In speaking with entrepreneurs (as a mentor or angel investor), I’m becoming increasingly fascinated and curious about why they chose to start the companies they do.
Surviving the inevitable roller coaster of startup life is made possible, at least in part, by founders caring deeply about what they’re doing. You need sheer willpower and determination (even if you can’t will things into existence) to survive a startup, but you also need passion and genuine interest. If you don’t care about what you’re doing, how can you do it? How can you get others (investors, customers, acquirers, etc.) excited?
Life is too short to work on stuff that you don’t care about. That’s something I’ve been reminded about a few times in my career.
But when you look at all the startups out there, it’s very difficult for me to figure out how and why people care about what they’re doing. In a lot of cases it’s outright baffling. I might even value what the startup is doing, say providing outsourced laundry services (b/c I hate doing laundry), but can you honestly tell me that the entrepreneurs really, really, really care about what they’re doing?
Last week I wrote a post about guitarist Jason Becker, who suffers from ALS, and the technology that allows him to still write music, even if he can only move his eyes. At the end of the post, I wrote, “Not everyone can build technology that saves lives or changes the world. And that’s OK. But it’d be cool if more people tried…”
Thinking about it further, I realized that it’s not just about solving “change the world” type problems, it’s really about having a passion for the problem you’re trying to fix. As an angel investor I’ve got to understand that. I’ve got to believe in your passion and dedication to the problem you’ve set out to solve, otherwise there’s a good chance that some future shiny object will catch your attention and you’ll move on. I haven’t asked every founder that I’ve spoken to or invested in about why they care about what they’ve started, but I’m going to make a point of it going forward. Picking a big problem in a big market isn’t enough. I did that with Standout Jobs in the recruiting space; it’s a huge market, it’s completely messed up, and I went to go fix it. When the going was tough with Standout Jobs, it was fucking hard to wake up and fight the fight–because I wasn’t insanely passionate about recruiting. I cared a lot about the company, my employees and my investors, but recruiting as an industry or interest wasn’t my raison d’etre.
So when speaking to entrepreneurs about investing, I’d like to know why they started their companies. What motivated them to dedicate the next few years of their lives to something? They don’t have to be saving the world, but they need a reason I can believe in.
Side note: Founders don’t have to be looking to build a billion dollar company. As an angel investor, I can do quite well on early exits (in fact, I’d like to get a few of those under my belt!) But an early exit isn’t a reason for starting a company. I can’t put my money behind someone that says, “I don’t really care about this issue, but I think we can flip it fast.” I’m OK with the early exit, but not with the lack of caring and commitment. That’s too scary.
Startup founders: What the hell convinced you to go out and start your company? Was it to get some experience? Shits and giggles? A quick exit? To avoid getting a job? Or was it a true commitment and dedication to the problem you’re trying to solve and the market you’re going after?
Photo from Flickr.