“He who has a why can endure any how.”
On a regular basis, people ask me whether I think it’s wise for them to take the plunge and pursue their business idea.
Or they’ve already decided to launch and want my advice on how to go about it.
In either case, the first questions out of my mouth are: Why? Why now? What are your reasons? What do you want to achieve?
Your basic purpose will (should) dictate how you build your business, and what kind of business you build. Your personal motives will not only drive your performance as a founder — they will determine your level of happiness. Some reasons pack more motivational punch than others, and some have greater lasting power. Your desire to get away from an awful job or a bad boss, for example, might kickstart your entrepreneurial process, but that escapist urge won’t serve you well over the long haul. What will be your source of energy and focus after the thrill of your initial leap is gone?
It pays to honestly reflect on why you are sprinting down the startup path. Every motivational force has its own set benefits and tradeoffs. Here are nine common reasons for plunging down the startup path, along with considerations to keep in mind:
- INDEPENDENCE / SELF-RELIANCE. Want to be your own boss? Call your own shots? Do your own thing? If so, you have a lot of company in the startup world. CONSIDER: “Being your own boss” is more often myth than reality for entrepreneurs. Successful business owners depend on (or have to answer to) many other people—customers, family members, creditors, suppliers, and investors, to name a few. As you plunge forward, understand the ways in which your independent streak might constrain your bottom line or limit your growth potential.
- ACHIEVEMENT. If you are motivated by challenge, driven to be the best in your field, want to prove “I can do it,” or want to stretch, learn, grow, get better—these are all positive signs for the future of your new business. The drive to achieve is one of the most powerful and sustainable motivators because it comes from within, and isn’t easily diminished by challenge and adversity. CONSIDER: The early days of a startup can be frustrating for achievement-driven founders because many early tasks, although necessary, may not generate immediate results. It may be a while before your scoreboard lights up. The more clearly you can define and celebrate meaningful early progress, the more your drive to achieve can be directed in fruitful and satisfying directions.
- FINANCIAL GAIN / WEALTH. You may think that starting a business is the best way to earn a decent living, or the most likely road to wealth creation. Investors often see this drive toward wealth creation as a positive sign. As Chris Holden of Court Square Ventures notes, “Those who are most motivated by a return on their personal sweat equity and the risks that they took, the money that they raised, and their own money that they put in it—those are the ones who are most willing to adapt to changing conditions, and be transparent, and to not care about being liked or how they look . . . They don’t let anything get in the way of their real goal, which is to succeed.” Chris’ experience is supported by a Kauffman foundation study of successful entrepreneurs, which found that 75% of founders “expressed a desire to build wealth as an important motivation in becoming an entrepreneur.” CONSIDER: The road to startup wealth usually requires financial sacrifice in the early going, often extended over many years. Wise and prepared founders are willing and able to thrive at reduced income levels as necessary. So, while your financial motivation can be helpful, if it is the only thing driving you, you may not be willing or able to accept the economic realities of early stage startup life.
- HIGHER CALLING / MISSION. Some entrepreneurs are passionately driven by a special cause or a higher calling. This phenomenon can be seen across the startup landscape in the many mission-driven founders who seem to draw energy and inspiration from a source greater than themselves. CONSIDER: While mission-driven founders bring a powerful brand of enthusiasm to their startups, they are also more likely than others to become blinded by their passion. If you are driven by a calling, keep in mind that others may not be as inspired by your mission as you are, and surround yourself with reality checks to avoid the unhealthy rigidity that can come with inspiration.
- MARKET OPPORTUNITY. Of all the reasons to start a business, I have the most faith in this one as a predictor of ultimate success. When founders are driven to address a known gap in the marketplace, their energy is directed precisely where it should be—on solving an emerging or existing customer need—and they are much more likely to build their new business on a foundation of solid market demand. CONSIDER: If you’re obsessively driven to solve a customer problem, be sure to do the homework necessary to test your assumptions about the size and readiness of your chosen market. It’s not enough to solve a market problem—you must solve a problem that customers will pay to have solved, in sufficient numbers and at a price that will generate a healthy return for your business over time.
- TO ESCAPE FROM SOMETHING. Many people want to pursue self-employment because they are desperate to break free from a dead-end job or a hated boss. They may feel bored, stagnant, or insecure in their current job. Or they may have been laid off and can’t find any decent options. CONSIDER: Typically, these kinds of “away-from” reasons—unless they are accompanied by an even stronger “toward” motivation—are poor predictors of startup success. Entrepreneurship is too hard for people to succeed at it simply because they were unhappy or unsuccessful at something else. If you’re driven by dissatisfaction with your career or life situation, try to find and cultivate more forward-looking motivations, reasons that you are passionate about—that would cause you to abandon a great situation because they are so emotionally and intellectually compelling.
- LIFESTYLE: Some founders are primarily motivated to run a business that meshes with their desired lifestyle outside of work. Think time for for kids’ soccer and basketball games, weekends with no thoughts of work, or training for that cycling race in France. CONSIDER: Achieving your dream lifestyle while building a healthy business will likely be more difficult than the hyped-up entrepreneurial media would have you believe. In the case of Tim Ferris, author of the best-selling book The 4-Hour Workweek and proponent of “lifestyle design,” it’s clear that Tim has put in herculean hours and effort in promoting his books, and building/marketing his brand across the world. Sounds like a 64-hour workweek to me. In mastering any profession, craft, or business, radical short cuts are usually illusory.
- SOCIAL. Some founders are driven to entrepreneurship because it’s a way to work with friends, to be part of a great team, to meet new and interesting people, or create a vibrant community of co-workers, customers, or colleagues. J.C. Faulkner launched D1 Mortgage, in part, because he wanted to create a better place to work. “My motivation was more personal than professional,” he said. “I wanted to build a place where I could attract talented people and treat them better than they’d ever been treated, and where I felt better about working. I would have taken a cut in pay to do this. In fact, I thought I was taking a cut in pay.” CONSIDER: The inherent risk in starting a business with friends has been well chronicled. Just because you like a person or went to school with them doesn’t mean they are a good fit—in terms of skills or personality—for the business you are launching.
- INNOVATION / CREATIVITY / ARTISTRY. To pursue a technical innovation or a novel product idea; to turn a specialized hobby or craft into a job; to experience the deep satisfaction of building something that stands apart from yourself—these motivations share an ancient animating force: the thrill of making something from nothing. Founders driven in this way see their startup as a crucible in which—and from which—this creation can occur. It’s an extreme motivator, a close cousin of the need to achieve. Mark Williams, founder of Modality, is a great example of a founder who is obsessively, passionately, unreasonably driven to create the perfect product. Such founders are creatures of the lab, the studio, and the computing platform. Any venture that allows them to pursue their creative passion is one they will gladly pursue. CONSIDER: The challenge for founders driven by innovation and creativity is finding markets that are both sizable and ready for your craft. Researchers, “creatives,” software hackers, and product development types are often leery of marketing and sales activities. But, if your first love is innovation, learn to respect market and financial forces and talented people who excel in them. They will help you tether your passion to sustainable streams of revenue.
Of course, there are other reasons to start a business. Some people feel that they were born to be an entrepreneur and will jump at the first opportunity. Some want to go deeper into a professional specialty. Others want to follow in a family tradition of entrepreneurship.
Whatever your reasons, seek to understand what is driving you and what it might mean for your startup approach. Chances are, a few of the above reasons will inform how you move forward with your venture, what you hope to contribute to it and gain from it, and how happy you will be as a result.
(This post was adapted from material in Chapter 3 of my book, 6 Secrets to Startup Success. Thanks in advance for your comments and ideas.)