Everything Has Overhead

Jan 31, 2022

Entrepreneurs often deceive themselves in regard to the real ongoing costs of new ventures. We think things will happen sooner than they really will, cost less than they will and require less time and energy than will actually be required.  Confidence, an indispensable characteristic for successful entrepreneurs, often leads us to bite off more than we can chew.

During the planning and dreaming stages we bypass one of the universal rules of all real deliverables and outputs – Everything has overhead costs.

Overhead is Inevitable…whether we acknowledge it or not

I was recently on a board call with a brilliant businessman and colleague who was making this exact case. This board member doesn’t speak often, but when he does I always capture and reuse his thoughts and comments. In this particular instance, we were trying to assess the capacity of the organization’s leadership. In short, we were trying to determine if they had enough margin – time, focus, resources – to launch a new initiative while juggling all the things already in the air. He gently reminded us that there is always overhead attached to our endeavors and if nothing else, there is an intellectual demand.

I was struck by how true this concept really is.

The overhead might be more mental or emotional than dollars and days, but there is an enterprise tax that must always be carried forward with dreaming leaders. Ouch… maybe I should have used a different image than taxes. I guess I was just thinking of the old adage of death and taxes as certain inevitabilities.

Oh well. When conceptually mapping a new idea or building the budget for what that idea will cost to launch or sustain into the future, I must always ask the question of overhead.

Evaluating Overhead – Shifting our Focus

To get at overhead I might have to push my concentration away from the exciting vision itself and to the methodical build-out.  Or, I might have to predetermine what swaps are going to be in play to add something new. Everything and everyone has a finite capacity. Every competitive sports team has a roster limit, every airplane we jump on has a seat and weight limit, every tabletop, every 24-hour day.  An entrepreneurial leader has to account for overhead. And more times than not to realize the dream around the corner, it is going to require all kinds of investments that are difficult to totally quantify ahead of time.

One trick is to build a little more margin in the process. Yes, you heard me. Cook in some fat into the books with regards to the time, mental exercises, finances and even the conversations needed to pull off your next big idea.  Why? Because as Eileen Gunn’s article points out, entrepreneurs regularly underestimate how much things will cost to launch and sustain. Whether it relates to employee payroll, startup costs, or even our own salaries, we tend toward optimism.

Now I fully understand that overhead can make a profitable, inspiring P&L look much less appealing.  Gunn, in fact, acknowledges that “estimating higher costs, lower revenue and a longer time to viability might seem intimidating.” But some overhead is necessary. Without it there is never scale and sustainability.

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