Should Entrepreneurs Be Passionate About What They’re Building?

How else can entrepreneurs justify all the effort they put into building their companies?

I was in California at the wedding of my wife’s former college roommate. In other words, I didn’t know anyone. Instead, it was the kind of situation that includes lots of casual smalltalk, which is fine except when you’re an entrepreneur and whatever stranger you’re chatting with inevitably asks the one question that’s always annoying to answer:

What kind of work do you do?

In those moments, entrepreneurs have two choices. They can either be honest and try explaining whatever startup they’re working on to someone who likely won’t understand and won’t care, or the entrepreneur can say something vague and move the conversation toward other topics.

I usually choose the latter option. However, as I was sitting down at my assigned dinner table, I was already a few drinks into the evening and the first question one of my new tablemates asked was, of course, “What kind of work do you do?”

I should have said, “I’m in corporate sales,” and left it at that. But, at the time, I was two years into building a venture-backed sales tech company, which meant I was in “full-on networking mode.” Since the guy who’d asked was wearing a nice watch, and since I was in California, I thought he might be a tech person or a potential investor, so I said, “I run a sales tech startup. We help businesses optimize their sales pipelines.”

“Interesting,” he said in the kind of voice that meant he didn’t actually think it was interesting, thus extinguishing any slim hope of him being potentially valuable to my company. But, out of politeness, he decided to continue engaging. Normally, in those kinds of situations, the person asks something trivial like, “What’s the company called?” Instead, he responded with a question I hadn’t expected.

“Oh, you have a sales company,” he said. “You must be really passionate about sales, huh?”

I wasn’t sure I understood his question, so I asked him to clarify. “What do you mean by ‘passionate about sales’?” I responded.

“I just mean you probably care a lot about sales and selling stuff,” he explained. “Why build a company if you don’t care about what you’re selling? For example, I have a neighbor who’s really passionate about climate change, and he runs some sort of clean energy company.”

“I never really thought of it that way,” I replied. “Honestly, I don’t think I’m passionate about sales in the same way your neighbor is passionate about stopping climate change. It’s not like I’m trying to save the world by creating more effective sales teams or anything like that. I guess it’s just the market I’ve found myself building a company in.”

My wedding tablemate looked confused. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Why would you build a company if you’re not passionate about what the company is doing for the world?”

I didn’t know how to answer his question. The sales industry was where I’d seen an entrepreneurial opportunity, so the sales industry was the industry I was operating in. Was that wrong? Was I a flawed entrepreneur for spending my time and effort building a company in an industry I wasn’t personally passionate about?

Thankfully, the awkward dinner conversation eventually ended, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my tablemate’s question stuck with me for a while after. It even impacted my motivation. I found myself wondering if I should shut down my startup in order to build something more “meaningful”… whatever that meant.

A few weeks later, I was meeting with one of my startup mentors at a nearby park. During our conversation, I found myself telling him about my quasi-existential crisis and search for meaning in my work. He laughed at me. “Aaron,” he said, “do you really think every entrepreneur in the world is personally passionate about the industries they’re operating in?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe just the good ones. Or at least the ones who feel good about themselves.”

“Think about it for a moment,” he said, and then he pointed toward a row of portable toilets across the park from where we were sitting. “Those porta-potties over there… do you really think the person who started the porta-potty company that makes them is passionate about portable toilets?”

I laughed. “No, I guess not.”

“Of course not!” he exclaimed. “He doesn’t care about portable toilets. He’s passionate about the process of entrepreneurship. He loves building companies, and he just happened to find a market opportunity in the portable toilet industry, so that’s the opportunity he chased.”

“But isn’t that…” I paused, searching for the right word. “… isn’t it unfulfilling? After all, he’s not doing something good for the world, either.”

“What do you mean ‘he’s not doing something good for the world’?” my mentor asked. “I promise every person who uses those porta-potties is happy to have them sitting in this park.”

“I guess so,” I agreed, “but everyone needs to use the bathroom, so maybe porta-potties are genuinely meaningful in the world. But I have a company that makes sales software. It’s different. What’s meaningful about that?”

“I don’t see a difference,” my mentor assured me. “Every company in this world needs sales. And companies are the things that give people the jobs that help them pay for things like food, shelter, and clothing. By helping companies make more sales, you’re providing something that allows those companies to be more successful, which, in turn, means you’re helping people keep their jobs. To me, that’s genuine in the world. You should be proud of creating that value, and you should be passionate about wanting to create that kind of value even if you’re not explicitly passionate about the product you’re selling.”

The more I thought about my mentor’s advice, the more I began to appreciate his point. It’s easy for non-entrepreneurs to assume that entrepreneurs should be passionate about whatever markets they’re operating in, but that’s not necessarily true. Entrepreneurs don’t have to be passionate about their markets; entrepreneurs have to be passionate about entrepreneurship and the process of helping solve other people’s problems. Sure, sometimes, the problems entrepreneurs are helping solve are problems the entrepreneurs personally have and care about — like, say, climate change — but not always, and that’s OK.

Don’t judge yourself by how much you care about what you’re selling. Judge yourself by how much value you’re providing to the people you’re serving.

Author – Aaron Dinin, PhD