There’s a common narrative that to be successful in business or as an entrepreneur, you need to be out there. You need to be ambitious. You need to be hustling 24 hours a day, at the expense of all the rest of the things in your life. While the struggle is real, that’s not the entire story. Morra Aarons-Mele, founder of the digital agency Women Online and host of a podcast titled “Hiding in the Bathroom,” has written a book by the same name, Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home) that examines some of the myths around entrepreneurship. A self-proclaimed hermit, she wants to help other introverts find success while staying true to themselves. Aarons-Mele joined the Knowledge at Wharton radio show, which airs on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM, to talk about her book and what she calls “entrepreneurship porn,” which captures some of the misguided ideas that many young Americans have about what being an entrepreneur really means.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s start with this term “entrepreneurship porn.” How did you come up with that?
Morra Aarons-Mele: I never in my life thought that I would coin a term that’s a bit risqué. My mother doesn’t like when I talk about it. But I just had done the circuit up in Boston, where I live, of startup nights and incubator talks, and conferences for budding entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs. Those are people who are more socially minded and might normally work in nonprofit or at NGOs but want to start a new venture in that space. I have the great fortune of being able to mentor a lot of really smart young people because I live and work near Harvard.
I just kept sitting there thinking, “Is this real? Are we selling them all a bill of goods?” My husband, who’s a professor, and I would talk about how all of the really motivated young people in business school and graduate school want to go start ventures. They want to be the next big entrepreneur. It felt kind of sad to us because the statistics are not that great. We know that most businesses fail. Most small-business owners or entrepreneurs make about $44,000 a year. If you have a Harvard Business School degree, that is not going to be your starting salary if you go work at a large institution. I just felt there was a need to pull back the curtain and be a little more honest.
Knowledge at Wharton: There’s a common statistic that 80% of startups fail, and sometimes it takes multiple attempts before entrepreneurs see any kind of success.
“I think that the media and business schools have created this very glossy sense that life as an entrepreneur is somehow better. This is why I call it porn.”
Aarons-Mele: And let’s not forget all the societal factors that allow those startup successes and those guys — because they usually are guys — to keep going. Who pays the bills while your startups keep failing? We have bills to pay. I think that the media and business schools have created this very glossy sense that life as an entrepreneur is somehow better. This is why I call it porn.
Knowledge at Wharton: How has that glamorization influenced entrepreneurial culture and the employment market in general? It does seem that a lot of college graduates would rather go the entrepreneurial route than work for a traditional company for a few years and then strike out on their own.
Aarons-Mele: That’s right, and you hear that from recruiters all the time. I think you just hit on something that’s really important. I always tell this to young people, and they can take my advice or leave it. I’ve had a small business for 11 years. I love it. But I think that there is true value in having institutional knowledge, working in a large organization, and having a boss that we really shouldn’t downplay. Whatever you do in your career, if you are dying to start a business at some point, that’s wonderful. But it doesn’t have to be the first thing you do.
Also, you don’t need to create a unicorn. I think a lot of [the hype] is around the idea of scale. A small business is great, but the first word in it is “small.” And in America, we don’t like small things. We don’t think they’re sexy. There’s this huge focus on scale, which I think can also be dangerous.
Knowledge at Wharton: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about where we are headed with entrepreneurship because of these issues you point out?
Aarons-Mele: I’ve got to tell you, I’m a little pessimistic right now. I see a bubble in terms of venture capital funding and money going in one direction to a lot of privileged white men, and I don’t think that’s great. But the other thing is that I think that we’re not investing in our futures. No one tells you that when you start a business, you’re probably not going to fund your retirement for at least 10 years. The statistics on entrepreneurs and small-business owners and retirement savings are dire. If we don’t take care of ourselves as leaders, no one else is.
I think it’s time for a conversation about financial well-being for small-business owners, and for thinking holistically about what this bubble in entrepreneurship is doing to our culture and the ability to buy a house, start a family and live out that version of the dream.
Knowledge at Wharton: The entrepreneurial mindset is one of hustling and networking and going 900 mph all the time. In your book, you talk about how you’re not really that type of person. You’re more of an introvert.
Aarons-Mele: I’m not just an introvert, I’m an extreme introvert and a hermit. Right now, I’m talking to you from my lovely little suburban home office, which I really don’t like to leave that much. The internet is how I maintain a window on the world, keep my networks going, do business development while I’m hiding out in my home office. One of the reasons why I wrote my book is I wanted to give people like me tools to be successful small-business owners or entrepreneurs while carving out the alone time that we need.
