Entrepreneur for some, Unemployed for most
Two years ago, my in-laws visited us in London from Paris for my mother-in-law's Birthday. My 7-year-old niece asked me: “Uncle, where do you work?”. “From home”, I said. She then replied quite energetically: “This is not real work! You have no office and no colleagues”. My in-laws first laughed, but then a discomforting silence crept in: my niece had just said out loud what everyone was already thinking.
This happens over and over. “You have no job” and “Find a job” are the phrases I’ve heard most in these last 3 years. From my parents, from my in-laws, even from my brothers (albeit less often). I’ve heard it so many times that I had no choice but avoiding many friends and family to focus on what I was building. I find this a very high emotional price to pay, and this experience made me wonder what the actual meaning of work is in our society.
THE SOCIETAL NORM: A JOB WITH NO INCOME IS NOT A REAL JOB
Our society teaches us to correlate work to a regular income. Being at work means having a job in a somewhat structured and recognised organisation, with a guaranteed salary at the end of the month. Every option deviating from that societal norm is de facto considered as “non-work”, because we do not envision work with no employed position and no income. Sadly.
I haven’t received a proper salary for the last 3 years, except during a one-month stint at Pronto (see my previous blog post). Still, I’ve never worked harder in my life than these last 3 years. First trying to build Sincuru, and now building African Foodie. Sailing on entrepreneurial waters requires a lot of effort, commitment and mental strength that few salaried jobs require. Most people don’t try to build something of their own, and therefore rarely understand what it takes to do so.
He expanded on that more recently during a visit in Nairobi, and touched other important aspects of his journey. The full interview is well over an hour, and I personally think it’s worth your time to watch it. I hope you will agree that Brian (and his co-founders, indeed) was working very hard, despite not having that job with health insurance that his Mum was hoping for him.
There are different types of work for us to choose along the way. Some choose to find a steady job, others volunteer, a few try the entrepreneurial route. There are merits in all of these options, each one very different from the other. Entrepreneurs are not different from their peers who have a paid job, because building something meaningful through an entrepreneurial journey actually is a full-time job. Even if there is no income during these early days of grinding, it nonetheless remains a full-time job.
BUILDING SOMETHING MEANINGFUL IS A FULL-TIME JOB
Back in May, I really wanted to try Nigerian cuisine at home. So I googled Jollof Rice, but I didn’t get even a single authentic African recipe out of the top 5 results! It really annoyed me, so I decided to exchange authentic recipes with a friend of mine over Twitter DM. We then turned it into a Slack group to allow more foodies to join into the conversation, and later added a weekly newsletter that curated the best recipes from our discussions in Slack. Then following demand from our community, I built an HTML5 app that got hundreds of users across 36 countries.
I was determined to find a monetisation strategy early, so we rolled out in-app ingredients purchases. That approach seemed right but hardly took off, so we went back to our users. Multiple conversation with them revealed a precious insight: a mobile app did not provide the best user experience for it (see African Foodie’s blog post). We had to make our product evolve once more. So learning from our users behaviour, we ended up with our current model: a 24/7 SMS-based African cuisine concierge. A model that seems to work for our users in Europe, North America and Sub-Saharan Africa. We launched it this December and started to see early transactions.
End of May to early December: that’s nearly 7 months, with no income at all, living and breathing our product. Seven months spent painfully ignoring my loved ones constantly asking me to “find a job”. Seven months accepting that, in the tough days building African Foodie, I could probably not ask for their emotional support, because the question of getting a real job would be put on the table again. Unsurprisingly for them and myself, I would not listen and return to building my product. Seven months living off my parents and brothers financial support, following 2 years with the Missus in charge of almost 100% of our household financial duties. Living all this, at almost 30 years old.
NOT FOLLOWING THE NORM HURTS THOSE WE LOVE
I am very fortunate that my Dad is a long-time entrepreneur. He ran multiple food industrial projects in Cameroon, and now runs a consultancy. It made things relatively easy for me when I started my first startup, because he understood that I wanted to build something of my own. Things were very different with my Mum, and I quickly understood why. She lived the roller coaster of Dad building 3 industrial projects with more or less success, and the idea of her first son following that route was anything but great news. She would have indeed preferred a stable job with a steady salary, but that was just not my calling.
When I embarked on African Foodie, it became an even bigger storm: with Mum, with my other half, with many friends of mine too. They all started wondering why I could not simply let it go and find a real job, because everybody would be happier this way. That’s how I realised that it was their way of telling me that they love me, and that they were afraid I may not survive an emotional crash from failing once more.
Your significant other, family and friends love you. They have rarely experienced what you’re going through as an entrepreneur, they are living the emotional rollercoaster through you. They care about your stability, mental health and financial security. They will never stop worrying about you. By “getting a real job”, you would push their anxiety away and make them feel secure, because it’s often the only career path they have experienced. But because you love them too, you must find the courage to ignore it, accept that you’re hurting them, and keep going. Many will find it egoistic of you, but that’s fine because you know that you have a job: building something meaningful.
IN CONCLUSION: EMBRACE IT, AND CARRY ON
Makers and builders have often had to fight their way through with their peers and loved ones. So the next time you feel down when someone you love asks you when you’re going to get a real job, just listen to them talking to you. Understand that behind these worries, there is really love and care for you. Use that love as your fuel. Then smile, tell them you love them, and go back to your product. Despite all the pain they are feeling through your journey, nothing will make them happier than your success at your job, a job you’ve chosen.