Time and time again, passion has been cited as a key ingredient for entrepreneurial success. It’s what motivates people to start a new business. It’s also what helps them persevere when the going gets tough.
It is the “ﬁre in the belly” that makes entrepreneurs pursue their dreams and that makes the improbable possible. Or, like Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, famously said, “To succeed you have to believe in something with such a passion that it becomes a reality.”
In recent years, academic research has also sought to understand how entrepreneurial passion really works. Most relevant to start-ups is being passionate about founding activities. Passionate entrepreneurs are those who feel excited about their identity as a venture founder and who consider being a founder as an important part of who they are.
These are the people who will introduce themselves at parties as, “Hi, I’m the founder of X” and see start-up opportunities everywhere they look. In line with the popular view on passion, studies have shown that entrepreneurial passion really boosts entrepreneurs’ creativity and persistence.
Surprisingly, our research shows that passion among starting entrepreneurs tends to fade over time. We tracked a group of more than 100 entrepreneurs in the founding stages of their ventures over a period of 10 months’ time. Despite this being the phase where you expect enthusiasm to abound, we found the opposite: initial excitement about one’s identity as an entrepreneur dropped during this time.
Luckily, there’s also good news. We discovered two behavioural strategies that may prevent entrepreneurs from losing their passion.
Don’t stick to the plan. When starting out, many entrepreneurs have developed a business plan clearly delineating what they want to do. Trying to forecast the future, these plans are by definition surrounded by a high degree of uncertainty.
Will customers be interested in buying the product or service? Does the product really address their needs? What will they be willing to pay? Who should founders partner with?
Some start-up founders deal with this uncertainty by rigidly sticking to the plan. They may spend two years on developing their product, making sure it’s an absolute technological gem, only to discover that the customers they envisioned aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the product.
Others are more flexible and engage in a trial-and-error strategy, continuously testing and adapting their ideas as new insights emerge. A company in our study had, for instance, developed unmanned aerial vehicles to provide aerial mapping services for mining and dredging companies.
After a first test with a large mining company, they learned that while extremely satisfied with the results, the mining company had no interest in paying for their service. This floored the founders, as they believed that was the future of their start-up.
Rather than continuing down this path, they started exploring who else might be interested in their services. Eventually, they found a new market that ended up being a huge success for them; land surveyors, bringing back the initial excitement they had over being entrepreneurs.
By flexibly changing and refining their ideas, founding entrepreneurs can make significant progress and build confidence. Rather than feeling misunderstood by the outside world, they gain a sense of control over events as they unfold. This was found to counter the decrease in founders’ passion over time.
Go out and get feedback. “How am I doing?” In the 1980s, New York City mayor Ed Koch became famous for walking the streets and asking people this same question over and over. This unorthodox feedback-seeking strategy attracted a lot of attention because we all recognize how important it is to receive feedback, and how difficult it is to actually get it.
Unlike employees, founders don’t have supervisors to tell them how they are doing. What they can and should do, however, is similar to Koch going out and seeking that feedback from others: Ask fellow entrepreneurs, investors, advisors, and industry experts for feedback.
Be careful, however. People are naturally inclined to mostly seek feedback that will confirm their own preconceptions. While this might be helpful in boosting one’s self-esteem through positive feedback, it is important to seek feedback from a diverse network that challenges one’s own strongly held beliefs.
Getting feedback tends to motivate people, as they feel they are learning something. It also gives a sense of control. Feedback can help founders test and refine ideas, making goals more attainable, which gives a sense of fulfilment. This is particularly helpful when they’re confronted with the ambiguities that inevitably appear during the challenging journey of building a start-up.
Moving from idea to full-fledged venture implies making increasingly difficult decisions about how much time and energy to dedicate to the various roles one is performing as a founder (e.g., figurehead, leader, liaison, spokesperson, negotiator, fund raiser). This is the very essence of being an entrepreneur:
Creating one’s own roles while the venture grows and matures. While this can be daunting to many and can put a significant damper on the passion of starting a venture, seeking feedback from people around you will safeguard this inner passion.
The stark reality is that most ventures fail. Things will go wrong and it’s very likely that entrepreneurs may lose some of their initial excitement over time. Being flexible in adapting ideas to changing circumstances and surrounding oneself with trusted people who can offer feedback will help in both surviving the start-up emotional rollercoaster, and in keeping that fire in the belly alive.
This article by Veroniek Collewaert, an Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at Vlerick Business School and Frederick Anseel, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Ghent University, first appeared in the Harvard Business Review and is reprinted here from The Week in Entrepreneurship.