What makes the difference between an entrepreneur and an employee?

Margaret Paton

You’d think entrepreneurs are unique human species – and you’d be right – but that doesn’t mean superhuman. Some of the most successful business owners started from humble beginnings, and most likely even experienced the doldrums of a thankless corporate job. But there’s definitely something different in their wiring that, at some point, separates them from the rest. So when we put a call out for employees-turned-entrepreneurs to tell us about the difference through their own experienced eyes, insights were in no short supply. As you’d probably expect from such a loaded question aimed at a highly motivated bunch. Here’s a few to consider.

Jemimah Ashleigh and Shevonne Joyce, cofounders collaborative podcast, The Business Experiment

A complete transformation both personally and professionally is how Ashleigh and co-founder Shevonne Joyce describe their move from being employed to becoming entrepreneurs. For starters, the latter want to wear all the hats simultaneously.

“As an employee, you are employed to perform a certain position, with a pre-defined set of tasks and responsibilities. For the most part, boundaries between your hat and someone else’s hat is clear. You know what’s being asked of you,” says Ashleigh.

“We are also sometimes forced to wear hats we’ve never worn before - don’t know anything about creating a YouTube channel? You’re willing to give it a go anyway. There are no defined roles.”

Entrepreneurs won’t work two days alike, but need to consistently work on and in the business to “keep the business pumping”, with the verve to work an 80-hour week.

“When you are your own boss, every single decision comes down to you. From the way your website looks, to your processes, to customer experience – it’s entirely up to you. This is both the best and worst thing … As an employee, everything generally has an approval process and chain of command. You make decisions that are delegated to you, within the confines of the policies, protocols and compliance measures set forth for you to adhere too.”

Matt Rose, Managing Director, ZOO Group

Ageing 15 years in five minutes is how Rose describes being an entrepreneur after being a career employee previously.

The stress is different and “way bigger”, he says.

“When you’re running your own business you’re conscious of other people who are relying on you for their livelihood, everything falls on you and your business partners. Whereas the stress as an employee, while real, is somewhat of a manufactured stress – meeting deadlines, dealing with office politics, making sure you are at your desk until late or dealing with your boss.

William Strange, CEO and Founder, Sports Performance Tracking

“The word entrepreneur gets thrown around a lot. But the standout sign you’re an entrepreneur is you work 24/7 not 9pm-5pm. It’s a passion for business that drives them to start and scale a business and makes sure their brain never stops running,” says Strange.

“My personal passion for sport also drives me in my current business, SPT.”

Strange says entrepreneurs always question to improve the status quo.

Emily da la Pena, Founder, Coding Kids

The difference all comes down to mindset, says da la Pena, who quit a job to create her start-up in January this year.

“How you see the world and how you perceive problems changes. I’ve had a lot of learning to do. The key differences are risk perception and assessment, problem solving approach, generalist vs specialist, focus on value creation vs career progression and personal development,” she says.

Penny Locaso, Founder BeKindred, Cofounder The FBomb Show

Locaso adds another dimension to the difference – resourcefulness.

“Entrepreneurs have to be because they don’t have ease of access to the funds that come from working in a business that’s already established. [Running your own business, you need to] research and leverage the latest technology to drive efficiency and tap into the power of collaboration with other entrepreneurs to get things done.”

Annaliese Allen, Founder, Honeybell Waterwear

Allen says there has been a huge change in the way she views time as an entrepreneur compared to being an employee.

“When I was in the corporate world, there was this constant struggle to maintain a work/life balance. As an entrepreneur, there’s no longer a need to balance my time. Time working on the business is enjoyable, I look forward to it and it gives me energy, rather than drains me. I’m probably working more hours running my own business, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.”

Trevor Townsend, founder of Startupbootcamp

You can’t hold back your passion as an entrepreneur, says Townsend.

“Entrepreneurs are different from people who work for others in that when they see an opportunity they cannot stop themselves from seizing the chance to go after it! While others see many good ideas and opportunities just float by, entrepreneurs have the opposite problem; stopping themselves chasing too many good ideas at once. They have to force themselves to focus and stick to the main plan and to use their creativity and drive to overcome the many hurdles that will inevitably come their way.

“And once they taste the life, most entrepreneurs self-confess that they are unemployable …once hooked they can never go back to work for someone else.”

Bradley Delamare, CEO of Australia's largest co-working space for tech startups, Tank Stream Labs

 “Entrepreneurs thrive on risk, while employees try to avoid it. They are attracted to stability, which can often be a hindrance to innovation in the workplace … failure is perceived as a healthy experience for start-up founders. They appreciate the learnings mistakes can offer.

“People who work for others are often so focused on KPIs and the fear of losing their jobs that failure seems a particularly daunting prospect. It’s this fear that can often lead to the avoidance of challenging work. Even their attitudes toward teammates and colleagues are different.

“Employees working for large corporates tend to see talented people as a competitive threat possibly holding them back from a promotion. Whereas entrepreneurs and the people who work alongside them see smart staff members as assets to the business and dive headfirst into working alongside them.”

Margaret Paton

Former Sunday Age staff journalist, Margaret Paton (formerly Jakovac) has written widely for corporations/government departments and more than 100 online/hard copy mastheads in regional NSW, Sydney, Melbourne and Europe.