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Lincoln couple shares the realities of living the startup life

Ben Pankonin helped his dad run their family-owned Hallmark shop before he could see over the cash register.

So when he went to college, it seemed normal to sell website projects to business executives during the summer.

“I always figured I would own my own business,” said Pankonin, who founded Social Assurance, a social media management solution for financial services, in 2011. “There’s a pioneering aspect that happens in startups in that we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before and you’re putting a lot of pieces together as you’re moving forward.”

The same was true for Ben’s wife, Amber Pankonin. She was raised by entrepreneurial parents and quickly knew she’d follow in their footsteps.

“I knew I didn’t want to work for anybody else but myself,” said Amber, who is a registered dietician and the founder of Stirlist, an online recipe and healthy lifestyle website. “I think that was what attracted me to Ben is that he grew up in that as well and he understood it.”

Now, the entrepreneurial couple has been married for 10 years — and both Pankonins are resources and pillars in Lincoln’s startup community.

Between the two of them they mentor students, teach at the University of Nebraska and lead local startup groups, all while running their individual startups. Ben is a member of Pipeline, a network of highly successful Midwestern entrepreneurs; the University of Nebraska is a regional founder of Pipeline and NU Interim President Dr. James Linder serves on the board of directors.

The Pankonins said they love being entrepreneurs, because it’s a natural outpouring of their individual and combined abilities, but it’s not as glamorous as it may seem.

A “typical day” could mean working from home, spending time in the office, talking with clients or things of that nature. Their fairly flexible schedules allow them to travel together when one of them has to go out of town for a conference or work event.

“For us, work is not a geographic location, it’s much more defining of things that need to get done,” said Ben, adding that some days the bulk of his work is done on mobile devices.

Work also isn’t defined by the time of day. Some days are longer, other are shorter. Work-focused conversations often extend into down time, including dinner when Ben and Amber find themselves discussing web traffic and conversion rates for their prospective businesses.

While their businesses serve different markets, Amber and Ben said watching each other run their individual companies has exposed them to different ways of thinking as they bounce ideas and methods off of each other.

“I’m a strong believer that there’s no such thing as self-made success, so I think a couple that can do this together is helpful,” Ben said.

Added Amber: “But it’s not just us throughout the day, it’s other people too.”

The Pankonins said they’ve received a lot of encouragement from friends and fellow entrepreneurs in the community. They’ve worked to surround themselves with motivational people who provide insight, because sometimes being in the startup world isn’t as fun as it may seem.

“Just because you’re a startup doesn’t mean it’ll be glorious,” Amber said. “That’s the danger, it’s not always sexy.”

The great amount of flexibility can also come with instability, both financially and emotionally if you don’t have the right perspective going into it, they said.

Over the years Ben said he’s watched people invest their identities into the success of their startups, only to be more consumed when their idea succeeds and devastated when the idea fails.

Oftentimes people categorize entrepreneurs as social outcasts because they’re always working, but Ben said that doesn’t have to be the case.

“Being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean you have to leave your friends,” Ben said. “I think that’s a common thought and it’s hard because four hours of golf is hard for me to come up with sometimes, but we have to find other ways to stay engaged.”

It’s a tough balancing act that’s not so different from other jobs, but also has its pros and cons for entrepreneurs.

Amber said the Pankonins have “been lucky” to find good friends in their community, many of whom are 10 to 20 years their senior. These kinds of friends have been able to give them perspective and motivation for both work and life.

“If (life) is all about whatever it is you want to accomplish, then it’ll probably be pretty lonely,” Ben said.

While the Pankonins said they don’t have it all figured out yet, they’re excited to continue to be part of Lincoln’s startup community and see how they can invest in others.

“It’s about how you want to leave your legacy, and for some people their startup is their legacy,” Amber said. “For us, it’s about people and the people who have touched us and that we touch.”