Entrepreneurial passion: A blessing or a curse?

Photo via Anthony Easton

I’ve met a lot of really bright engineers and entrepreneurs who I think could do great things if they pursued a big, interesting problem in a big, interesting market. But instead they get enamored of scratching their own itch, i.e., solving a problem they themselves have experienced and then didn’t find, didn’t like or didn’t even look for someone else’s solution to the problem.

What’s wrong with that approach?

There was a time when I would have said: “Nothing, it’s great.” And I still think it can be great. But I no longer think it’s definitely great. Regrettably, too many otherwise really, really smart people believe that doggedly attacking their private obsession with great passion is THE way to do a startup.

Sorry. That’s just wrong. And it’s got me rethinking the role and value of entrepreneurial passion.

We’ve all heard the stories of entrepreneurs who experienced a problem and then attacked the problem, fanatically, until they figured out a simple solution. They built a prototype, raised seed capital, worked hard and then sold to Google for a ton of cash.

Some of the stories include apocryphal accounts of entrepreneurs who believed against all odds that their idea was meaningful and would amount to something, even in the face of dozens and dozens of investor rejections, colleague admonitions and the cold shoulder from customers.

See, the myth goes, all you have to do is passionately pursue a solution to a problem you’ve experienced and you’ll be rewarded. Believe in your dream. Prove them all wrong. Never give up. Bullshit! There are two major reasons why passion alone for your idea can be dangerous.

1) Your idea doesn’t know a damn thing about business.

There are countless ideas that I, you, and everyone else, have that just do not warrant spending any more than “hobby time” on. If you want to create a business (which I read somewhere is the point of being an entrepreneur) solving a problem isn’t, well, the problem.

Solving a problem in a way that creates value sufficient to justify someone paying money for the solution (an amount of money sufficient to sustain and grow the business) is the problem.

Andrew Magill photo

Investors have a nose for this. And, if your problem doesn’t smell like one that people will (eventually) pay enough money for, then they are unlikely to invest. And if you’re gonna bootstrap (i.e., not take Other Peoples’ Money) then you need to get QUALIFIED external validation of your business because you won’t be getting it from your investors.

Your wife, your best friend, your co-worker, your aunt Judy and your neighbor are not qualified to give you advice on whether your idea might also be a viable business.

If I were going to bootstrap a new business, I’d still look to talk to investors for feedback on my idea as a business. Short of that, find some serial entrepreneurs to talk to, preferably ones who have lots of arrows in their backs.

2) Your passion doesn’t know a damn thing about business.

Passion is by definition not rational; and it’s certainly not business savvy. I would go so far as to say that passion (a close cousin of faith and love) is blind. Be careful. I get a little shiver up my spine whenever I hear an entrepreneur justify what they’re working on because it’s a problem they’ve experienced.

It’s as if the mere existence of their passion is what is going to make the difference in their success or, worse, that their passion is what qualifies them to solve the problem in the first place.

The reality is that mere passion about an idea is not a good reason to pursue it; nor is it an indicator that you’re capable or qualified to solve the problem you experience. In fact, the more passionate you are about an idea the more vigilant you should be about getting QUALIFIED third-party validation that your idea could actually be a business.

I don’t mean that you shouldn’t trust yourself. But I do mean that you should not trust an irrational, emotional drive to solve a problem as evidence that the problem is worth trying to build a business around.

Even if there is a business that could be built around solving that problem, that doesn’t mean that you are the one who can solve it. If you get some business validation around the idea and it is in the realm of possibility that you could build that business then your passion may turn out to be an asset.

Now that I’ve railed on passion, I have a confession to make.

I am a dangerously passionate entrepreneur. I also believe that passion is a tremendous asset to entrepreneurs. I would characterize it as necessary, but not sufficient. So what’s passion good for?

Passion can be the spark that gets you going. And it can be the fuel that keeps you going. It will keep you awake late nights. It will inspire confidence as you build a team, raise capital and engage early customers.

