I didn't make the best college student.
Not the best employee either.
Because I love taking risks.
I love doing things against the status quo (e.g. my Twitter bio).
It's for that moment you come home from work, can't fall asleep because you have a brilliant idea so you write it down. All the late night and early morning side project work you've been doing has finally led to something. You look at what you wrote. It's a small reassuring sign you still have creative flow. You're smart. You can do this.
Many of us live for those moments.
Then you go to work.
You: "Hey, so I have this idea."
Boss: "I don't have time right now. Prepare it for our meeting at the end of the month."
Right when the fire hits, it's extinguished.
You have to answer bias questions on your idea, but more often demands.
Even if you can make data-backed presentations to show it will work - nobody has time to review.
For some, we find ways around this issue and prove our idea's worth anyway.
For most, we don't do anything. We choose to cope.
For the few, we choose to escape to do it.
When I was the head of growth for the marketplace startup, UpOut, I learned my job rather fast. In a few months, I had most of my job automated and was taking night classes to brush up on SQL, Excel, and Tableau. As what happens to many entrepreneurs, I got bored. So, I did two things: 1) I started hosting marketing events; 2) I began experimenting with Instagram automation.
I presented both ideas to my boss. He liked the marketing events and gave it a go-ahead and let me use the office. After all, I was paying out of pocket. The Instagram automation would have to wait because I had no evidence that I could get R.O.I. My entire slide deck on Instagram presented the idea that it was possible to automate revenue from the social channel because others had done it. I had nothing backing me up except the confidence that I could do it, too.
Over the next year, the event audience grew every week. It became what BAMF Media is today. What started as only ten people in a conference room became a 200-person audience and a Facebook Group with 10,000+ members (now 20,000).
The Instagram automation? I did it anyway. I failed miserably getting countless accounts banned over two months. Then one day, I dialed-in the automation - it worked. The result, I could automatically grow an Instagram account with targeted prospects who'd become followers.
The bigger result?
$200k in revenue within the next year.
That's entrepreneurship. It's taking an idea seed to become a tree. It's believing that it's possible even after months of struggle and watering every day. It's the passion to prove your idea.
As an employee, you've put your job on the line, you've taken a risk, and I'll always respect that. These risks can change the world just as much as the founder of a successful company can. Imagine, the turnaround CEOs who weren't founders, but led their companies to millions and billions in profit. They've made their dent. They've acquired companies started by founders without being one.
That's why to be an entrepreneur, you don't need to be a founder. But you need just as much conviction - sometimes more to succeed over bureaucracy.
Founders force themselves to take full responsibility by living their ideas.
When I was the evangelist for Autopilot, a marketing automation software, I pushed several ideas through without management consent. I changed my online community name from "Marketers & Founders" to "Badass Marketers & Founders" (BAMF). Using a curse word threw a few of my company peers for a loop. They didn't know what to make of it.
I've been studying the psychology behind communities for several years.
Putting the "Badass" behind "Marketers & Founders" gave the members a feeling of superiority. If they're in conversation with someone, they'd say this,
"Hey Joe, I'm in the best marketing Facebook Group, Badass Marketers & Founders. Are you in it?"
"I haven't heard of it."
That's when two feelings occur:
1) The group member - I'm a badass and he's not.
2) The outsider - Am I not badass?
This little change would draw the community closer than ever and help us differentiate in a crowded market. Plus, the acronym (BAMF) makes us impossible to forget and would take us from just a Facebook Group and weekly events to a company.
The second risk I tried to push through?
Creating another community.
I've learned that in startups when things work well, it's important to quadruple down on them. After all, the chances are events in startup life won't go your way. I was steadfast in making this a reality. I asked my boss for the go-ahead.
"Don't do it."
With a couple of yellow flags weighing my ideas down, it made sense to leave.
I wanted, at least, to test the idea of whether I could manage two communities. Right after I left my job, that's what happened when I became the evangelist for Mixmax for a total of two weeks. I tried to build them a Facebook Group focused on educating salespeople about sales. It failed. I had no energy to keep it active. I hit my bandwidth.
Not wanting to burn-out, I quit.
At this point, I'd need to get another job in marketing. However, the inevitable would happen. I'd get bored because I wasn't allowed to push ideas through as fast as I wanted or even at all, then I'd leave. Without direction, hanging out in Los Angeles throwing another BAMF event, I met Brian Smith, a coach for founders. He helped me understand that I had built enough rapport with my community that I'd be fine. If I wanted, I could land clients tomorrow. I could become a founder.
I believed him. This would be the second time founding a startup. My first one had failed years beforehand. That same week, I met my future co-founder of BAMF Media, Houston Golden. He asked me if I wanted to start a company with him. The stars had aligned. The answer was easy.
When I became a founder of a fast-growing agency with Houston, I learned that my ideas were only to my limitations. Ultimately, I had only one person to answer to, my co-founder, who already believed in me entirely. The bureaucracy didn't exist. To turn my ideas from thoughts to reality, most important part of my job became putting the right people on the bus who'd have the right ideas to execute. As a founder, I only have so much time. I'd need to have a lot of trust in those around me.
When you're a founder, that means everyone from your board of advisors to employees to partners. That means the people whom you listen to on a daily basis from your friends to family. Every detail matters if you want to build something remarkable.
If you're an employee, you must do the same. The problem is that the blame spreads because you didn't build the foundation. You didn't set the company's principles. If you're one of the few, you might have enough ambition to become CEO, someone with enough power to change this. But again, that's one of the few, and in some companies, that's one out of thirty thousand individuals.
That's why a key quality of a founder is giving employees a reason to take a stake in the overall company's future no matter whether they built the foundation. That blame is not focused on any single individual but taken as a team. For a simple reason: many foundations are worth it.
To say, "I worked on the design of the first iPhone" or "I was there from the beginning" - that's powerful. It's a lot more special to say you were one of the first, impactful employees at Facebook than you own a business with ten people or maybe even a hundred people. Because world-changing companies require a magical setting of a foundation with seamless teamwork. No exceptions.
On the other side, as a founder, even though you have total responsibility for your idea - your idea might be much smaller than others. It may lead to a subtle impact, but nothing that truly changes a culture. That's the risk you take at either job, but you force yourself into full responsibility as a founder. As an employee, it's an option. And only when enough employees on board to take full responsibility is when you know there's strength in the foundation.
So when asked the difference between an entrepreneur and a founder, know this: there's no right or wrong path; both can have as much or more impact than the other.
If you choose the employee-entrepreneur route, then you need to have total faith in the company's vision, principles, and foundation. You need to build enough rapport to where risks don't earn you red flags, but green lights. If you choose the founder route, then you need to look in the mirror knowing you can't blame the foundation.
There's only one decision left -
You can build your own professional football team and culture or you can join one and win a championship inside. The choice is yours.