Jacques Mattheij

technology, coding and business

The Freedom - Responsibility Trade-off for Entrepreneurs

I started my first business (a computer programming consultancy) when I was pretty young (21), in 1986. At the time I had worked for a little over a year and a half for the application programming department of a dutch bank. The department had 100 employees divided into several teams and about 35 people hired from companies such as BSO and Volmac (loosely termed ‘body shops’, not a very nice term).

The atmosphere there was very corporate, lots of suits, almost exclusively guys, programming main frames with a terribly old-fashioned development cycle (if you got 2 ect’s in on a day you were a lucky guy). It felt pretty stifling there and I longed for more freedom. In part this was caused by me actually liking programming and working really hard whereas the majority of the people there were happy to putter along as long as they got their salary. Morale there wasn’t exactly at an all time high. After talking with my manager (http://nl.linkedin.com/in/esdeleeuw hey Eddy! thanks!), we agreed that maybe banking wasn’t for me and I should try to use my skills to do my own thing. I wasn’t let go but I’m quite sure that a lot of people breathed easier when this misfit left.

Within a week of starting I’d found my first contract job and I managed to find another before that one ran out and so on. Little by little I managed to build up a reputation for delivering the goods and I got more and more work by referral.

At some point this led me to having more work than I could reasonably be expected to perform and I increased my prices to match. In 1995 I hired my first employee, by 2000 it was up to 25 employees in two offices.

This was the first time I realised that my desire for freedom had led me straight back to having less freedom than I had when I started this whole saga!

As an entrepreneur, if you are successful, you will automatically reduce your freedom as long as you haven’t sold your business. Only when you’re between projects or companies do you actually have a degree of freedom. The only other time that you have freedom is when you’re entirely alone and working in some ‘life-style’ (I hate that term) business. As soon as you’re successful, boom, freedom gone.

So if you’re planning on doing a start-up because you’d like to have more freedom, think twice. Do not aim for success, or if you do realize that you are going to give up your freedom for the foreseeable future with a chance of recouping it at some level in the future. (Hopefully, if you exit successful you’ll be able to live the good life for a bit but unless your exit is a spectacular one you’ll be back in the harness sooner or later).

Freedom at work, you can get at some 9-5 job just as easy if not easier because even though you have responsibilities, you can always quit. Founders of companies can’t quit that easily, they would have to at a minimum find a suitable replacement (very hard) or a company to sell theirs to without having to sign on for another 3 to 5 years (also very hard). There is a subtle trade-off here, with a sweet spot somewhere in the middle. A one-person company that does not aim for the stars, makes you enough in a few months to live for a few years is probably the best to aim for if you really desire freedom, if that freedom means to be able to do whatever it is that you want to do with your remaining time.

Entrepreneurship at even a moderate level of success is an endless chain of responsibilities and hardships wrapped in a foil thin layer that spells ‘freedom’, but it really isn’t all that free at all!