For Entrepreneurs, Passion Can Become A Pitfall

Entrepreneurs need to love their products. But passion can blind you to what you really should be focusing on: results, and how to successfully pivot your business if necessary.

When I graduated from college, I was dead set on making positive change in the world. My passion was international development and I deeply cared about making the world a better place. That is why early in my career I went and took a job in the nonprofit sector, bright-eyed and enthusiastic for a life of helping people in the developing world. The only problem was that I was miserable. I hated my job. I hated the monotonous activities, the clerical work, the pointless meetings, and the "consensus only" culture. No matter how much I told myself that it was all for a great cause, I couldn’t help but feel trapped in an unfulfilling daily routine.

So I left, ventured out to California and decided to go into the startup world. I cofounded two small companies—one was a comments bar for Myspace and the other, a countdown app for Facebook. Both ended up being quite successful little projects and the comments bar even generates revenue today. I was loving life—creating new products, meeting tons of cool people and even making a bit of money. And it was all because I was passionate about creating comments and countdown applications for social networks…just kidding: It had nothing to do with that. I was happy because I loved what I was doing, regardless of what I "did" for a living.

Fast-forward a few years: I was moving up the ladder at Gigya, and I was meeting all kinds of wonderful people both inside the company and outside. Beyond clients at huge enterprises, I was meeting founders and CEOs of startups that were just getting off the ground, closing in on IPOs and everywhere in between. It seemed like everyone I met was so passionate. But what was driving them? Were they passionate about their companies’ products? Things like financial software, email marketing, CRM, mobile payment apps? Not really. From my perspective, what they did for a living wasn’t all that important. But they loved what they were doing.

I often see articles by or about VCs and how they decide to fund or not fund certain companies; and many times, passion seems to come up as a deciding factor. VCs want to see how passionate the founders are about their products and see this passion as a significant factor in their funding decisions.

I think this is a mistake.

First, think about this question: How many startups pivot at least once? Research shows that startups that pivot once or twice raise 2.5 times more money and have 3.6 times more user growth than those that don’t pivot.

Do you remember a dating site called "Tune in, Hook Up"? Probably not, but I bet you know what YouTube is. How about a podcasting platform called Odeo? Well, that became Twitter. I would venture to say that most successful startups have a significant pivot in their lifespans. If that’s the case, what are the chances that the founders or CEOs are passionate about both the original business and the new, re-launched company? Probably not that high.

Let’s take this a step further and examine the 10 biggest tech IPOs of 2012. Here are the companies: Facebook, Workday, Splunk, Palo Alto Networks, ServiceNow, ExactTarget, Guidewire Software, Infoblox, Vocera Communications, Kayak. It’s pretty hard to argue that Mark Zuckerberg isn’t passionate about Facebook. But look at the rest of the companies on this list—HR software, email marketing, data indexing, IT security, cloud/IT management, insurance company software. Without a doubt, these are great companies. But they’re also really boring. Can you imagine being passionate about any of these companies? Unlikely. But I’m willing to bet that the founders, CEOs, and many others working at these companies really enjoy what they do on a daily basis.

My experience in the nonprofit world and in the for-profit business world taught me this valuable lesson: The most important factor in your career happiness is not what you do, but what you’re doing. It’s the daily interactions, the "we’re all in this together" camaraderie, the feeling I get from solving a client’s problem, securing a partnership, or closing a deal that keeps giving me satisfaction in my job.

As a society, I think we’re not instilling people with the right career advice. I’m not implying that people who are passionate about their products, services, or companies’ missions are doomed for failure. If you can be passionate about both the big picture and the daily tasks you take on, you can have an absolutely brilliant career. But passion can be a pitfall, too. Someone so invested in their idea, in their vision, may be blinded to pivot opportunities or ways to expand their business.

My suggestion to budding entrepreneurs, VCs, prospective employees, and prospective customers looking at different technology vendors is this: Forget about how passionate a company’s founders or leaders are about the product. Focus on passion for getting results, solving problems, beating the competition, and growing the business.

Because success in business and in your career ultimately comes from loving the things you’re doing, not the job you do.

[Long Decline: Ana Menendez via Shutterstock]

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4 Comments

  • Kevin_zamora

    Point well taken.

    The only thing I would add is that it will be easier to get Non-Profit work if you have HIGH PASSION. Why? Because it is the "Mission" (WHAT YOU DO) that is the most critical because as you said, the work is often riddled in bureaucracy and monotonous activities. If you don't have PASSION for "the cause", you will quit.

  • Mell Lafont

    In Solar I have had to pivot several times. ...and in previous businesses the "PIVOT factor" was mandatory. Great article!
    Mell