The Entrepreneurial Life – The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell is a favorite of mine.  At any point in your life, if you’re feeling confused about your direction, you can turn to Campbell and find new insights and inspiration about discovering your path (I highly recommend Pathways to Bliss to any aspiring entrepreneur).

One of my favorite theories of Campbell’s - and perhaps what he is best known for - is his concept of what he calls "The Hero’s Journey".  The Hero’s Journey is the culmination of years of Campbell’s research of different cultures, civilizations and religions, and it presents the idea that all myths and stories essentially share the same narrative.  It’s an insightful and powerful theory that plays a huge role in today’s pop culture and entertainment, and one that I think also influences the way we view entrepreneurs in America.

In this By the Bootstraps feature, based on my interviews to date as well as some outside research, I propose that the entrepreneur’s story (and life) inevitably takes on the character of the Hero’s Journey. And, in my follow up, I’ll write about how this story becomes a big part of what wins over the hearts and minds of the entrepreneur’s customer. Note: I’ve included a picture of Campbell’s model below, but for those interested in a more in-depth background on the Hero’s Journey, you can find different interpretations in many places. 

Today, I’ll approach the idea of entrepreneur as "Hero".  

Stages 1 – 4 (Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Resistance and Meeting the Mentor)

In the early stages of Campbell’s twelve-step model, our entrepreneur’s journey is set in motion with a calling. 

Often an entrepreneur is living a pretty regular life when they’re struck with the realization that their passion is something they truly want to pursue.  Perhaps they’ve always been fascinated with making their own beer, and they decide to launch a craft brewery. Perhaps they’ve always loved the artistry of great clothing, so they start their own label. Or, perhaps their passion is wine, so they quit their job to become a sommelier and launch their own wine label

Whatever their dream may be, in my short experience, entrepreneurs are often "called" by a passion that they may initially resist (e.g. keep the day job until the night job pays, like my friends at The Infatuation), but eventually submit to. (There are certainly other entrepreneurs who launch a company based on an opportunity they see in the market, but I would suggest these folks are just as passionate and that their "calling" is the opportunity they see in the market, which then becomes their passion). 

Early resistance can be for many reasons but they are all related to our greatest fear – the fear of the unknown.  For me, I had trouble sleeping in the nights leading up to the moment when I quit my job as a successful television producer to "take the plunge" and start our agency.  Knowing how little I knew about running a company was daunting - and I was leaving a secure and successful career to do something completely untested - but ultimately I knew that following my heart was the only choice. That is true for anyone who starts a business. 

That hesitance can also persist and require a mentor to help coax the entrepreneur through their fear and onto their path.  The mentor might be anyone from a successful friend in the industry to a supportive investor or family friend who ultimately helps the aspiring entrepreneur believe in their personal potential (investors often say they invest in people more than ideas)  to commit fully to their vision. 

These first four steps on Campbell’s journey are critical because together they represent a commitment that takes the entrepreneur past the point of no return.  At this point, they will either succeed or fail.  In our culture we often see this initial decision to start a business as a noble one... the American Dream! And, because they’ve gone "all-in", we root for their success.

Stages 5 – 9 (Crossing the Threshold; Tests, Allies and Enemies; Approach to the Inmost Cave; The Supreme Ordeal; Seizing the Sword, Reward)

At this point our hero-entrepreneur enters the fifth stage: crossing the threshold.  Now, their business is "real" and they’re putting a product out into the world that they hope connects with consumers.  They have yanked their safety net and are now wondering if it will succeed. 

But this is just the beginning. So many businesses fail within the first five years that very few entrepreneurs ever get the happy ending made popular by some of our favorite iconic characters like Luke Skywalker, Rocky, Frodo, and many more here

The road to success is littered with ‘’A for efforts" and once an entrepreneur enters this new and foreign world (stage six), they’re quickly met with a gauntlet of trials: financing, hiring, taxes, sales(!), cash flow, management, legal, and regulatory issues, to name a few.

Luckily, they’ll also discover allies (e.g. advisors, buyers and partners) but unluckily, they’ll bump into enemies too (e.g. competition).  If they survive the challenges of stage six, our entrepreneur will continue on to what is known as the supreme ordeal, stages seven and eight. 

This sounds dramatic because it often is.  Many businesses don’t ultimately succeed without a significant trial, one that ultimately sets the business on course for long-term success.  This may be a transformative sale or acquisition, a key round of funding, or the development of a breakthrough product; what’s important is that passing this test liberates the entrepreneur, freeing them up for sustainability in the long-term.  To get there, the entrepreneur must steer their ship through dangerous straits.  This is an important time for the both entrepreneur and the business because it represents a big opportunity for growth.  And though it may be daunting, to paraphrase another writer, you’re never more alive than when you’re close to death.

At this point the entrepreneur undergoes a personal transformation, shedding their old skin and becoming a newer version of their self.  They’ve passed the supreme ordeal and in the process been transformed into a new person.  They understand, and perhaps even have mastery, of the world and industry they work in.  Few businesses achieve this level of success or go this far in the journey, but for some of those that do, their business has become "larger than the founder", and may be capable of survival without the founder at the helm.

Stages 10 – 12 (The Road Back, Resurrection, Return with the Elixir)

In steps ten, eleven and twelve, our hero/entrepreneur takes the long journey home, facing more trials along the way, but ultimately succeeding and bringing back a reward or boon along with them.  I think a great example of this might be the Chobani story, where founder Hamdi Ulukaya  (who started out ten years ago with an $800,000.00 loan from the SBA) recently decided to give his 2,000 full-time employees a 10% stock in the company now that Chobani is valued at several billion dollars.  (Mr Ulukaya, who said his goal was to pass on some of the wealth his employees helped create, had, himself, just faced an incredible "supreme ordeal" when Chobani, after attempting to open the world’s largest yogurt plant, endured product recalls and production challenges that forced them to obtain funding from an outside investor).

Not all businesses make it to this point, and different entrepreneurs have different views of success (the success of companies can’t be measured on size, revenue or profits alone), but I’ve heard more than a few entrepreneurs talk about the moment that they "made it", and arriving in this promised land is certainly the aspiration of many a bootstrapper.

As Mr. Campbell demonstrated in his books and lectures, the hero’s journey is a story deeply ingrained in our collective and individual unconscious from the time we’re young, and the stories we experience during our lifetime reinforce our belief in the truth and beauty of this myth. 

Perhaps these stories become the kindling of inspiration that, consciously or unconsciously, gives entrepreneurs the courage to "start their own thing" (after all, it’s an exciting narrative to be part of) and if so, we should be grateful, as small businesses support almost half (49.2%) of our nation’s private sector workforce (amongst many other amazing stats).

No one’s life or business follows an exact script (and uniqueness is what defines their beauty), but what’s interesting about applying The Hero’s Journey to the life of a entrepreneur is that it gives us a lens to uncover new layers of meaning and depth. 

Maybe the next time you hear a story about a founder launching a business in their garage, you’ll have a new perspective on the myth that’s about to unfold…

Stay tuned for the next edition of By The Bootstraps, where I’ll write about how the myth of the Hero’s Journey plays a big role in giving small businesses an advantage by giving customers a story to latch on to and evangelize. For examples, look no further than the craft beer, tech or beauty markets...