“If you are dying to start a business at some point, that’s wonderful. But it doesn’t have to be the first thing you do.”
“Introvert” doesn’t mean that we are unable to schmooze and be on and chat or be present. We absolutely are, especially if we practice. But we need to have better control and be thoughtful about what our day looks like, about what the cadence of our year looks like, about the pace at which we work. I wanted to bring that into the conversation. I’ve actually cross-interviewed some radio hosts who say, “This is a great job for an introvert. When I’m on, I’m on. But then I can be down.” So, I think we also need to think differently about the workday.
Knowledge at Wharton: What most people call work/life balance, you call work/life fit. Explain the difference for us.
Aarons-Mele: The term was coined by a mentor of mine, Cali Yost, [CEO and founder of Flex Strategy Group]. I love it because, first of all, work/life balance is a lie. Anyone can tell you that. I don’t like work/life balance for two other reasons. The first is that I think it’s become totally twinned with parenthood and being a working mom, and that is not good for anyone. There are a lot of people who don’t have kids at home and who really crave a life. Let’s be honest: It’s not about having kids.
The other thing is that we want to work in a way that suits us, like we just talked about. You’re on, and then you’re off for a little while. That’s your work-life fit. I have friends, clients, my husband, who love to work all the time. I don’t judge them. That’s their work-life fit. I really love my work, but I need to work in a space that I can control.
I am no good at showing up at an office for 10 hours a day and sitting in an open-plan cubicle. That’s not my thing. I’m bad at it. But give me control over my time and space, and I’m amazing. I think fit is about what works for you, with compromise at the edges, and becoming the best person you can be in your career. It’s so much healthier than balance.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think that’s why many companies are flexible about employee time, allowing them to work from home or set different hours?
Aarons-Mele: Cal Newport would call that your “deep work” time, the time that you can really think and be generative and do what you love to do. That’s your work/life fit. That’s what’s so awesome about it. I have a colleague at my company who’s a total nine-to-fiver. She’s amazing during those hours, she’s like a machine. But then she wants to be done. I don’t mind if my clients email me late at night. I’ve made that agreement with them as long as I have more flexibility during the day.
Gallup did a great study that I always cite. They found that 86% of working Americans said they don’t mind being reachable on their smartphone as long as they have more flexibility on how they manage their workday. That means, “I’ve got to leave for a kid’s soccer game. Please don’t give me you-know-what for it.” Or, “I might want to come in a little later to avoid traffic…. but I’m going to be reachable for you at odd hours.”
I do think work is shifting. Some really smart companies have core days, so they let employees work at home or work how they like on, maybe, Monday and Friday. But Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday are in-office days where people can see each other and do that collaboration. With technology, work is shifting and things are changing.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also touch on branding. How does an introvert use the digital culture to their benefit while also not wanting to be the kind of person who is always out there?
“I see a bubble in terms of venture capital funding and money going in one direction to a lot of privileged white men, and I don’t think that’s great.”
Aarons-Mele: I do think that the idea of the personal brand is very much in line with the culture of entrepreneurship porn. Like, if only we have enough followers on social media, we might be famous, too. We buy into this mythology. But we all know now that social media companies use us, and we should use them.
I’m a fan of being really, really strategic about how you use social media and online content to further your professional brand. I don’t say that you have to Instagram your breakfast or curate perfect shots of your perfect life. But what you should be doing is thinking about the digital channels you can use to show off how smart you are. Show off your expertise. Use social media to cultivate this sense that you are a leader, you’re a boss, you know what you’re doing and people should seek you out, especially if you’re a small-business owner or if you’re in the job market.
If you publish, if you write, if you make yourself seem an expert in your field by publishing smart content … you actually minimize the time you need to spend networking in person. It’s like an annuity. It’s working while you sleep.
Knowledge at Wharton: How has this book changed your professional and your personal life?
Aarons-Mele: It’s been incredibly wonderful just to talk to hundreds of people. I’ve talked to people at events and on call-in radio shows, and I hear how frustrated they are and how much they just want to be heard, in terms of people who are introverts but feel like they can’t perform to their fullest because they’re in the wrong environment. I want people to be heard, and I want people to stand up and ask for what they need in order to be awesome.
But I have also learned that for me, being on my book tour was the hardest thing. I hated it. I loved talking to people and learning, but it was a lot for me. I truly am a hermit, and now I am really careful to guard my time as much as possible.
I also realize that I would give things up in order to be able to maintain control over my schedule. This is what’s really important. You’re not going to be rich and famous, probably, if you need to protect your time and work in your little home office.