Why passion isn’t the secret ingredient for startup success
“You’re missing the point.”
This was not the first dinner with a hopeful startup founder seeking my advice that would come to a point like this. Nor the last.
I knew I would have to explain it another way. This time avoiding the phrase ‘passion is irrelevant’.
So I began again,
“Passion is a powerful tool, but it won’t guarantee that customers will love your product.”
I often have a hard time explaining this concept because no one wants to hear that passion isn’t the secret ingredient that makes a business a success.
Our startup media has idealized the way we talk about passion. And it leads entrepreneurs to believe that success is the product of following a passion and hustling their way to the top.
But this idea can be misleading and takes away from why you started the business in the first place: to solve a problem.
Let’s take, for example, the progression of my startup, JotForm.
“I can make this easier for myself. And if I can scratch my own itch, I can help many other people solve their same problem, too.”
That’s what I kept thinking as I worked on building yet another web questionnaire form. The problem was a request I kept receiving from the media company I was working for at the time.
Building these forms was a necessary part of my job, and I had no problem with doing it.
But a part of me couldn’t shake the idea that there had to be a more efficient way: a streamlined process that would convert the tedious hours of building online forms into time better spent on company productivity.
And 13 years later, JotForm has 4.9 million users who were all looking for this solution.
Problem: building questionnaires, surveys, and online forms from scratch takes way too long for something so simple.
Solution: a company that now has 140 employees without taking a dime of outside money.
Was I passionate about the online forms I was building at work?
But I am passionate about saving myself — and others — time that could be better spent elsewhere.
So when it comes to building your business, what’s the problem?
If there isn’t one, then you probably have one.
Start with problems you have with the world.
We all understand it on some level. If my product doesn’t bring something useful to the table, then how can it succeed?
Sadly, this leads us down the trap of ‘being innovative’, as if it’s some personal trait we can possess.
Don’t fall into the everything is innovative trap which “results from the word ‘innovation’ becoming so overused and under-defined that we can call almost anything innovative.”
Innovation can be a fancy word for finding newer, more superior solutions. And better than focusing your attention on being innovative or passionate — idealist adjectives with no clear intent backing them — is thinking about problems.
What problems have you found with the world, with your products, with yourself?
Drew Houston developed Dropbox when he kept forgetting his USB stick at home.
Problem: USB sticks are small and forgettable.
Solution: a billion dollar company that is currently in the process of going public.
In the words of start-up master Paul Graham:
“Live in the future, then build what’s missing.”
Don’t think of yourself as being passionate, think of yourself as being a problem-solver.
As Neil Blumenthal of Warby Parker once said:
“A startup is a company working to solve a problem where the solution is not obvious and success is not guaranteed.”
Success is never a given. There are too many factors to predict what will affect your growing business. But there are more secure ways to ensure that your product fits into your market than just caring about it.
Jason Fried sees his company, Basecamp, as “a product we make for ourselves that we sell to other people.”
“Luckily, there are a lot of people out there with the same kinds of problems we have,” he adds.
Problem: people are inherently scatterbrained and that affects productivity in the workplace.
Solution: a company on its way to 5 million users.
Obviously there will always be those external determinants like how you build the product, how well you present the product, and, of course, how much passion you bring to developing and selling it.
But sometimes it’s your own mentality that’s holding you back from making something useful.
It’s not about how much passion you bring to the project — though it may come in handy when you need to stand out of the crowd — but in the necessity of what you’re making.
Problems need solutions. Passion is just the cherry on top.
Paul Graham takes this mentality to the next level:
“If you want to find startup ideas, don’t merely turn on the filter ‘What’s missing?’
Also turn off every other filter, particularly ‘Could this be a big company?’
There’s plenty of time to apply that test later. But if you’re thinking about that initially, it may not only filter out lots of good ideas, but also cause you to focus on bad ones.”
If all you’re looking for is success then go join a successful company.
If you’re looking for a solution to a problem that you know you can fix, then start a business.
Develop a company because you’ve found a way to do something. Not because you want to be successful. The craving to succeed can, and should, be there, but only as a support system to your great solution.
Philip Kaplan, founder of Disco Kid, has said:
“But we hear that entrepreneurs need to be passionate.
My justification was that I’d always been passionate about building things, getting users, and seeing people use my stuff.
But by that definition, any entrepreneur can be passionate about anything.”
Daniel Ek is passionate about music. And of course, he was aware of how easy it is to get music for free online. But did he think that musicians should be ripped off from earning on their hard work?
No. So he created a platform that provides free music to users with royalties still paid to the musicians.
Problem: music should be free, but musicians should be paid.
Solution: a company worth more than the entire US music industry.
Even Houston originally started with an SAT prep company that had no chance of making it the way that Dropbox has.
As much as we want to believe that the driving force behind innovation is being a passionate person, it, unfortunately, can’t be that ideal.
Passion can get you a lot.
It can get you up two hours before work to put the extra time into your side-project/potential start-up business.
It can get you to follow your gut and make bold choices in the name of your product.
It can even get you to quit your job and funnel all of your time into your own work.
But it can’t get you a successful start-up business.
For that, you need a problem.