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Go in house or go it alone? The million dollar question for millennial start ups

Be under no illusions: starting a start up, and running a small business, is no easy feat. Long hours, constant problem solving and poor pay, at least initially, is enough to send the sturdiest of souls back to full-time employment.

Perversely, it is the very challenges that running one’s own company presents that tempts entrepreneurs to do it. High risk offers high reward, and one person’s precariousness is another’s personal high.

Question is, where do you draw the line? At one point do you prioritise life and its various facets over work? When you are starting a business the two can easily blur into one, and we know that is not a feasible lifestyle long term.

There’s a reason that start ups tend to be the preserve of the young – or the foolish, at least, and the two often go hand in hand. More millennials than ever before are opting for self-employment over a steady pay cheque, scared off by the wavering economy and buoyed by the opportunities provided by social media offers. If you have a laptop and a decent WiFi connection (and access to constant, strong coffee) you can start a business – or so the thinking goes. Millennials may be tech savvy, but the excitement of freedom belies the insomnia-inducing worry of,  say, how you’re going to pay your employees when sales take a downturn.

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Perhaps the concern, then, is not the choice between going in house and going it alone; millions of us work, happily and fruitfully, for someone else, and many more find time to run their own thing on the side.

The more difficult decision is to abandon one in favour of the other.

Steady work more often than not equates to a steady life: a mortgage, car payments and perhaps a family. Workers choose that in order to have those things. Yet starting a business is something that continues to nag; the low hum of What if?  and dreams of typing emails from a beach can be hard to resist. In this scenario, do you take the risk and jump, knowing that you could lose everything?

In contrast, when do you call it quits on a small business you have poured your blood, sweat, tears, money and time into? Going off in search of a simpler, more certain life is one thing but the waters are muddied by our obsession with – whisper it – failure.

Forgoing a steady paycheque to captain your own industrial ship is admirable, after all. Words like ‘brave’, ‘envious’ and ‘adventure’ will be bandied around at your leaving drinks. ‘I’ve always had this idea for a little car/makeup/soya milk cookie business…’ soon-to-be-ex colleagues will sheepishly admit after one too many warm Coronas.

Not so for the entrepreneur who chooses – or, yes, is forced – to close their doors. Their ‘comfort’ is the idea that they gave it a go, tried their best and these things don’t always work out, you know.

We need a radical shift in approach. To close a small business for whatever reason is not a failure – in fact, it is far from it. It is simply the next chapter in an entrepreneur’s working life, which will be long and likely punctuated by more openings, more closings and more spreadsheets, because there are always more spreadsheets.

Similarly, there is to often a pervasive, and nefarious, perception that anyone who chooses to go back into full time employ somehow couldn’t hack it – that they took the easy option out. But not so. We need to change the conversation around work from one that name-checks stoicism and never-ending hours as criteria of success, to one that is nuanced, that takes into account how markets, personal circumstances or feelings – there, I said it, feelings – change over time and experience.

This involves abandoning the precept that there is such a thing as a ‘right’ decision. As a society we are fixated on getting it right. Fiancees must be ‘the one’, houses ‘forever homes’. Whatever happened to choices that are good enough for right now? Arguably, this goes double for small businesses that are particularly vulnerable to the ebb and flow of external political and economic forces.

Co working offices are places of constant flux, where start ups come and go – and either because they are gone for good or savvy business decision have seen them grow or slim down. They offer understanding (and usually a cup of tea) for entrepreneurs puzzling over with the road ahead; the flexibility and access to meeting rooms will never be as much as a draw as being surrounded by like-minded, empathetic co-workers.

To this end, the question is not where you draw the line between full-time and self employment, or even how to decide the right time to slip from one to another, but how we can change the narrative do that the gap between the two isn’t quite as clear we might have all once thought.

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