Success is about more than money.
Move over rock stars, athletes, and A-list actors, we’ve got a new idol this season: Entrepreneurs. A very particular brand of them, too — not the bootstrapper or the small business builder, but the Unicorn with the multi-million dollar Series A. The big name investors. The billion dollar valuation. We glorify the startup life, buying into the hype that:
- Raising a lot of investment money indicates success
- Being acquired or going public are the best possible outcomes
- Success primarily depends on your technical skills and experience
- Your company will make it if you follow the steps of other entrepreneurs
- You must choose between making money and making meaning
- The best way to make an impact on the world is to be a Founder or CEO
And, sure, sometimes these are true. But like most careers, rather than imagining how the unlikely ideal scenario feels, you can ask whether you are willing to accept the far more likely downside of the role. In the case of entrepreneurship this includes uncomfortably high odds of failure, financial uncertainty, incredibly hard decisions (that impact other peoples’ lives), frequent isolation, unexpected loneliness, and long thankless hours. And while Benajmins may be the easiest indicator of success to measure, the startup metrics we rely on are often misleading. Valuations are anything but precise. Investment raised is a debt –the more you take, the less control you have over your business. And if you’re really successful in meeting your financial goals, you might get acqui-hired and spend several years at the kind of company you became an entrepreneur to avoid. Fun!
The endless listicles promising the ‘top ten keys to startup success” treat entrepreneurship as a science — a formula of activities, circumstances, and processes that can be duplicated, offering standard results. But while navigating the fundamentals of the business is necessary, it is not sufficient. Checklists of essential entrepreneurial ingredients ignore the very nature of entrepreneurship. They treat it like a class that can be aced instead of a dynamic situation that is constantly and unpredictably changing. Like answers are black and white instead of fifty shades of grey. As if the success of the business can happen in a vacuum, irrespective of the Founder (when in reality, it’s more like an unborn child, whose health is directly linked to that of its momtrepreneur).
We discount the importance of difficult to quantify elements like drive, passion, and motivation. We likewise undervalue the incredible meaning, purpose, and impact that can be had by running a business with a vision higher than the giant payoff. But what if the rising generation of entrepreneurs were equipped with a personal compass that helped them translate their individual purpose and professional skills into social impact, while also making a profit?
How could we make the business case for adding new (hard to measure and quantify) parameters to the equation? What happens when success means something different for each business? And achieving it requires more than money?
In entrepreneurship, more so than in other employment scenarios, the personal and the professional are deeply connected. Before you can make an honest assessment of your professional strengths, weaknesses, talents, values, and passions, (or those of your startup) you should consider your personal strengths, weaknesses, talents, values, and passions. The same way that we look at the business’ strategy, mission, vision, core competencies, and competitive advantage, we can look at the entrepreneur’s differentiation, purpose, capabilities, passions, operating methods, and life experiences. What matters to you? What are you willing to fight for? What can you uniquely offer that others cannot? What do you innately understand? What are you bad at?
The modern Western interpretation of an old Eastern concept — Ikigai
There is a resurgence of the Japanese concept of Ikigai (loosely translates to “reason for being”). You’ve probably seen the image above, a ven diagram of overlap between what you are good at, what you love, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs. It’s used as a tool for building a more purposeful life, specifically through meaningful work. If we think about entrepreneurship in terms of the four Ikigai elements, it has always been focused on what you can be paid for and what you are good at. Then social entrepreneurship came along and we added a third element — what the world needs. And of course, many founders have started businesses from their hobbies or passions, but that has never really been a prerequisite. But what if it was?
What if the next generation of social entrepreneurs built businesses that were deeply connected to their personal Ikigai? What if the paradigm of entrepreneurship shifted such that every business was a combination of what we can be paid for, what we are good at, what the world needs, and what we love?
(To be clear, when I talk about what we love, I don’t just mean passions and hobbies. I mean the things we are willing to fight for, the problems we care enough about to solve, the things that matter most to us.)
While IRL there is no perfect equation of the four Ikigai elements (and depending on your priorities at the time, you may have to sacrifice some of one to allow for more of another), they can be used as a compass to bring things into balance. And it isn’t always “what the world needs” that is missing. When I launched my first business, Qualifyor, I wanted to change the way people prepared for and thought about work, to provide resources for young people to step outside the standard college to career path. My ego had bought into the idea that the best (only) way for me to drive significant change was as a Founder and CEO of a venture-backed firm. Over two years of running the business, I felt the struggle of trying to balance profit with social impact (in Ikigai terms, what I could be paid for vs. what the world needs). Not to mention the realization that although the vision was a fit, the role was not (what I loved vs. what I was good at). Despite my best attempts at disruption, I had essentially re-created a school — something other people were probably naturally better at and happier doing than I was, given that I had left school to self teach my way to an early diploma at sixteen. My role completely squandered the unique parts of me, the things that only I brought to the table. And so as I thought about my next move, I focused on my Ikigai, (below are some of the things I discovered):
- Good At: Design thinking, writing, problem solving, first principles reasoning
- Paid For: Education/employment innovation, facilitation, coaching, speaking
- Love: Self-organization, big ideas, challenging existing systems, reading
- World Needs: Updated mindset about how and why we work and learn, entrepreneurs solving world’s biggest challenges, financial incentive to build things for the social good, self organization tools
Armed with this awareness, I began writing a book of unorthodox questions to help people build a purpose driven career by re-defining success at an individual level. And I started an innovation consultancy aligned with my Ikigai, to help change the way we look at the world by using first principles reasoning and design thinking to drive more than incremental change to our systems, companies, universities, and cities. It takes a lot longer to say than “Ed Tech CEO,” but these are the messy problems in the world that I am equipped, motivated, and paid to tackle. And this is the way I am best equipped to tackle them.
Being an entrepreneur can take many different shapes, so before you make the choice to start something, it is worth spending a minute determining the sort of thing you are best suited to start. Because differentiation doesn’t happen through conformity — it happens through embracing individuality. There is competitive advantage in running a business for which you are uniquely suited. Not only in terms of your work experience, but also in terms of your interests, skills, relationships, knowledge, motivation, and the legacy you want to leave. If we want to maximize our service to others, we should be spending the majority of our time doing the things that we care enough about to do regardless of whether we are being paid, the things that come naturally to us (of course it is rare to only have to do things we are good at and love, but those should be the bigger pieces of our time pie).
Consider the most influential moments and events you’ve experienced and what they have taught you. What they have instilled in you? These are not just talking points for an interview, but fundamental aspects of your character and drive. For some people, it can be a direct effect — someone you love was shot, so you became a gun control advocate, or you were raised by a single mother and now want fight for better social policies for families like yours, or perhaps you suffered under the burden of student loans and now work for an alternative education company. For others, it is a more abstract connection. You escaped bullying with comic books and great music, and you want to support creative industries. Or you watched a friend fight cancer and it motivated you to make the most of your health.
When sh*t really gets hard, it takes a lot more than money to iterate, adapt, and weather the storm. In a race where the majority of runners don’t cross the finish line, it helps to be working in service of something larger than yourself, that you care immensely about, and are singularly equipped to accomplish. It is time to stop viewing profit and impact as opposing sides of the startup spectrum — they are integrally intertwined. And the sooner we stop forcing entrepreneurs to choose between them, the faster we can shift the paradigm toward businesses making more than money (and make more money by doing so).
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