Be in love with what you do but don’t be blind – Berlin Startup Academy founder Christoph Raethke reminds us that passion doesn’t equal success:
If there’s an omnipresent word in the international startup movement, it’s the term passion. “Do what you’re passionate about” is everyone’s rallying cry; mentors will remind you again and again that “only passion will pull you through the moments of frustration and rejection”. (Unless you’re setting up or being hired by a clone, that is, in which case the word is execution.) No startup conference without it, no community event and no elevator pitch: “Tell us what you’re passionate about!”
Now, few would deny that being driven by convictions and emotional involvement is important when it comes to leaving the path your parents have ordained for you (lawyer, teacher, etc). However, if you talk to people who have heard a lot of idea pitches, you will find out something counter-intuitive, something that I feel is an open secret but seldom stated or explored enough.
The ugly truth – don’t follow your passion
The ugly truth is that the topics that most people are most passionate about are the ones that lead straight into the abyss. In other words, many would-be founders are driven by passions that, in a business sense, are a sweet poison – bound to kill you while you still can’t get enough of it. And it doesn’t help that many bystanders encourage the addicted to go on sipping, for the reason that “one has to stick with one’s passions, right?”
Let me give you some examples…
Siren call to a shrinking market
The most prominent of poisonous passions is music. We all love it – but moving into it as an industry to do business in is like walking a graveyard. Some think that’s because the “old powers” governing it – ie. labels, GEMA and the like – just can’t get it right. Well, better take a second look: from Morpheus, Kazaa and Napster to Myspace and Musicovery, plenty of smart, digital people have tried something novel and failed.
Spotify works on a business model that has musicians feeling ripped off left and right. No-one I know could tell me so far how SoundCloud, as beautiful as the product is, will ever repay investors. And for those who dare to take a closer look, all this is no surprise. Because many fundamental parameters that indicate a healthy industry are just wrong in the music world.
Trust your own eyes and look at how musicians live! 90 per cent of them are heart-breakingly poor, even if their talent blows you right out of the concert hall. Some manufacturers of musical gear are doing OK, but name the ones that are among the Fortune 500. For consumers, of all possible content types, music is the easiest to get for free. The market has been shrinking for years.
And you just can’t build a healthy business in an unhealthy industry, no matter how passionate you are about it. You just can’t. It will kill you, no matter how sweet it tastes.
Case in point: no passion in the world keeps the Swedish football team from sucking.
Sweat – it’s not an easy sell…
The second example is sport. It’s absolutely astonishing how many people want to start a company that helps jogging aficionados on business travel find a local running mate. Or someone to go to the gym with. Or gamify aspects of that scenario.
While you could argue that, at least, pretty much every human being has a more or less intense relationship with music (and be it only because it’s so effortlessly consumable), sport may even be more hopeless as a digital business. In fact, it is one of the topics that should be properly locked and chained into a poison cabinet for being an “appellative business”. Meaning: there is no shortage of appeals propagating that people SHOULD do more sports. But a business built, not on what people do or like, but, on what they SHOULD do or like spells doom for all involved (unless you’re openly building a charity or “social business”). And again, that’s no matter how much passion founders invest.
Sweet poison of the internet
Here are some more residents of the “appellative” poison cabinet – stuff that every educated human being SHOULD be passionate about: arts, literature, movies, creativity and languages. All bound to make a founder fail not quickly and cheaply, but slowly and painfully. Like arsenic.
And don’t even get me started on that other subject that’s as passionately doomed as music, which is food!
Berlin – home of passionate startups
In Berlin alone, I know a whole host of startups that work with passions, appealing to people’s better sides. Startups that let you discover ambitious independent films from Kazakhstan, that let you create self-narrated mobile city guides, that improve your e-reading experience. Behind all of them are very passionate founders, and we sometimes see them on industry events where they are being presented as “examples of how to do it right”.
Now, I naturally can’t say that none of them will succeed in building a sustainable business. But it is much, much more unlikely than in sound, profitable and maybe less passion-inspiring industries. Which is why, and that’s the main message here, more people need to eschew the “P” word and, when talking to somebody passionately wanting to set up music startup X, sports app Y, or foodie portal Z, steer him away from sweet poison. And mentor the guy not on how to best put his idea into practice, but on letting it go and focus his passion on something that might actually work.
Courage + ideas + commercial appeal
Doing that is easier than most people think, because someone who has found courage and an idea that he wants to build a company on is 80 per cent there. A good mentor will work with him on what other interests and experiences he has. What exactly his skills are and to which other topics they lend themselves well.
By contrast, encouraging someone for pulling through with an idea he’s passionate about but that is just not going to work commercially (or is way too hard to execute) is the worst service that can be done to him. Especially when he’s a first-time founder. Sadly, I feel that investor friends of mine and I meet an increasing number of such founders who have already put money and massive effort into poisonous ideas that apparently nobody dared talking them out of.
Now we all know that there are ideas that have turned successful despite them defying business logic. Twitter comes to mind. Or got financing despite daring uselessness, like Amen. Plus, we all know that it’s OK to pivot and fail.
Passion – the ultimate destructive force?
But we just cannot sustain the naive notion that “passion” is the positive driver of startup founders that it’s heralded as. The truth is that passion directed at the wrong idea may be the greatest destructive force among the motivated people we need for our industry to make sense.
By the way, for full disclosure’s sake: the moment I’ve got it made, with tons of money and time to spend, I’m going to build something that’s completely hopeless according to the criteria above. Being a musician myself, I’d build the one great and exciting global musicians’ network, using all mobile, social and local tools plus the shiniest design to have musicians collaborate, learn, compose, show off, socialise, and play live whenever and wherever they like, on- and offline.
I’m going to drown myself in that sweet poison. But not before I’m in a position where material gains are of no interest to me any more.