I’ve always been deeply suspicious of passion. The calls to follow your passion left me bewildered. What was my passion? Did I have one, or many, and which one was best?
As someone whose personal statement on my university application consisted of ‘swimming and reading’ I didn’t feel qualified to share my passion, let alone turn it into a business (literary quotes to save you from drowning, perhaps?)
If you do have a passion, a hobby or interest that fills your life with joy, then the worst thing you can do is try to monetise it. It will kill your pleasure. Don’t professionalise your joy – keep your hobbies for fun and relish being an amateur.
Look for problems not love
When it comes to innovation, I’ve found that problems are a better trigger for ideas than passion. Research and practice back this up. Using a problem to generate solutions is a tried and tested model in innovation agencies and business schools.
As Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, the world’s most successful startup accelerator, has said: “The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.”
Rather than follow love, seek out anger, because that’s where innovation lies. When researching my book I found the FFS Club. They sought out the moments that got people cursing and used that as a spur for action.
If you want to have ideas, look for problems and generate solutions.
Beware founder bias!
Once you have an idea, be wary of falling in love with it. This is hard! Making ideas happen takes time, energy, money; there are trade-offs as you make choices and sacrifice other opportunities. Sunk costs are high as you invest in your budding enterprise. It’s natural to become deeply attached to it.
That’s the time when founder bias is at its peak. I’ve seen it so many times when people with early stage ideas refuse to accept feedback. While everyone has the right to reject advice and forge their own path (persistence is a VERY helpful trait for entrepreneurs) it should not lead to stubbornness.
It’s hard to take feedback and remain objective. But love for your idea should not blind you.
Your idea might be rooted in a personal problem, but if you want others to use or buy your products or services then you need to focus outwards. Businesses are not created in a vacuum, they need external validation and feedback to grow and improve. That means listening to users, customers and experts.
So, rather than fall in love with the idea, fall in love with the problem you are solving and people who have that problem. That means if your idea changes, or if the world changes and you need to pivot you’ll be able to adapt.
Taking my own advice
“Don’t fall in love with your idea,” is the advice I give most often to budding entrepreneurs. After a year that’s taught many of us difficult lessons about business resilience, I’ve watched an idea I love fail and had to consider my own advice.
2020 was unprecedented in the challenges it brought to many business including my own. Whole income streams disappeared overnight; my carefully worked out forecasts came to nothing. I was forced to make hard decisions, including closing down the startup I co-founded.
That business was just one solution to a problem – a problem I was still determined to solve. There were people out there who had that problem and I still wanted to serve and support them. I started again.
It was scary. The routines that had got me through tough times before were no longer viable. I felt lost not being able to rely on old ways of working. There were many sleepless nights.
Getting curious – again
Forced to start again, I explored the problem. Curiosity caught hold. Exploration is exciting; seeking out interests and information drives us as humans. Described as the ‘grandaddy’ of our neurobiological system, seeking is a motivational engine.
Dr Jaak Panksepp said the seeking system: “helps fill the mind with interest and motivates organisms to move their bodies effortlessly in search of things they need, crave and desire. In humans, this may be one of the main brain systems that generate and sustain curiosity, even for intellectual pursuits.”
I embraced my primordial, inner geek and in so doing, I started to fall in love. Not with the idea, but the people I was speaking to.
Slowly, step by step we tested new approaches and services. People paid. A new business emerged. Learning from the previous business we were able to avoid some of the costly mistakes we had made before.
My advice, now hard won, is to forget passion. Focus on the problem not your solution. Get attached to the people you are serving not what you are serving them.