Shining a Light on Entrepreneurship’s Dark Side

by Lowell Busenitz

Building a company is one of the most challenging adventures one could ever undertake. But with an entrepreneurship journey also comes great opportunities to know God in unprecedented ways.

An Entrepreneurial Journey

Leslie Lewis is of the most entrepreneurial individuals around. At the age of 25 she started her own software business with application in dental offices. Though the startup was very turbulent, she was able to sell the business four years later to a medical analytics firm for a modest gain. She then served as VP of Product Development for a medical device company successfully launching two new products in three years. Then in January 2017, Lewis again launched her own venture in BridgeVR where she is working on a virtual reality concept for the physical therapy sector. At age 36, Leslie already has more entrepreneurship experience than most people acquire in a lifetime.

In her entrepreneurial pursuits, Lewis has always been a tenacious worker. Her innovative mind rarely stops, and she is very good at bringing together an entrepreneurial team. She also does an excellent job of setting the strategic direction for the venture.

With BridgeVR, Lewis has already invested all the money that she gained with the first venture and now her $85,000 line of credit is maxed out. Two years ago, she was successful in landing two equity investors. Lewis now has seven smaller physical therapy offices as clients with successful product adaption. However, she has yet to get any larger clinics on board, although twice she has been close. Then the pandemic hit in March. Her two equity investors are nervous and threatening to “pull the plug” early, even though they had promised Lewis funding through the end of this year.

Despite projecting optimism to her employees and clients, 2020 has been very tough. Lewis projects a calm and assuring demeanor, but inside her nerves are wrung out as she wonders when this venture will emerge from the “valley of death.”

Several months ago, when Lewis felt like things could not get any more stressful, her lead video graphics employee took a week’s vacation only to resign upon his return. That left Lewis high and dry on a critical technology that is essential to BridgeVR. The day after the surprise resignation, her very supportive father was rushed to the hospital with heart failure. All these things were creating more stress and anxiety than Lewis cares to admit. “When will this end?” Lewis privately wonders to herself.

The Dark Side of Entrepreneurship

If you are an entrepreneur, you are familiar with these types of experiences. While Leslie Lewis’ story is a compilation of several of my entrepreneurial friends, it reflects a myriad of challenges and stressors of entrepreneurship linked to business failure rates. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that roughly 50 percent of small businesses fail after five years and 70 percent after ten. Separately, more than 95% of all startups fall short of their initial projections.

As entrepreneurs operate with very limited resources, they face countless obstacles like new product failure, key employee turnover, market and economic uncertainty, broken promises from partners, and loss of key personnel to name a few. As entrepreneurs get pushed beyond their limits in the face of much uncertainty, things like anxiety, depression, substance use, and distress easily take hold. Burnout can easily become a reality. Michael A. Freeman, psychiatrist and former entrepreneur who is now researching mental health and entrepreneurship, found 72% of the entrepreneurs in his sample to be affected by mental health issues. The emotional spillover from heavy engagement in entrepreneurship is sometimes referred to as the “Dark Side.”

Resolves to Entrepreneurial Burnout

How can entrepreneurial burnout be prevented? From a business school perspective, there are numerous best practices to pursue such as keeping your personal resource tank balanced, knowing your working limits, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, having a couple of close confidants, etc. Good articles have been written on each one of these topics, but here I directly address the spiritual side of entrepreneurial burnout. For those of us who have been personally touched by the living God, this spiritual dimension is so relevant to our pursuit of entrepreneurial endeavors but rarely addressed.

As Christian entrepreneurs, we have a wonderful resource available to us. Upon deciding to follow Jesus, he talks of us being born again and of being born of the Spirit (John 3:3-6). The power of the spirit blows in unpredictable ways in us who are born again (John 3:8). The Apostle Paul says that when we become members of God’s family, a new inner self is created within us and that we are strengthen by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 3:16). This new spiritual realm is infused with the Holy Spirit; I sometimes think of this inner self as the “God-reservoir” within us. Now we have an inner self and an outer self. Paul contrasted these two in 2 Corinthians 4:16, where he notes that the outer self is wasting away, but the inner self, or our God-reservoir as I am referring to it here, is being made new by the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit blowing on us every day.

For those of us following Jesus, the winds of the Holy Spirit continue to blow in and around us.  The discovery of the Holy Spirit and his working power is of the greatest discoveries we can make as Christian entrepreneurs! Through the ever-present Holy Spirit and his power, there is an abundance of resources available to us. Our God in all his majesty, his beauty, and his value (Ephesians 3:16) become available to us through the work of the Holy Spirit! It is like an ever increasing reservoir.

Gainful Resilience

So what difference can our relationship with God make to Leslie? What difference can it make to you? Because the seeds of divine life are now growing within us, the power of the Spirit is alive and well blowing in and around us. The entrepreneurial journey is often a very tough and lonely road but the Holy Spirit’s counsel is there with an abundance of knowledge, direction, peace, assurance of God’s presence, God’s active and sovereign reign, and so much more. Now that is a full reservoir!

With entrepreneurship we often encounter broken promises from investors, partners, customers, and employees, inadequate resources, concerns of potential failure, unexpected market shifts or even issues on the home front. The great news is that as Christian entrepreneurs, we have access to the power of the Spirit strengthening our inner self; we gain entrance to the eternal and all-powerful God. When the challenges and roadblocks of entrepreneurship come our way, the limitations that we bear take us to the feet of the living God. Such challenges and experiences can ready us for God and the resources that flow from him. When we do so, our resilience grows in the face of turbulence because me know God and the winds of the Holy Spirit refreshing us daily. resources are available to us.

Without Jesus, entrepreneurs are dependent on our external circumstances, individual strength and skills, limited knowledge, and social connections. There is no internal source for wisdom and guidance and joy to draw upon. Without God and access to his resources, things like depression, hopelessness, and dejection can easily set in.

When entrepreneurial problems come our way, do not waste the opportunities; draw near to God. The challenges that we face can be reminders of God’s big reservoir of resources available through the Holy Spirit in your inner self. The Holy Spirit gives you a pipeline into the wisdom and riches of God that are abundant and immeasurable! What some consider the Dark Side of entrepreneurship can become full of light! Even more astounding, your entrepreneurial challenges like loneliness, exhaustion, and depletion of resources can become a gateway into the brightest and fullest manifestations of God you have ever witnessed. Don’t waste your entrepreneurial challenges!

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Lowell Busenitz

Lowell Busenitz has had a rewarding career as an entrepreneurship scholar and educator. He is Professor Emeritus after recently retiring as the Michael F. Price Chair of Entrepreneurship at the University of Oklahoma. He has done extensive research on how entrepreneurs make strategic decisions, social entrepreneurship, and is now writing on the spiritual lives of entrepreneurs. He has recently moved to Colorado to be near family.