The Most Powerful Reason to Start a Company

“People start companies for different reasons,” James Lau, NetApp cofounder, started counting on his fingers. “Money, power, status… or because it’s who they are. The last one is the most powerful.”

It was my first meeting with James more than 3 years ago, and his words had stuck with me since. They made me think — was he right? Why was that the most powerful reason? What did that mean?

Money, power, status — certainly, they are yours if you start a company that turns out to be Google. However, they are the consequences of building a successful company, not necessarily the motivators, and I would submit to you there are easier and less risky ways to accumulate money, power, and status than entrepreneurship, such as investment banking. Since such alternatives exist, those who are driven by these needs to start companies tend not to have the grit required to persevere through the troughs of entrepreneurship.

But why is “who they are” the most powerful motivator? Ironically, the best entrepreneurs aren’t the ones who start companies for the sake of being entrepreneurs. The ones who build $B+ companies feel so strongly there ought to be a better way that they set out to bring their vision into existence. It’s a creative act driven by conviction — or what others may see as stubbornness.

They are great entrepreneurs because they put themselves at the service of a mission greater than themselves, and that’s a prerequisite to attracting top talent because, let’s face it, would you want to work crazy hard just to make someone else rich, powerful, and famous, or would you want to work for a mission that creates massive value for a lot of people? Simon Sinek puts it well: People won’t follow you until they know why.

So when I meet entrepreneurs, I like to ask them why they started their company. Why they chose to solve this problem. I’m not just looking for the left-brain answer of why the opportunity is lucrative — it certainly needs to be — but also the hook that wheeled themselves into this particular mission in the first place. I’m looking for stories in their life that demonstrate why they cared so much about this problem that they’re willing to literally sacrifice their life for it.

James himself is a great example. While he was one of the cofounders of NetApp, he was never the CEO. He was motivated by the productivity gains and new use cases enabled by NetApp’s storage technology, and grew with the company from a tiny startup to a $15B company. Throughout his tenure at NetApp, he always looked for opportunities where he would create the most value for the company, not the ones that necessarily maximized his personal stature. That’s why he is one of the rare founders who continues to play a leadership role in his company 20+ years after founding it.

This blog post was first published here: