outlook remains bright.Are entrepreneurs born or made? They're made. In the fire. Whatever the challenges, success depends on constantly and consistently testing, learning, failing and starting over. Over and over again.

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