Why Are You an Entrepreneur?
You might want to check your motivations, because they’re directly related to your success
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about the reasons why you want to be an entrepreneur, but you should. I can tell you from experience that knowing those reasons and acting on them are ultimately going to be the difference between your successes and failures as an entrepreneur.
Not long ago, I ran a poll in Teaching Startup asking our member entrepreneurs what success looked like for them. I told them that whenever I have these kinds of conversations with my entrepreneur peers, the answer usually falls into one of two camps — either they’ve never thought about what personal success means for them or they’re too busy focusing on the journey to think about the destination.
And yes, there are a handful of my peers who will directly reference the money — boatloads and truckloads of it, in fact.
None of those answers are untruthful and, for the record, none of those answers are wrong. Each reason is as different as each entrepreneur, as each person. So regardless of your motivations, the important thing is to be honest about those motivations and act on those motivations.
Let’s talk about why and how we do that.
The results: Money is a big deal
Because of the altruistic responses I was getting from my peers, and the fact that I maybe don’t 100% believe them, I reminded the Teaching Startup membership that the poll was indeed anonymous and they should definitely think about the money, even if they’re not thinking about the money.
And as it turns out, the money is a big reason why most of these entrepreneurs chose their path. But maybe not in the way conventional wisdom makes it out to be.
57% of the respondents said they wanted financial success. “I want to work my butt off and be rewarded for it.”
19% said they wanted financial freedom. “I don’t care what the numbers are, but I’m not killing myself to make this happen.”
14% said they wanted it all. “I’ll take the money and the book deal when I’m done please.”
Quick math says that ~90% of the entrepreneurs who responded agreed that money was a component of the success equation. This is important and I’ll explain why in a minute. First, let’s look at the other end of the spectrum.
5% said they would trade being comfortable for the mission. “If I have to struggle my whole life, so be it.”
And another 5% said they would die poor. “This is going to work if it (literally) kills me.”
Make no mistake, starting a business can literally kill you. Study after study has shown that being an entrepreneur is hard on mental on physical health in a way that most career options are not. So why do so many take the entrepreneurial career path?
Back to the money for a second. Maybe it’s not the core of an entrepreneur’s motivation, but regardless of how altruistic an entrepreneur’s goals and a startup’s business model may be, money will certainly show up on the scorecard.
But that doesn’t mean the mission component has to be thrown out of the equation altogether.
Why I stopped chasing money (and why you may or may not want to)
A long time ago, I stopped listing money as my primary motivation for being an entrepreneur. This didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t any sort of cosmic revelation.
Truth be told, I actually de-emphasized money the moment I became an entrepreneur. I was already on my career path when I made the decision to start my own business, and I knew that becoming an entrepreneur would automatically reduce my chances of making a lot of money over a longer period of time. This isn’t something every entrepreneur knows before they make the jump, but choosing to start a business is the career-equivalent of stepping off the secure path and wandering into the dark, creepy woods.
You might find a pot of gold, you might find an army of evil clowns.
Now, if career growth and wealth accumulation in the corporate world is a straight line up and to the right (and it is not, but that’s another topic), then the same line when you’re an entrepreneur is a sawtooth up and down as time moves on. There is very little assurance that you won’t sink to new lows. But there is hope that you’ll reach new highs, and when entrepreneurs talk about wealth, the possibility of those new highs is why they give up the (alleged) security of straight line, sure-and-steady wealth.
For entrepreneurs, at least the ones that know what they’re getting into, the motivation is not so much financial wealth as it is financial freedom.
Financial freedom is what I ended up latching on to, when I figured out that all the money in the world doesn’t make you happy until you put limits on how that money translates into freedom. For each person, that particular negotiation is unique. And when I negotiated my own limits, that’s when I realized that if I truly wanted success as an entrepreneur, as I honestly defined it, the money would end up getting in the way.
But again, I couldn’t completely disentangle money from the equation.
Money + mission = freedom
It doesn’t matter if entrepreneurism is your job or your hobby, for the vast majority of us, entrepreneurism is first-and-foremost a mission. A lot of first-time entrepreneurs talk about passive income as a motivation, but that’s not what they’re really after. They want to enjoy their work. They want it not to feel like work. They want to work on problems they find interesting, or challenging, or important.
I said the following in a post recently and it resonated more than I thought it would:
“I still struggle with the fact that when I do actual work — work that generates value for me or someone else, whether that’s a customer, a colleague, an investor, or a partner — it doesn’t feel like work. I feel like I need to be getting back to the grind.”
20+ years and several exits and failures later, I’m still trying to explain why I want to be an entrepreneur. But I no longer have to justify it. I just have to act on it.
I know that I don’t want to work a job that I constantly dream of retiring from. Passive income would be nice, but only in the sense that it would grant me the freedom to pursue those interesting problems I can’t stop thinking about.
And that’s what it’s all about, for me, and I believe for a lot of others. Freedom.
There’s a saying in product development. People don’t want more choices, they want to be directed to the best choice for them. And that’s what we entrepreneurs want out of our careers, the best choice for us.
It may not the freedom to wake up each day and decide if we’re going to work or not. What we’re after is the freedom to wake up each day and head in the direction that’s the right choice for us.
It may not be the freedom to earn the maximum amount we can for the longest amount of time. What we’re after is the freedom to act on our own choices, and not get stopped out because the money side of the equation tells us we need to do something different.
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If you want more direct startup advice, look into Teaching Startup.