If I leave to get an MBA my business will fail; what should I do?

I started my business four years ago and sales are over $4m. We have 43 employees and have made a profit every month for the past 14 months. The market place is growing more competitive, inflation is rising, and the economy looks like it might stall.

I have good people working for me but there is no one who can replace me. I got into INSEAD two years ago and postponed my entry to work on the business. The offer expires this year and I really want to go to get more education, build my networks, and mature. But I know if I leave the business for two years, it will probably fail. It would also be a big risk to bring someone else to run it while I’m away. I only take $40K in salary because of my equity and I can’t get anyone good for that low a salary without giving away more equity, which I don’t want to do.

I have to decide by the end of the month. My parents say I should go, my investors and employees say I need to stay.

Speakers at the conference made entrepreneurship seem easy and formulaic

I was at a local conference to develop the ecosystem for young entrepreneurs. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The speakers and commentators came from the local government and university and two non-profits.

They made entrepreneurship sound easy. They suggested all an entrepreneur needs is a co-working space, a small amount of money, and one or two advisors.

I raised my hand and said that the reality of entrepreneurship was very different. When I started my business three years ago, I couldn’t get a bank loan, it took months to register the company, and I couldn’t find qualified people to hire. The high inflation rate made things even more difficult. The challenges that face us aren’t just in the first three or six months. It’s the first three to five years. We take risks that few people would feel confortable with and we spend most of our time working on the business.

The speaker implied this wasn’t right, that I was doing things wrong and that the new government incubator would answer everything. I find that hard to believe.

I realized I didn't want to build and grow a business, I just wanted enough income to live comfortably

I love dance and music.  My idea was to start a performance school for teenagers and then franchise it in Lagos. I rented the space and started advertising on social media. I was surprised by the reaction; within a couple weeks, I had three full classes.

The economics meant that each full class generated about $3000. So if I have 10-12 classes I would be able to live very well and I would be working less than 25 hours a week. I could use the rest of my time to write songs.

My uncle offered to lend me $25K to open more studios. I thought long and hard about it. I realized that I didn’t really want to build and grow a business. What I wanted was income that would allow me to do the things I loved. My parents were upset. They called it a hobby and not a job. In the end, I was very happy with a hobby. I didn’t have the passion or will to start a business that would take over my life.

If my business fails, it will reflect badly on my family

In America, the fear of failure for startups exists, but it’s recognized that businesses fail. Some actually see it as a badge of courage or learning experience. The same isn’t true in my home country.

If I fail then it reflects badly on my family. My father is especially concerned and keeps telling me to find a proper job.

She said if I had passion the question of whether I should start a business wouldn't be an issue

I was 43 years old when I decided I wanted to start my own company. I had worked in the strategy group of a major multinational. I was trained through the traditional training schemes but I never had responsibility for a profit and loss account or a major operating unit. I have a young family, mortgage, and aging parents. This was a huge decision for me. My friend suggested I talk with some people before I decided to leave my job.

The headhunter said it would be a wrong move for me. He said it would take me out of the corporate market and I wouldn’t be able to return. Another headhunter said the exact opposite and thought this would enhance my CV. A VC who is friends with my wife said I didn’t have the experience and thought I was risk-averse. I took a bunch of career and psychological tests; they were inconclusive.

I couldn’t make up my mind. I was paralyzed in terms of decision-making. I went to a FinTech conference and met a really impressive serial entrepreneur. I asked her advice and she looked me in the eyes and asked, “Where’s your passion? What’s your commitment? If you had these, you wouldn’t be going around in circles.”

I felt proud but so alone as a CEO until I joined a club for startup CEOs

I was the only one left in the office. It was past 11pm and I was tired. I looked around at all the desks and work spaces and thought how far we had come in the last year. I was proud and elated, but I also feel profoundly lonely. We had come a long way, but I felt like all the ideas and emotions has been drained out of me. I was giving everything I had and I was getting very little back. Yes, people appreciated what I was doing but I was the boss and I was becoming increasingly distant from my team. I felt I could no longer ask them for advice. It would be a sign of weakness.

We had investors and I have to deal with them. I also deal with all the larger sales accounts and the Board. All of this is taking increasing amounts of time. These relationship are often characterized by conflict and they are taking a toll on my nerves. I am always stressed out.

My wife looks after the children and has a part-time job so I can’t burden her with all this. I can’t talk tp my parents and my friends think I am some type of superman for getting this far and I don’t want to destroy that illusion.

As I sat there, my loneliness became overwhelming. I heard about a club for startup CEOs where people share stories and experiences. I attended a dinner and in one night, I realized that I was not alone anymore.

How can I start a family on the salary the investors want me to take?

I didn’t take a salary for the first year of the business but now I needed money to live off of. My friends in the corporate world earn six figures. In my country, someone with my degree would earn $70-80K. I was told investors look at how much a CEO proposes to pay themselves. They don’t want the CEO using the business as a personal piggy bank.

I need to raise more money but don’t know what to put in the business plan for my salary. I finally settled on $40K; this was just enough for me to get by. The investors agreed to this and wanted to keep this until we raised more money. My heart sank; how was I supposed to survive on this? I want to marry my fiancé and start a family. I feel like I now have to choose between having a family and my startup.

I'm worried that my work is all that defines me now

People who identify themselves by the jobs or positions they have seem so one-dimensional: “I am the CEO of Cosmetics.com.” For these people, what they are is who they are. They define themselves by their job and have no identity outside of it. They’ve surrendered themselves to it and there is no work-life balance.

Am I becoming one of these people?

I want to start my own business but I know it's going to be lonely

After university, I wasn’t sure what to do. I really wanted to start my own business and work for myself, but I didn’t have a business concept developed yet so I went to work for a local bank. I didn’t enjoy the work but thought it would give me the time to develop a business.

I was at the bank for a year when I was offered a promotion and a chance to work in England. I thought this would be great experience and so off I went. I spent three years in London and learned a lot and developed a strong network there.

I returned home and went back to work at the bank. I was bored but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to start my business. I was scared and knew starting something on my own would be lonely. I couldn’t see myself sitting by myself everyday.

I spent two more years at the bank and nothing really changed. Yet, I still could not make the move to break away from the bank. I keep telling my friends I wanted to started my own business but after a while they stopped listening.


Building a business is more challenging than building a prototype

I am an engineer by training. I love the precision and certainty of building something like a bridge. It gives me so much satisfaction. We are building a new type of transportable lightweight bridge that can be moved by a light truck. The prototype was a great success, got critical acclaim and is being purchased by the city.

I’m not as comfortable with the business side of things. It’s riddled with uncertainty. I never know what's going to happen next week. We have one order but I don’t know when we will get the second one. I always look at the bank account to see how many days of cash we have left. I keep thinking our chief engineer is going to quit. Our investors are supportive but they always have odd and irrelevant requests. I don’t know if this is meant to help or is a signal that they don’t trust me.

I cannot imagine what life is going to like in a year’s time.