in Tech

Four Fires That Fuel Entrepreneurs Through The Grind

from Montecruz Foto on flickr

originally posted at Startup Grind

There’s no logical reason anybody should want to be an entrepreneur. The only guarantees are zero job security, truly dire success rates (90% of startups fail), and years of lonesome struggle against titanic opposing forces. Why would any sane person willingly choose this path over the safer road of graduate school or an established career path?

It comes down to the person. Any successful entrepreneur must have a primal forge powering their resolve, or else they will succumb to the forces of monopoly, apathy, or disbelief that work constantly against their fledgling enterprises. Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial because they have to be; it is not a choice but a compulsion. They are driven by emotional instincts that override common sense and allow them to push forward through tremendous obstacles.

For this is the defining feature of successful entrepreneurs –  not intelligence, cunning, or domain knowledge, but resolve. Call it perseverance, call it grit, call it whatever you like, but entrepreneurs don’t give up. There’s a reason they call it the Startup Grind.

As Elon Musk puts it, “Starting a company is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss.” No human can withstand such an experience without a blind fire to fuel their resolve.

Such fires eat their owners alive, since they can never truly be sated. As Michael Lewis relates in his book The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story,

“The person who makes his living searching for the new new thing is not like most people, however. He does not seriously want to sink back into any chair. He needs to keep on groping. He chooses to live perpetually with that sweet tingling discomfort of not quite knowing what it is he wants to say. It’s one of the little ironies of economic progress that, while it often results in greater levels of comfort, it depends on people who prefer not to get too comfortable.”

Entrepreneurs must recognize which base instinct is fueling them, and learn to relish the process as well as the product. Otherwise they will end up unfulfilled, no matter how many IPOs left in the wake.

After years of living in Silicon Valley, dozens of conversations with entrepreneurs, and personal research, I’ve noticed that most entrepreneurial motivations come down to one or more of the following:

Money

An entrepreneur motivated by money does what she does because she sees a business opportunity in it, and nothing more. She may have domain knowledge, see a unique opportunity for arbitrage, or possess a profitable vision, and so she ditches the paycheck of normal business in favor of the potential for even bigger riches.

Many people erroneously assume that money is the only reason entrepreneurs do what they do. But it is actually the weakest of the motivations, since the desire for money is an extrinsic one – it comes from culture, not from the inside. We all know money can’t buy happiness, and the money-preneurs do too. But even so, they tell themselves things will be better if they had a bit more cash. They will always chase after the next dollar, and likely stretch their consumption lifestyle to match the paycheck no matter how large it becomes.

Extrinsic motivators like money will never bring meaning or satisfaction to those that seek them – one must find motivation intrinsically, within oneself. Here are 3 intrinsic motivations, but they vary in intensity.

Curiosity

The curious entrepreneur is motivated by the need to know and understand. They are autodidacts, who long ago realized that they could learn more outside of the classroom than in it, and so began teaching themselves through voracious reading and networking with industry experts. At some point they found a hole in the public body of knowledge; a piece of information that does not exist but should.

It is at this point that the autodidact becomes an entrepreneur. They use their specialized knowledge to create something new, be it information or a piece of technology. As long as it’s useful to others, it can be sold, and then the academic becomes the businessman.

Curiosity is a stronger motivation than money because it is intrinsic, and because the process of learning is more enjoyable to them than the process of earning money. Money is a commodity you must spend to use, but knowledge provides value to the owner through possession alone.

Such entrepreneurs are thus more powerful than those driven by money. But unless they also share qualities of the last two motivations, they will not match them in ferocity.

Injustice

Remember the saying “Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Scorned?” The same is true of the entrepreneur driven by injustice. This person experienced a wrong early in life that they haven’t been able to shake off.

It could be anything, or nothing: maybe nobody took them seriously, maybe their parents mistreated them, maybe they were ostracized on the playground. Whatever the wrong was, these people carry that feeling with them into adulthood, and they draw power from it.

Entrepreneurs driven by injustice are more ferocious than those driven by money or curiosity because for them, it’s personal. They seek validation beyond all else, which makes starting a business a great way to receive it in the form of money, press, or success.

I doubt such people will ever be able to feel fulfilled unless they address the wrong directly. You cannot fill a hole in your psyche with business alone. But as long as they have that fire burning, they are as driven as any person can be. They will outwork all others in their quest for validation, although they may lose relationships along the way to suspicion or distrust.

That said, a legitimate business survives solely on the value it provides to society. Hopefully the good provided in such cases outweighs the bridges burned along the way.

Passion

The last type of entrepreneur is the most powerful, for they are in the game for love of the game itself, not the outcome. They are not driven by the pursuit of knowledge, money, or validation so much as the pursuit itself – to accomplish something worthy of being accomplished.

I have seen a variant of the this sentiment reflected again and again when talking to entrepreneurs. Sometimes they can’t quite capture it in words. It took a non-native English speaker to cut close to the heart of the matter – he said “I do this because it is the only thing that makes sense.” Such reductive logic brings to mind climber George Mallory‘s timeless answer to the question of why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest: “Because it’s there.”

The passion entrepreneur rejects the safe, established life because it is the only way to live for them. They are people who ‘prefer not to get too comfortable’. They will never be happy with a clean suburban house, 2.5 children, and an assured retirement. A life lived without risk and adventure is not worth living. The passion entrepreneur does not ask Why, but Why not? They endure the trials of entrepreneurship because it is the only thing they see worth doing.

This is why the entrepreneur motivated by passion will always win over those motivated by money, curiosity, or injustice. They eat hardship for breakfast, not because of what it brings, but because they are looking for hardship. The passion-preneur will win every time, because they take a whipping from the world and come up asking for one more.

The curious entrepreneur may turn away, content with the knowledge gained thus far. The money entrepreneur may turn away to find another way to generate revenue with less hardship. And the injustice entrepreneur will bear it all, hoping that the world takes notice of his sacrifice. But the passion entrepreneur endures because this is what she came for.

What fuels you through your Startup Grind? Is it passion, or something else?