What is more important, chasing dreams or dollars?


There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to motivations for starting and running a business – chasing dreams or dollars? Like many things in life, I guess the answer to that question depends upon who you ask. I took the leap into entrepreneurship twenty-one years ago, so I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the question.

Starting my own business was not just a career decision; it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. My father was an entrepreneur, and watching him start and grow several businesses inspired me (and scared me). In my first column for this newspaper, I shared my reasons for starting my business.

“Money is important to keep the lights on, but spending time with family, supporting our local community, and helping others is why I started the business almost twenty years ago.”

Well, those are the reasons I started the business, but why do I keep it going? I’ll be honest with you, now that the business has grown and lasted for over twenty years, I’ve been asking myself that question more and more these days. Do I keep it open to chase dreams or dollars?

When I started my venture in 2003, I was fueled by a dream. The idea wasn’t just to create something of my own but to build a business that aligned with my values and interests, and something that would make a positive impact on the local community. The dream was about autonomy, creativity, and personal growth. It was thrilling, invigorating, and yes, at times, downright terrifying.

But here’s the thing about dreams—they don’t pay the bills, at least not initially. When I first started up, we went over three months before I landed a client, and it took a solid year before I was breaking even. Money was not the initial motivation for starting my business. Because I bootstrapped the business and funded it with my own money, I was “all in.” There’s a big difference between spending your own money and someone else’s money when you’re starting up and running a business.

When thinking about dreams vs. dollars, the word “balance” comes to mind. There’s a delicate balance between making decisions that ensure financial stability, and the often riskier moves that our dreams require. In the early years, there were countless sleepless nights spent worrying whether I made the right decision. Even now, as many of my friends are retired and “set,” I wonder if I made the right decision.

Over the years there have been months where the financials looked bleak, and the temptation to give up and get a ‘real job’ was overwhelming – especially during the big recession of 2010. We almost lost it all, and it really tested our family. Many businesses did not make it, but we did. I don’t give up easily – which frustrates some and inspires others.

Sketching out the nonlinear path of my dreams at Backstreet Arts in Newnan. Photo/Erica Caetano
Sketching out the nonlinear path of my dreams at Backstreet Arts in Newnan. Photo/Erica Caetano

Despite the struggles, here I am, two decades later, still at the helm of our business – selling, helping clients, working with great employees, and mentoring interns. Why? Over the years, I’ve learned that chasing a dream provides something that dollars can’t buy—purpose. Each challenge faced, and every hurdle overcome, brought with it a sense of achievement that money could never match. It’s been said that a leader should lead with head, hands, and heart. I believe the greatest of these is HEART and there’s some Biblical basis for feeling that way.

However, I can’t romanticize the pursuit of dreams without acknowledging the importance of financial planning and management. Money is a crucial enabler that allows us to continue chasing dreams. As my business grew and I hired employees, money became even more important because other people are then basing their livelihood on the success of the business. Unlike most marketing agencies (particularly those that build websites), I’ve tried really hard to create local jobs and not outsource them. It’s not cheap to live in our community.

I get asked for free stuff all the time by new businesses and nonprofits starting out. My first inclination is to follow my heart and dreams to say, “Yes, we’d love to help you for free.” If I were independently wealthy, I’d probably do that. But I’m not, and my staff deserves to earn a living. Even though they could make more money working elsewhere, they are also committed to the dream.

People don’t value free stuff anyway. Over the years, we’ve helped many people and organizations get off the ground by charging them “starter rates” well below our actual cost. Many of those same organizations have grown, at least partly because we helped them get off the ground. Yet, when they finally have the financial resources and go “big time,” many move on – and it hurts. Sometimes they hire a “big Atlanta agency” or a national company to replace us – indeed this has happened without any acknowledgement that we helped them start. It never feels good, but it doesn’t diminish the dream. I believe it’s always the right time to do the right thing, even if it’s not always appreciated or acknowledged.

But at other times, our work is acknowledged and appreciated, which means the world to me. Just this past weekend, a client approached me at a social function and asked if it was okay to “talk about work.” Although I wasn’t sure what she was going to say, I braced myself for something negative and said, “Sure.” She said, “Joe, you have been undercharging us. I want you to increase our monthly bill.” Wow! It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it validates the “dream.”

CFC team members - Kylee Veres, Mia Scarbrough, and Hollie Holder reviewing "the dream" during a recent marketing meeting at Trilith. Photo/Joe Domaleski
CFC team members – Kylee Veres, Mia Scarbrough, and Hollie Holder reviewing “the dream” during a recent marketing meeting at Trilith. Photo/Joe Domaleski

Let’s be realistic. Most people don’t ask for price increases. Quite the opposite, the trend is for people to ask for more at a lesser price. We want to be helpful, but we also have to run a business. It’s a trade-off finding the intersection between where passion meets profitability. We’re constantly tweaking our dream to help people by balancing purpose and profits. We haven’t increased our prices that often over the past twenty years. Before we consider a price increase, we always focus on internal cost reductions because we don’t want to burden our clients. Yet, sometimes we have to adjust financial parameters in order to sustain our dream for the long run. Beware of companies that are priced so low that they can’t stay in business.

So, to those wrestling with the decision of whether to chase dreams or dollars, my advice is to weigh your personal circumstances and seek balance between those two goals. Be careful if your only goal is to make money – it’s hard to find loyal customers and employees if everything is being managed by a spreadsheet. In today’s data-driven world, people matter more than numbers. Be careful of seminars, consultants, and groups that promise to help you make more money and work less. Despite the seductive allure of vacations and lots of money, I don’t know a single successful business person who doesn’t work hard. That hard work is often fueled by passion, not profits. For me, profits follow passion and not the other way around.

What do you value more – dreams or dollars? What are you willing to sacrifice? It’s not the same for everyone. You might find that your dream can adapt, evolve, and still thrive within a financially sustainable framework. Or, you might decide that certain dreams can wait while you build your financial base.

In my case, the answer has evolved over the years. I think it’s pretty obvious by now that money is not the most important thing in my life, and, frankly, I avoid relationships where it is. Even though I’m a dreamer at heart, I believe in chasing dreams smartly. After all, what is the value of a dream if it can only live in your imagination?

Hey leaders – dream big, but plan carefully. Strive to make your dream resilient enough not only to survive but to thrive. After all, the sweetest successes are those that are dreamed first and then diligently pursued with both heart and mind. What are your dreams for the future and can you make money along the way?

[Joe Domaleski, a Fayette County resident for 25+ years, is the owner of Country Fried Creative – an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Peachtree City. His company was the Fayette Chamber’s 2021 Small Business of the Year.  Joe is a husband, father of three grown children, and proud Army veteran.  He has an MBA from Georgia State University and enjoys sharing his perspectives drawing from thirty years of business leadership experience. Sign up for the Country Fried Creative newsletter to get marketing and business articles directly in your inbox. You can connect with Joe directly on LinkedIn for more insights and updates.]