I was doing a virtual AMA with a terrific group of underrepresented founders from Visible Hands last week and the conversation turned a little personal. We were talking a bit about the challenges of building a startup and how to persist and maintain a productive outlook in the face of setbacks. I reflected a little on my own experience as well as on the experience of the hundreds of founders we have backed at NextView. I think one of the most important questions to ask yourself in building your startup (or in pursuing any important and challenging endeavor) is “what does this startup mean to me?”
We all have different motivations in doing the work we do. It may be to solve a problem we care deeply about. It could be about providing for or our families. It could be about delighting customers that you care for. It could be about building an amazing place to work for your employees. Or it could be that you really like solving problems in your chosen area and working with a great team to get it done.
These are all worthy motivations that give purpose to our work. But there is a more insidious purpose that I think often underlies a founder’s motivation. The reasons above may be what is said publicly, but deep down, one’s startup becomes deeply intertwined with their identity and sense of human value. So, if things are going great, one feels like their life has meaning, purpose, and consequence. Conversely, if things are not going well, all those things (meaning, purpose, consequence) are under threat.
When I think about this topic, I often remember the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” about a pair of Olympic sprinters. In that film, one of the characters describes the moments before a race:
“I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence.”
This is a tough way to approach your startup, but I think this sentiment would ring true (at least at times) for almost every founder. Some people may be able to have this mindset and grind through successfully. But I think that for most, this frame of mind probably leads to some unhealthy behaviors, strained relationships, and probably worse outcomes.
This is not to say that one should ascribe any less importance to one’s entrepreneurial endeavor. I don’t think this is actually a matter of degree at all. Something can be profoundly important, but not be tied to one’s personal value. And something that doesn’t really matter much at all could have an unhealthy hold on one’s ego.
Anyway, I thought I’d share this sentiment publicly as we approach Thanksgiving in the United States and the end of a pretty crazy year for the startup world. While there have been many reports of crazy valuations and extreme perceived success, the experience of the vast majority of entrepreneurs is much more of a grind. Hopefully, this is a good time for many of us to step back and take stock of what our work and our startup really means to us. Hopefully we can come out of this period refreshed, and with even more motivation to do great work without feeling like our work justifies our whole existence.