From guest contributor Jay Clouse.
I remember exactly when my view of the world changed.
I was a 19-year old freshman at The Ohio State University. I began my college career in the undecided program, which they called “Exploration.” My advisor told me that Exploration wasn’t a magic pill — I’d literally have to explore my interests.
So I began by spending a lot of time writing stories for the school newspaper and taking journalism classes. That program allowed me to create a schedule with no classes on Thursdays or Fridays — it was like having a four-day weekend every week!
The problem was I lived in the Honors dorm, and the only two guys who weren’t always busy studying were Suprasanna (Super) and Dustin. They had both started businesses in high school; Dustin ran a landscaping business, and Super built websites. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I thought it was cool.
One day I was sharing an idea I had with them for a mobile app that would make it easier to pay attention in class. They recommended I share the idea in a pitch competition with the Business Builders Club — Ohio State’s entrepreneurship organization.
I didn’t really know what that was, but I applied anyway.
They sent me an email saying that I had been accepted, and I would be pitching my idea to a panel of judges with six other finalists. Cool!
I didn’t really know what a “pitch” was or how to prepare it, so I decided to film and edit a short video interviewing other students to show them the problem I was trying to solve. But when it came time for me to pitch, the video didn’t play — and I had to wing the whole thing.
Not surprisingly, I bombed. The judges tore me apart, I had no chance of winning, and I sat down to watch the other six teams pitch. And that’s when everything changed.
Several of these teams had already built working products, sold to customers, and were making money! It had never really occurred to me that someone my age was allowed to make money on their own without getting a job. But there they were, doing it.
That event was a springboard to getting involved in more entrepreneurial events like Startup Weekend, where I learned what it really looked like to build and launch a product. Because of Startup Weekend, I got an internship where I was given massive responsibility and the opportunity to work directly with the founders of a startup company.
From that point on, I’ve been hooked on forging my own path. There is absolutely nothing more fulfilling to me, but it’s not easy.
The most difficult part? Getting started. We’ve been trained to believe in “the path.” Do well in school, go to college, get a degree, get a well-paying job with good benefits, and work until you retire. This is the “safe” path that our educational system is built around. But that path has some major tradeoffs.
When you take a job, you begin increasing your level of spending as your income increases. Suddenly that new car seems affordable. Eating out doesn’t matter. Buying new clothes or even a new home seems within your means.
Then you become locked in. Your monthly expenses are so high, it’s nearly impossible to start something on your own and cover your bills.
When you take the safe path, you may feel like you’re making a good income — but that income is capped. Your earning potential is limited by what your employer decides. When you work 40 hours for that company, they are paying you less than the value you create for them — that’s why they agree to pay you what they do!
And if your employer decides they no longer want to keep that agreement with you, they can terminate it at any time.
Does that sound safe?
To me, the truly safest path is becoming comfortable relying on yourself. Whether you build a company of one or a company with hundreds of employees, you yourself are in control of your destiny. And not only that, but you no longer have a ceiling on your potential!
Living a life of your own design — having complete control over who you work with, how, and when — is never going to be easy. The world is constantly changing, and you have to keep up with it. You can never know all the answers, but you can get comfortable with your ability to find them.
And there’s no playbook or blueprint to follow. If there was, other people would already be doing it and there wouldn’t be an opportunity for you. You have to get comfortable building the path as you follow it.
So remember…while you can only see as far as your headlights when you’re driving in the dark, you can make the whole trip that way.
Jay Clouse is a writer and entrepreneur from Columbus, Ohio, currently focused on leading Unreal Collective and cohosting the upside podcast. He’s been actively engaged in the startup community as a local organizer and facilitator of Startup Weekend since 2012.
Jay says he fell in love with building products through his first software startup, Tixers, a digital ticket exchange. After just a couple of years in business, Tixers was acquired in 2015. He moved from there to CrossChx, a venture-backed healthcare startup in Columbus, Ohio, where he managed several hardware and software products and helped launch two new products in the healthcare space. The next year, he left CrossChx to combine his interests in product and community building through Unreal Collective, an online accelerator for founders and freelancers to find community and grow their businesses.
You can connect with Jay on social media @jayclouse or sign up for his daily blog at jayclouse.com.