Founders: If you can’t do this one thing, Quit

The first time I sit down with company founders to start a project, I ask a lot of questions. Most of the questions are about their business, products, people, structure and goals. But there is one “fill in the blank” type question I usually ask them to answer that generates a lot of value:

“If I can’t do this, I’m not interested in the business continuing: _______”

This question serves multiple purposes but it cuts directly to the core of WHY.

Asking this question, I can start to understand why they work all the hours they do, why they haven’t taken a vacation in 3 years, why they are taking Ambien to fall asleep at least three night a week, why they are willing to constantly fight the battle waging between their professional success and they personal happiness.

Something really interesting happens right after I ask this question. I either get an almost instant response that comes from a sacred and principled place inside that founder or… a blank stare.

Not surprisingly, those who provide that concise and guttural answer have a strong compass to reference as they strive to build something great. They are also, not coincidently, the founders who are killing it.

Those with the blank stare look like someone just stole their lunch money.

If you are a founder, you probably have this answer in some stage of resolution- it may be iron clad, it may me a bit fuzzy or it doesn’t exist at all. If your answer is something less than resolute, you need to fill in that blank sooner than later.

Founders often start companies with a whole series of goals, hypotheses and intended outcomes. Those usually get trashed within the first 30 days. That’s what is supposed to happen but having this core question answered helps navigate the near constant uncertainty that creeps into your business every day.

If there is truly no answer for this question, quit. Quit and start something else. It really is that core to who you are as a founder and, by extension, the motivating principle of your business.

I love what I do. For so many reasons, starting my own company was the best thing I could do to grow as a professional and as a person. After 15 years of working for others, I found a way to take the pieces and parts of what really motivated me and turn it into my own business. I decided, pretty early on, that I would have some “rules” which is the genesis of me asking others the question above.

My answer to this question is simple: If I can’t build a company that delivers significant value and is considered best-of-breed, I will shut it down.

I also vowed I wouldn’t work with a-holes. But hey, that’s just me…


Matt Hottle is the founder of Redhawk Consulting which specializes in owner-operated, start up and closely held companies.