The Story of a Reluctant Entrepreneur

Cartoon: I'm not delusional! I'm an entrepreneur!

Image by Hugh MacLeod

I never wanted to be an entrepreneur.

I just wanted to write poetry.

Twenty years ago I would have told you “Business Is Evil”.

I associated entrepreneurship with people like Gordon ‘greed is good’ Gekko. I was so ignorant I didn’t know the difference between an entrepreneur and a Wall Street trader. To me, they were the same thing.

So I went to college to read English Literature. I thought it would help me as a poet.

It was a creative disaster. I ended up blocked and bored of literature. Time to change direction.

I never wanted to be a psychotherapist.

I just wanted to learn hypnosis.

I wanted to know what the mind was capable of. So I went to college to train as a therapist. I hoped it would change my life. It did.

I discovered I loved working with people, helping them learn, make changes, solve problems.

I went to London to seek my fortune. I set up practice in a fancy Notting Hill clinic. I worked with all kinds of people – bankers, hippies, drug addicts, estate agents, lawyers, venture capitalists, rock stars (real ones, not the social media kind).

And artists. I loved working with the artists, the writers, the actors, the film-makers. The ones who loved to create things. The ones who really inspired me. The ones who told me I inspired them.

One problem with therapy? The better I got, the less money I earned. My clients made changes, left their old selves behind – fast. I had to stop giving away free consultations when I realised they were working too well.

The main problem with therapy? My clients weren’t in a hurry to talk about their success. Sadly, it’s still hard for people to admit to going to therapy, at least in the UK. Seth Godin tells us “ideas that spread, win” – and I could see the therapy idea would never spread very fast.

Not unless I became one of those ‘pushy’ therapists who wrote the tacky books, whose names were always in the magazines, and whose faces were always on TV.

And I definitely didn’t want to be one of those therapists.

The real problem with therapy? I wasn’t in a hurry to talk about my success.

I never wanted to be a business consultant.

I just wanted to earn a living.

So when I was asked to help run a corporate training session, I thought, “How bad can it be?”.

It turned out to be pretty good. I found my skills were in demand. I saw them make a difference to people’s work, to their teams, to their company.

So I put on a suit and bought a briefcase. I learned to use PowerPoint. I talked less about feelings and more about actions. I helped people get things done.

I got paid more than I had ever thought possible for a day’s work.

I never, ever, wanted to be a salesman.

I just wanted more clients.

But clients don’t grow on trees. And for some reason, my partners thought I’d be good at sales.

I thought they were mad. I was the introverted poet, remember? How could I possibly be the pushy salesman?

Then I asked myself a different question: “What would it be like if you succeeded?” Things looked very different after that. I stopped worrying about ‘being a salesman’ and started learning sales.

I bought books, CDs, DVDs. I listened to extravert salesmen, guys who were totally different to me – Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy, Steven Covey.

I picked up the phone, over and over. I rang and rang and rang all day. I went to meetings. I wrote proposals. I was messed around. I persisted.

I closed a sale. Then another. Then another. Then a big deal rolled in, with my name on it.

I tasted success.

The problem with corporate consulting? My heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t the guy in the suit with the briefcase. I’d wandered into someone else’s life.

So I wandered out again.

I decided to go for it, to live my dream and set up as a creative consultant, working exclusively with the cool, trendy, innovative companies.

So I went to college (can you see the theme here?) to study the creative economy. I learned about creativity, organisations, marketing, intellectual property. And entrepreneurship.

I thought it would make me a better consultant. It did more than that – it changed my life. Again.

I resisted the change, of course. I did an entire module on creative entrepreneurship without paying much attention. It didn’t hold my interest like the other courses. I couldn’t see how it related to me.

I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. That was for people like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, the empire builders.

And I definitely didn’t want to build an empire.

So I went back to the people I loved working with most – the creatives, the artists, the writers, the directors, the producers.

Instead of corporate cubicles and warehouses, I found myself in agencies and studios. Lots of glass and funky furniture. A PlayStation in the corner, or an electric guitar.

So far, so good.

I never wanted to be a blogger.

I just wanted to promote my business.

I read Seth Godin’s e-book on blogging, and knew I had to do this. No more cold calling, just sharing what I knew, putting ideas out there, watching the ripples spread, waiting for them to bounce back to me…

…and amazingly, they did bounce back. After months of plugging away at the blog, wondering whether I was wasting my time, new clients started to roll in.

Instead of ringing prospects up, hustling for a meeting, they rang me. They invited me in. They rolled out the red carpet. I didn’t have to sell. They asked what I would advise. It was like being a published author.

I found myself in airports, boardrooms, inner sanctums. On international conference calls. Talking to publishers about book deals.

Success again.

The problem with success?

There was only one of me.

