Passion before profit – why start-ups need to lead from the heart

While profitability is essential for any start-up to ensure ongoing viability, profits alone aren’t what separates a successful business from a mediocre one. If you’re a budding entrepreneur, being curious and asking tough questions is a good start on the path to success.

But the key trait shared by all successful start-ups is a willingness to disrupt established industries. And it’s the source of that willingness to disrupt which separates the good from the great.

Motivating force

So, what drives entrepreneurs to want to disrupt an industry?

Successful entrepreneurs, according to Forbes, dream big about things other than money.

It ranks the top six motivations driving entrepreneurs as:

  • Making a difference in the world.
  • Finding personal meaning from building a business.
  • Satisfaction of doing something great.
  • Personal growth and accomplishment.
  • Seeing the real value of one’s beliefs.
  • Helping others achieve their goals.

All of which are emotional rather than financial goals.

Fame and fortune

Look at how a renowned entrepreneur became famous and the response often boils down to “they built a better mousetrap”. This well-known phrase is an idiom, a shortened version of “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”.

Coined by American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, its meaning is clear: “To invent the next great thing, you have to have a better idea.” That is, a better mousetrap will be disruptive to all the current mousetraps.

And when the world beats a path to your door (i.e., you have the fame), the fortune generally follows.

Interestingly, fame is always referenced before fortune – suggesting that we hold recognition of achievements higher than we do financial gains.

That idea is backed by a 2019 study of almost 400 video content creators.

The researchers determined that even though the practice of video content creation is becoming more commercialised and professionalised, the extrinsic motivations often associated with work (such as income, prestige) remain less significant drivers for content creation than intrinsic motivations (including enjoyment, socialisation).

All traits we typically associate with leisure activities.

Making a difference

When we as a society reference entrepreneurship, we often describe it as “the dream of being self-employed”. Behind that dream lies a desire for self-satisfaction, personal growth and of taking charge of our own destiny. Rarely is making money behind the dream. (In fact, start-ups generally cost more than they make in those early days.)

Meanwhile, the desire to be seen and valued is the biggest perceived appeal of fame, followed by the desire for status, followed by a pro-social motivation. Again, dollars aren’t front of mind.

Making a difference – whether to ourselves and our own lives/sense of self, or to the world at large – is both the driving force behind and source of motivation for, the rigours of entrepreneurial pursuits.

Passion vs profit

By definition, passion is a “strong and barely controllable emotion”.

Profit, meanwhile, is “a financial gain, especially the difference between the amount earned and the amount spent in buying, operating, or producing something”.

A start-up is the perfect test for a person with passion: barely controllable emotion to get an idea working. And sustained interest to see it through.

For-profit chasers, however, a start-up (especially in its early days) is a huge risk. Arguably they would be better off buying a lottery ticket: a chance to profit handsomely without the sizeable investment or effort.

As Amazon’s billionaire founder Jeff Bezos once said, “One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves. You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you.” Profit is merely a by-product of that passion.