It’s the battle cry of advertisers, self-help book authors, motivational speakers and gurus of all stripes: Follow your passion! Follow your passion and the business will follow. It certainly sounds appealing, and there are certainly a lot of people who have started successful businesses based on something they’re passionate about. We’ve even written about men and women who have seemingly followed that advice to success–for example, gourmet marshmallow purveyor Sarah Souther, who started a successful company after her friends kept raving about her sweets.
Stories like this abound among the startup stories of tens of thousands of businesses, big and small. But like nearly every aspect of starting and running a business (or life, for that matter), success requires more than one factor. And we’ve done the math: passion is just one factor. There are more factors than passion required to succeed in business, and they should all be considered before making a decision to start a business.
So, while we are definitely of the “follow your passion” school, we’re also in the “don’t follow your passions over a cliff” school, as well. In addition to “passion,” here are just a few of the other things you may want to follow when considering starting a business:
Follow your experience, skill, intelligence, luck or connections
Last October, when Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, was published, it caused quite a storm among the “follow your passions” school of entrepreneurship because Adams pretty much dismissed the role of passion-following in business success. Asked by Business Insider why he thought “career experts are wrong and passion doesn’t lead to success,” he responded:
“When a successful person is interviewed, and you say, ‘What was the secret to your success?’ what they can’t say, because society won’t let them, is: “I was smarter, I worked harder, I had better connections, and I got really lucky.” Instead, they go with a democratic trait: passion. Anyone can have passion in the right situation, so it makes it sound like you can do what they did. I’ve tried lots of things. The reality is, I’m excited by everything on Day 1. And if by Day X things, aren’t working the way I hoped, I lose my passion. I have not seen the correlation between my passion and my success. The deeper truth is luck and maybe they studied the right stuff in school.”
It should be noted that Adams’ passion last October was being controversial in order to sell lots of those books.
Follow paying customers
No matter your passion, skill, talent, et al, a business is not a business until there are customers willing to pay you more than it takes to provide them with your product or service. (In a minute, we’ll touch on other destinations that passions can lead you to, destinations that don’t require more money coming in than going out.) While entire books are written on different types of business models and how to finance your business, we’re focusing on just one unique situation: yours. Can you start a business and get it to a level of sustainability (more money coming in than going out) before you run out of money? For the vast majority of people in the real world (not those who live in the land of venture capital or trust funds), paying clients or customers are the coin of the realm for whether or not you have a business. However, your situation may mean you can invent something and receive just one check from one buyer for which you will be lauded for the rest of your life for being an incredibly successful entrepreneur. There are lots of ways to get there. But at some point, in some way, business is business.
Follow the needs you discover professionally
In the book The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses, his exhaustive study of factors that led to companies making it onto the Inc. 500, the noted professor Amar V. Bhide discovered a significant percentage of successful companies are started by people who recognize a need in their own workplace, say, a better way to move parts from Point A to Point B. They approach their company’s management who shows interest in the product, but decide that making such a device is not their business. “If you make one, however, we’ll buy it,” is the origin of many businesses.
Follow your passions for reasons other than business
Passions are great things. Following them can help you raise great children, create inspiring art, heal the sick, solve your community’s problems, and even change the world. Yes, following your passions can lead to business success, but that’s not the only worthy destination of your passion. Indeed, following your passions can prove to be critical to starting a business, even if the business has nothing to do with your passion. Instead of seeing your passion be replaced by things like raising capital, hiring and firing, keeping books, etc., your passions can provide you with the balance you need to keep your business from consuming your life and relationships that matter. When your passions become your job, it soon can become more work than passion.
Did following your passions lead you to start a business directly related to that passion? If so, share your experience in the comments below.