There are better things to be passionate about than scratching your own itch. Be passionate about building a great team, passionate about designing a great product, passionate about delighting your customers, passionate about making a difference in people’s lives, passionate about finding and scaling a sustainable business model.

These passions will serve you well whether you’re solving your own problem or someone else’s problem.

But passion just about your personal experience is actually shaky ground.

If you’re so passionate about solving your own problem, then you risk missing some really important things. For example, your market might share your problem too. But they might think about in a very different way.

If your passion about your solution to the problem is incongruous with the way your potential customers think about the problem then you’re in for a tough run. Beyond that, lots of startups end up pivoting their product/market/business pretty substantially away from where they started. This is healthy.

But, if you’re obsessive about solving your problem your way, then you may just miss the real market opportunity. And, if you end up pivoting and land on a product/market that you’re not as passionate about, then you’ll have lost the motivation that got you started in the first place.

Passion may just keep you in the game when nothing else will. When the dark days come (as they usually do) it can be hard to keep going. In the dark of night when you’re running out of money and can’t make payroll, your competitors are beating you badly, you’re being sued by a former employee and 1,000 other things that suck, your passion for the business can keep you from returning that call from the Amazon recruiter.

A closing thought.

If we had to wait around for entrepreneurs, first to suffer from every problem worth fixing, and we had to wait around for the ones who were also passionate about fixing it, and we had to wait around for them to successfully build a viable and sustainable solution, then not very many problems would get fixed. And not very many successful businesses would be built.

If you personally experience a problem in a way that makes you passionate about building a solution then congratulations — you have a reason to think about whether there is possibly a viable business that is worth spending time on. Now, go formulate and test your assumptions about the problem, the solution, the market, the revenue.

Seattle entrepreneur Bob Crimmins is the founder of Dealometry. He’s also the organizer of Startup Poker 2.0 and Geeks on a Trail. You can follow him on Twitter here.

  • http://www.geekatsea.com Kirill Zubovsky

    Bob, I like the article and there are certainly very good points about building ideas that actually have market value, but I have to disagree, in part. You are basically suggesting that passion is not enough, and instead folks should focus on finding ideas that would stick. Frankly, you sound like my dad, who wants to see a business plan behind everything I do. Although not wrong, this approach is equally flawed. I am just starting, but I already can see that entrepreneurial route is pretty f-ing hard, and the only way to plow through is either redbull+ whiskey , or enormous passion for the idea. Maybe, and most likely, what I am doing is totally wrong, but the only way for me to move forward and pivot is by loving my (stupid) idea so much that I would keep trying, until I succeed. If I were to simply pick a business idea that has a high potential to be sold, I could probably work on it for a day, for a month, maybe a year … but at the end of it all I would grow agnostic to the idea. After all, if I were to do something I am not 400% passionate about, I might as well go and work at any large 925, getting paid a truck load for significantly much less risk.

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

      Kirill,

      Thanks for your thoughts. Passion is, as I said, necessary… but not sufficient. No amount of passion will turn and idea into a business if there’s not business opportunity there in the first place.  Yes, pivoting can be the right answer if you wake up with a product that solves the problem you were passionate about but no one can figure out how to monetize.  But if passion for a particular idea is what got you there and you think it’s the only thing that can keep you there then your opportunities to pivot to something that could be successful are greatly limited to all and only those things that you can be just as passionate about.  Sometimes, pivots can be pretty dramatic and can lead to solving problems that were only tangentially (if at all) related to the original idea that you were so passionate about to begin with — you may even end up in a different market altogether!  If you’re committed only to riding out on the horse you rode in on then you might be limiting yourself unnecessarily.  In my experience, ideas are pretty easy to come by and most entrepreneurs I know are pretty prolific at coming up with interesting new ones.  Applying a filter of, “could this also be an interesting business” seems like a natural step to take before committing too much effort and energy. 

      I think of this kind of like my passion for traveling (which I did a LOT more before I had kids).  If I’m sitting in a train station watching trains pull up, I’m not just gonna jump on any old train because I have a passion for riding trains.  You see, I also have a passion for traveling, which for me includes the notion of ending up somewhere that I would enjoy.  So, I figure, I owe it to myself to check out what the destination is before I get on board.  If I don’t like what I see then I know I just have to wait a little while and have a look at the next train that comes by.  When I see one that’s heading to a destination that makes sense for me then jump on!

