“Businessmen are our only metaphysicians…”
–Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
We were days away from closing a fresh fundraising round when our CFO pulled me aside to tell me the company did not have enough cash to cover the next payroll run.
“Never miss payroll” is the most uncontroversial of all the startup advice out there. We held this hard-and-fast rule in mind and used our gross payroll figure as a fixed expense in forecasts. Black-and-white issues are rare in startups, yet once you get down to practice, you find that even this simple advice is not so black-and-white.
We called an urgent meeting of the executive team to discuss our cash emergency. The solution we came up with was for everyone on the management team to take a drastic pay cut, but leave all other employee salaries the same, allowing payroll to squeak through at just under our current cash balance. A week later we closed our round and soon things returned back to normal.
So, were we faithful followers of the startup maxim? Did we still “make payroll,” even though several management employees got paid less than their usual wage?
Even if you answer in the positive, the best you could say is something like “Yeah, you made payroll, but…” It’s not 100% clear cut. We only just made payroll because we redefined what it meant to make payroll, and shifted some atoms in the world (that month’s salary calculations) to make the outcome “Did employees get paid?” come out true.
In the annals of entrepreneurship, this tale is a dime a dozen. Every entrepreneur worth their salt can relate with a story of their own company’s near-death experience. In fact, because this story is so common, I believe it sheds light on the defining skill set of entrepreneurship.
Just as emotional labor is arguably the foundation of work in the service industry, I posit that the shared work domain of entrepreneurs the world over is one of metaphysical labor.