I had to be on stage, in front of clients, in front of audiences, delivering a top performance, every time. I also had to be backstage, dealing with the equipment, the travel, the invoicing, the admin. Fixing the printer, making the coffee, chasing clients for documents, for payments.

Meanwhile the e-mail was piling up.

The day rate was great – but it wasn’t the real day rate. Things always took longer than I budgeted for – even when I budgeted for things taking longer than I budgeted for. Time off felt like money down the drain.

I wrote my blog, it brought me work. Great.

I was busy with clients, the blog went quiet, new business went quiet. Not so great.

I needed a break, but I needed to keep writing the blog to bring in new business. Not to mention the printer, the e-mail, etc.

It started to feel like a treadmill.

On the one hand, I had everything I’d always wanted – I was getting paid to do what I loved, my clients loved the work. I was writing for an enthusiastic audience, I was seeing my influence grow.

On the other hand, I was shattered. I knew I couldn’t carry on like this.

I read books on entrepreneurship, arguing with them all the way through. There was a little voice in my head, saying it was all very well for other people to build an internet business and get off the treadmill of hourly rates and endless hours. But I couldn’t do that. My business was different. I was different.

Then I realised the voice in my head was talking crap.

I finally realised I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to build a business, set myself free, travel the world. I wanted to reach more people, help them on a bigger scale. But I couldn’t see a way to make it happen.

Funnily enough, soon after I realised what I wanted, I discovered a way to make it happen.

If you want to know how you can make it happen for yourself, make sure you’re subscribed to Lateral Action and tune in next week. You’ll get some extended content from a guy who went from liberal arts major to lawyer to wannabe screenwriter to online entrepreneur… some of you know him as Brian Clark.

PS – You do realise it’s Global Entrepreneurship Week next week, don’t you?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

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Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

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Responses to this Post


  1. Thank you! there are times that your mails seem to long for me and I tend to skim read them, today’s was an easy (long) read – an inspiration and clear articulation of allot of my own deep desires and experiences, a huge thank you, its great to know your out there. “I finally realised I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to build a business, set myself free, travel the world. I wanted to reach more people, help them on a bigger scale. But I couldn’t see a way to make it happen.”

  2. I think ‘process of discovering’ what you want to do is as important as ‘end product’. If journey is fun, enjoyable, full of learnings, it makes you a better individual. And you relish your success much more.

  3. Great! Please put a fanpage up somewhere so that I can join 😉 Absolutely recognize myself in these lines …

  4. So you’re saying even if I talk to myself, there’s still only one of me?

    Right now I’d love to find a way to get paid for taking a nap. But alas, duty calls.

    Bravo to you for figuring it out, Mark. Looking forward to learning more.

  5. Oh what a tease! Can’t wait to finish this inspirational story. I can see myself here as well.

  6. It’s amazing how long it takes to shake the preconceptions on what we should do with our lives and find a satisfying career. Thanks for sharing this story. It’s encouraging for those like me who are still in transition.

  7. I too got stuck in the loop you describe, nice article.

    Fastest way for me to find out what made me happy was an exercise I found in Pam Slim’s “Escape from Cubicle Nation”.

    Get a notebook and keep it with you. Note the situations that make you happy. Note the situations that make you unhappy.

    Best thing about this was it showed the difference between what I thought made me happy and what actually made me happy. And so I was able to change course accordingly.

  8. Thanks everyone, great to hear it touched a chord.

    @ Stacey – Yes, but I’m several of us. 😉

    @ Simon – Great tip, as I’d expect from Pam.

  9. Mark…. You rock.

  10. Thank you Mark.
    You have really hit the nail on the head for me.

    Not OUCH!, but AHA!

    You have driven it deftly to the core of the issue and given me much food for thought re. my own business desires.

    And thx Simon for the Pam Slim advice. Good and simple action is always the best.

  11. I love all of the you’s you shared.
    Our journeys are almost parallel.

    My path… college placement, corporate HR, pastoral counseling, consulting sales, independent corporate consultant and now – online writer, publisher and speaker. (Definitely similar, huh?)

    I would get into “it” because it’s seemed interesting and someone/or some people were interested in me. I’d study, try things out, figure it out, find success and then… re-evaluate.

    It confounds some people @ me – that I change like this. And it has been stressful at times.

    But I love that life keeps expanding within by this conscious, alert refining, evolving and becoming…

    Nice to hear about your journeys and to share this with you – sometimes I feel like the Hugh MacLeod cartoon – delusional.

    Can’t wait to read what’s next…
    All the best!

    I can’t wait for your next article. Love that

  12. @ Michael – Aw shucks! 🙂

    @ Emma – “Not OUCH!, but AHA!” – thanks, that’s what we strive for here!

    @ Suzie – Are you sure you’re not me? 😉

  13. I Loved this Mark, i guess this was the untold part of the story you owe me, lol.

    Totally struck a cord within me!

  14. Indeed! Glad you liked it. (Better late than never, eh?)