Having struggled financially, I embarked on a different journey than most of my peers. After the dotcom crash, my parents did not have the financial luxury to pay for my college education and expenses. Luckily, finding programming at an early age, I learned how to run a consulting business in high school that flourished into college and helped pay for my bills such as tuition, food, and housing.
This didn’t come without expense. Worrying about finances, I compromised my own freedom by working every break that I had — winter and summer. I had to juggle two jobs during school that required me to ditch class and intentionally miss mandatory quizzes. I did everything to optimize my resume and financial success, but I did little to optimize my life. In the past eight years, I don’t think I’ve really taken a step back to really think what I wanted to do. In a sense, I was going with the motions and doing what other people wanted to do and jumping from opportunity to opportunity, but not doing so because I wanted to.
I am an entrepreneur and I will be an entrepreneur no matter where I am in the future. I have to take risks, do new things, learn constantly, and have freedom. These are things that are innate to me and I cannot be happy without them. I think it is really important to figure out what matters to you and stay true to yourself. I was lucky to find these qualities in my first startup, but it was not until recently that I realized the most important quality that I needed was passion.
Passion causes us to care about what we do (even at the sacrifice of our own monetary gain) and creates loyalty. The profit mindset causes us to exploit user satisfaction for immediate gain and fosters distrust. In this battle between passion and profit, it is our job to to balance the two forces (even if you feel like you can’t control it, you can). If we focus purely on passion and give products away for free, the business can not succeed. If we focus solely on profit, no one would trust the business and the brand would diminish. In a way, you could call passion (our superego), profit (our id), and our regulation between the two (our ego), to borrow from Freudian terms.
One company that operates with the profit mindset is Zynga:
“I don’t fucking want innovation,” the ex-employee recalls Pincus saying. “You’re not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers.
One company that operates with passion in mind is Zappos:
Everyone that’s hired, it doesn’t matter what position — you can be an accountant, lawyer, software developer — goes through the exact same training as our call center reps. It’s a four-week training program and then they’re actually on the phone for two weeks taking calls from customers. At the end of that first week of training we make an offer to the entire class that we’ll pay you for the time you’ve already spent training plus a bonus of $2,000 to quit and leave the company right now.
I’m willing to bet that the only way you can find happiness at a company that’s skewed heavily towards profit is through a larger than average consumption of alcohol. I’ve been there.
In my current business (I don’t consider it a startup anymore), we had an interesting journey between profit and passion. We approached business in the following way: Market Size -> Inefficiency -> Solution -> Profit. This allowed us to become bootstrapped profitable and we were able to grow the team to nine people. However, because we focused on profit instead of consumer loyalty, we kept having to find new market inefficiencies and create short-term products to replace old streams that would disappear. While we thought that this would be a temporary process so that we could find a better long-term opportunity, it actually became a full-time job. It took out the life of our work. Since these short-term revenue streams did relatively well, it prevented us from really investing in longer-term products.
In this journey, I’ve learned some key distinctions between startups and businesses:
- Startups are irrational, businesses are practical
- Startups start with passion, businesses optimize for profit
- Startups fuel people with a vision, businesses fuel people with alcohol
- Startups are built by a team, businesses are built with assets
- Startups innovate, businesses replicate
- Startups thrive on autonomy, businesses excel at micromanagement
- Startups love exploration, businesses love specialization
With this, I don’t really want to be part of a business, but a startup. We’re trying to better optimize passion and profit with our next project, but I want passion to be the primary goal. Passion doesn’t mean that you won’t turn a profit, but it certainly means that you won’t give up. If you could only work at one job for the rest of your life, are you where you want to be?
Startups should be approached this way: Passion -> Problem -> Solution -> Profit?
It’s the only way you’ll have the stomach to see it through.