Why passion matters.

I have many flaws. I know about most of them, but I’m sure there are just as many I don’t know about. I try to be a good person, but I am who I am…. for better or worse. You certainly won’t find me reading the “4 hour work week” or getting too much in to self-improvement, and you certainly won’t get me to become a vegan, or get me to a gym any time soon. So if you’re hoping to get some guidance about life choices here, well I’m probably going to disappoint! But one thing is for certain, I’m passionate about what I do. That is both a blessing and a curse.

I was told about a year ago, by someone that I have the utmost respect for, that I’m the most difficult CEO they’ve ever worked with. When this person told me, I laughed and said “I don’t doubt it for a minute”. I don’t take joy in being difficult, but I also know that I am difficult for good reasons. If you’re working with me, we’ll get along famously. If you’re in my way, well… you’re not going to like me much. Some may say that I have a generous dose of arrogance, but I think it’s more that I have a very well developed sense of priorities. The only time I really have a problem with someone is when their priorities don’t line up with mine and that they expect me to change mine.

I’m absolutely and entirely devoted to my family, my team, my product and my customers. These things are all-consuming to me, and when someone asks me to place something higher on the priority list than these things, I get really bloody grumpy about it. It’s not that I don’t care about other things, it’s just that I wont obsess about them. When I am passionate about something, it usually doesn’t leave much room for anything else.

I believe that this passion is critical to running a startup. I can say, with absolute confidence, that there is no person in the world who cares about my business as much as I do. There is also nothing else, besides my family, that I care about more. If I am awake, I’m either with my kids or I’m working. Working doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in front of a computer. It often means I’m sitting with a sketchbook, or thinking, or dreaming, or discussing things with my wife (who also works at Macropod). This business has been all-consuming for nearly five years now, and there’s simply no way I could do anything else.

So when I speak to other founders or folks that are interested in getting startup advice, the first thing I ask them is about their passion. As soon as someone tells me their passion is to “run a startup”, I get scared for them. No one with sound mind wants to run a startup. It’s ideally a temporary situation on the way to the wholly less glamorous job of “running a business”. These folks have generally been sold an image of freedom and piles of cash which, they will soon be disappointed to discover, simply isn’t true. They’ll quit shortly thereafter.

When someone tells me their passion is music or art, but they’re trying to solve a problem in finance, my heart breaks for them. You have to love the problem space, or at the very least love the customer segment you’re serving. Not just because passion in the problem is important, but because as a founder, you absolutely must have relevant experience to solve that problem. If your one love is art, then you absolutely must be in the art industry. Simple as that.

When someone tells me their startup is a “side project”, I want to throttle them. I understand that for many they simply don’t have a choice, whether because of money, or kids or some other commitment. But if you’re a founder that won’t take a risk on your own business, what hope do you have convincing customers and investors that they should instead? Not only that, but if you’re working 10 hours a week, how do you ever hope to compete with even one other solo founder working a normal 40 hour week? Even that one person will achieve in a week what takes you a month. It just doesn’t work.

Of course all these folks may well make some money on the way, and that’s great. For the first time founder, even a side project is valuable experience.  But you can guarantee that when the wheels fall off, as they invariably always do, they will pack up shop and give up. The ingredient that is missing from all these people is passion.

I could tell you a dozen stories of times I’ve nearly thrown in the towel as CEO of Macropod. There are so many times I’ve questioned whether it’s all worth it. Not just the stress on me, but also on my family. I’m poorly paid, I have no friends outside of work and I work harder than I’ve ever worked in any other job prior. This isn’t a sob story though, this is just demonstrating the need for passion in what you do. Without the passion for this company, I would’ve quit a long time ago.

A short example happened about 18 months after raising our first round of funding. Due to having made more mistakes than you could possible believe, we found ourselves about 3 weeks from going broke. We were quite literally scraping the bottom of the barrel. We were unable to make the next payroll for the entire team, and by that point we’d already let a couple of people go. Matt and I, as founders, went without pay for a couple of months so that we could pay the remaining two staff. With the help of a government grant, and with some dramatic changes to the app we managed to keep the company afloat. Rather than walking away, we found a way to keep fighting. We chose not to die, as so many startups do. Maybe in a few years time I’d wish we had done just that, but so far at least, it seems like we did the right thing by sticking with it.

It was the passion that kept us going long after everyone else has given up on us. No matter how hard life gets at work or even outside of work, you just have to pick yourself up and keep going. You drag your sorry ass to work every day, not because you want to, but because you have to. That drive doesn’t come from some external influence or force, it comes from inside you. Somewhere deep down inside good founders have something that just does not let them quit. It’s not because staff are depending on them, or investors are expecting of them, or that customers are crying for them… it’s something on the inside. Some people have it, and some people don’t. Whether they’re up against the ropes, or laying flat on the canvas, the great founders get up and keep going, and that difference is drive and the passion.

There are far easier and more financially rewarding jobs than running a startup. Financially, you would be far better off to stick with consulting or working for someone else. And if your passion is to make money, then that’s exactly what you should do.

But, please…. don’t start a startup unless there’s something you’re truly passionate about solving. Unless you wake up at 3am dreaming about it, take 20 minute showers thinking about it, and ruin dinner time conversation by talking about, you’re not solving the right problem. When you are so “in-deep” with the problem that you piss off everybody who ever has to deal with you, then you know that you’re passionate. Your passion may make you incredibly difficult to work with, and you’ll probably owe a few apologies along the way, but never forget that it’s ultimately all on your shoulders. Succeed or fail, you owe it to yourself to do something you’re passionate about.

About Alan - Alan Downie has been working in web for over 15 years. He headed up development of the award winning Intranet DASHBOARD before starting his own software company, Angry Monkeys, which produced the successful UsabilityHub and Fivesecondtest products. As co-founder and CEO of BugHerd he participated in Startmate (Australia) and 500 Startups (US). He still programs occasionally, although not as much as he'd like, and far more than his team wants.

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