    • http://www.duncanhaley.com John Haley

      I think you may have partially missed his point.  I read it this way:  Passion is necessary, but not the only ingredient that is necessary to build a successful business.  I think he is suggesting that if you find a problem to solve that you are passionate about, make a reasonable effort to determine that the problem also makes good business sense to try and solve and that there is a decent market and that that market sees the problem in the same way you do.  Great article Mr. Crimmins.

      • http://www.geekatsea.com Kirill Zubovsky

        Right. If you have a passion, then make sure there’s a market too before you jump head first to build the product. That makes sense. Thanks John.

  • Will Miceli

    Great post Bob.  For many, myself included, its tough to make that leap from passion about an idea into something that can make money.  The key is to figure it out quickly if making money is important, or just keep cruising along and enjoy scratching the itch and building something fun.  You next blog post could be “Going from an itch to a business,” though after typing that out it sounds more like a tagline for foot fungus medicine :-).

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

      Thanks, Will.  The good news is that there are often opportunities to pivot an idea in a more fruitful direction.  The key often is to follow the money and understanding who ultimately benefits from the solution… and that is often NOT the users — despite the fact that the solution solves their problem in a meaningful way and that solving there problem was what motivated you in the first place.  There are a few recurring themes around business model generation that I see over and over again (however none of them involve foot fungus.)  As I have time, I’ll type them up and share them with whoever cares.

  • http://www.puzzazz.com Roy Leban

    I agree that passion alone is not enough. It can get you a long way, but not far enough by itself to build a successful business.

    The best way to leverage passion is to use it to find the business you can build that will be successful. Passionate about X? Great! You’ve got a leg up on almost everybody else thinking about building a business in the X space. Think hard about it, research it, run experiments, learn everything you can, then think hard some more, find where the problems are, and, finally, build a business that solves one of those problems. And I mean *one* of those problems. Every startup should start by doing just one thing.

    My startup, Puzzazz, is in exactly the same space that we started in — puzzles and puzzle games. But we would not have the successful products we have and the future we have were it not for the time I took to do the steps above.

  • Anonymous

    Good Stuff Bob! I think your insights might be related to those startups that are just features and not real businesses. With such low capital costs in starting a business, web entrepreneurs go after these feature based startups more often. The internet industry is still maturing. As it matures, more companies, and hopefully VCs, will focus on the model. 

    • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

      Thanks, Aaron.  I think you are right that many times really good solutions to problems come in the form of a feature which, by itself, would be difficult to build a significant business around.  But “feature” businesses are not in themselves a bad thing and many of them actually prove their usefulness to a point of probability and then get acquired by one of the product companies for which they would be a natural feature of — and sometimes they get acquired before they even have revenue let alone are profitable (I’m not naming names.)  

  • Helios

    Lifelong Entrepreneur here, started my first 2 businesses in middle
    school circa 1969, 2 more in high school, dropped out worked a few dead
    end auto related jobs with abusive bosses, then started my own auto
    repair business (Chevy Corvair specialist, and later Chevy Vega’s too)
    and never looked back.

    Since then, I’ve started 6 or 7 business’s and I always find an unfilled
    niche, be it product or service (or both) to build a business around
    and it seems to work for me. Of course I’m not getting “rich”, but I
    have considerably more freedom and free time in my life as compared to
    someone who works a “regular” job. I’ve never regretted my decision to
    never work for someone again, although I do quite a bit of consulting
    these days, but as an independent contractor.

  • http://predictablesuccess.com/blog Les McKeown

    I couldn’t agree more, Bob.
    In fact, I did, over at HuffPo: (“Stop Trying to Find Your Passion and Get to Work”):http://www.huffingtonpost.com/les-mckeown/why-you-should-stop-tryin_b_813110.html

    I love your point that ideas don’t know business – on the button.

    - Les