So You’re Thinking of a Startup Business — The Entrepreneur’s Most Important Question

So You're Thinking of a Startup Business -- The Entrepreneur's Most Important Question

- Part 4

You think you're a winning entrepreneur.  You want to launch a startup business. In our final blog in this series, we tackle the entrepreneur's most important question. Do you have what it takes? Do you have a "winning entrepreneur motivation."

Part 1: So You're Thinking of a Startup Business in 2016 - 5 Reasons Not to Do It
Part 2: So You're Thinking of a Startup Business in 2016 - Business and Personal Factors to Consider
Part 3: So You're Thinking of a Startup Business in 2016 - Getting to Yes or No

You can solve all kinds of deficiencies in your business plan and your team. You can narrow the focus and increase the market size. You can improve the solution, so it's far better than existing solutions. You can install barriers to entry and unfair competitive advantage. You can bring on a key partner and team members to execute the plan. You can even raise seed capital from friends and family. What you can't easily change is how sustainable is your motivation.

This takes us back full circle in this current series of four blog posts. Your motivation is everything. The bottom line question to ask when deciding whether to launch a startup (or expand an existing business) is "Is the strength and type of my motivation sustainable?"

If your motivation is something like "I want to get rich quickly" or "I can't stand working for anyone else," or "I'm broke and need a job" chances are your level of motivation, is an impulse and will weaken over time as challenges emerge.

What will work for a startup business is a motivation that you know in your heart or gut is strong enough and big enough to take you through the challenges and through the inevitable pivots needed to survive - a winning entrepreneur motivation.

Visualize the Pacific Northwest wild salmon. Each salmon (both male and female) returning to spawn at the place of its birth swims upstream for hundreds of miles. For every 10,000 that begin the trek, 4,000 complete it. (The odds are not that good for an entrepreneur, but you get the idea.) It's a battle against the elements of currents, barriers, and predators. The law of the wild rules in this domain; survival of the fittest. The strongest salmon do their business at the end of the trip; the ladies lay their eggs, and the males do their part to create a future. This is what you are doing when you create a business. You are creating a future for your ideas and your vision. Like it or not, you have to be sustainable to make the trip successfully.

For those of you who have a problem with "survival of the fittest" as a rule for entrepreneurs, I'm not talking here about politics nor about protecting the weakest among us.  I'm talking about the reality of starting a business. No one has the "right" to survive in business.  For those of you who have a problem with the idea of hard work; this is not about how hard you have to work.  You may be able to run a business on 20 hours a week working smart.  Sustainability is mostly about dealing with unexpected challenges; the ability to learn from failures and keep moving forward, having a thick skin and the ability to make a commitment and stick to it. It's he difference between just dating and marriage.  You may not be ready to marry in your personal life but starting a business is marriage to an idea.  Are you willing to stick it out and make it through sickness and health with your partner, i.e. with your vision?

You have an advantage over wild Pacific salmon, the advantage of self-awareness. You have the advantage of knowing up front if you're truly suited for the journey. You know it by measuring the sustainability of your motivation.

Sustainability for a winning entrepreneur is 50% strength of motivation and 50% type of motivation. You have to measure both. The types of motivations have to be inherently sustainable like "making a difference in the world" or "making my vision real" or even "gaining great wealth and power over a "measurable period". Then there are the character-level motivations like "I love creating something new" or "I'm incredibly competitive."

Entrepreneur magazine took up this issue in its October 2013 issue, in the article "The Motivation Secrets of 8 Successful Business Leaders."  They wrote "Why is it that entrepreneurship, a path with a high rate of failure that guarantees little in the way of money or fame, attracts so many talented, ambitious individuals? Perhaps it has something to do with what Daniel H. Pink posits in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us -- that the joy of performing an engaging task can be its own reward.  "Satisfaction depends not merely on having goals, but on having the right goals," Pink writes, noting that the most successful companies "stand for something and contribute to the world."

Entrepreneur Richard Branson quoteIn Forbes Magazine, May 10, 2012, in the article "What Motivates Successful Entrepreneurs?" entrepreneur Alex Lawrence writes:

"I’ve seen pretty much every size, shape and flavor of entrepreneur over the past 20 years while living and breathing all things business.  Companies come and go.  They succeed and fail.  Inevitably, the entrepreneurs that start these companies also come and go because, they too, succeed and fail.  So what motivates successful entrepreneurs? Many I see move on to their next business, others take a break to lick their wounds, and still others seem to leave startup life permanently.

"The light of failure shines brightly on those who aren’t in business for the right reasons.  When the going gets unbearably tough, and it will, these types are done.  Game over.  In fact, they were done before they started – a self-fulfilling prophecy if you will.  Those that start off wrong don’t always end up that way, but they sure don’t help their cause much."

So what are the “right” and “wrong” motivations you ask?  I’d suggest the following:

  1. Solving a problem you are so passionate about that even if the solution doesn’t result in wealth, you are still thrilled you “solved” it.  A fun surprise? If you do solve a big problem, wealth will almost always follow anyway.
  2. No real exit strategy.  The best entrepreneurs automatically attract options. Large scale success creates buyers.  Starting a business so you can sell it can certainly be in the back of your mind, but it had better stay there for awhile.  The best investors (should you have any) love entrepreneurs that think big and aren’t focused on how they can sell the business.  Focus on how you sell the product.
  3. Moderate to light desire to be well known or famous. Some entrepreneurs I know are more focused on their personal brand than they are on their company brand.  The best ones reverse that entirely.  If your business rocks, you will get all the notoriety you’ll need.
  4. Love, love, love people.  This doesn’t mean you are an extrovert. But you have to love working with, hiring, sharing and learning with your team.  If you can’t handle the ups and downs of working with all kinds of employees, you are pretty much DOA.

"I’m not saying you have to eliminate and add all of these things to your motives.  I’ll be the first to admit that money was often a motivator for me.  However, it was never the primary motivator.  I did not lay awake at night thinking about money.  I laid awake at night thinking about my customers, my employees, and – most importantly – how to make my product or service that much better.  I wanted everyone to try my product or service, and I wanted them to love it as I did.  That’s really what it comes down to; an almost unquenchable passion for what you are doing for others."

Be clear, this is NOT altruism.  Customers win.  You win.  Your investors win.  There's no self-sacrifice here.

Next, you have to assess (honestly) how STRONG is your motivation as compared to other entrepreneurs. Are you a daydreamer or are you a real survivor? Have you proven to yourself before that you do whatever it takes to survive and succeed in whatever you do? Is your motivation high enough to be a "winning entrepreneur motivation."

Not surprising, the best way to know is to ask professional angel investors, as I advocated in the previous post, to give their opinion of your motivations. But to get a good start, ask your friends, the ones you trust the most. Talk about your motivations and what drives you; take your mask off and get into it deeply. Then ask them for a mask-off answer to the question: Is my drive high enough to sustain an effort over five or more years? Is my drive strong enough to sustain the commitment of many years? Do I have the right stuff to start a business? Not skills; it's about strength of motivation. Then listen to their answers.

Take away:  Sustainability of your motivation for a startup business is the most important question to ask before starting a business.  Sustainability is 50% strength of drive and 50% type of drive.  Look deeply and make sure you have the right type and strength of drive:  a winning entrepreneur motivation.  Do this by asking trusted friends or associates, particularly those who have started businesses, "Is my motivation high enough and of the right type to sustain a startup?" Then listen to the answers.