Listen to your Ego before you start a Business

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When I meet entrepreneurs I always ask them why they started their companies and they almost always say something like “because I had a great idea the world needed.” But when you peel back the layers you discover far different motives – motives they don’t want to acknowledge because they’re directly related to primal desires and fears. Yet the well-being of their businesses depends on their understanding those real motives.

A talented coder I know — let’s call him Abe — is characteristic of many other talented individuals who start a business saying that they had a great idea the world needed. Abe’s talent attracted investors but he deeply disliked babysitting customers and supervising non-coding positions. He was miserable. His investors fired him. Only after he was fired did Abe’s soul-searching lead him to realize that his real motivation was to work only on projects he enjoyed. Only after the fact did he realize that by bringing in outside investors his life became exactly the opposite of what he wanted, as he was forced to work only on what everyone else wanted him to.

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A serial entrepreneur I know, a brilliant mind coupled with a difficult personality we’ll call Bruce, burned through four startups until he acknowledged his powerful motivation, which led to his success on his fifth try. Bruce had initially started companies when he thought he saw opportunities to make a lot of money, only to professionally implode each time the opportunity proved elusive. Consulting an analyst after the fourth failure helped Bruce realize that it wasn’t making money that was he really wanted; he needed to satisfy his hyper-competitive need to be top-dog at whatever he did. He needed to start a business in an area where his skills were world-class rather than simply targeting the latest lucrative industry, playing to his strengths and fulfilling his desire to compete aggressively. Understanding his need to be top-dog also helped Bruce realize that he wanted to get all the help and VC money he could to help him grow his enterprise as fast as possible. Bruce’s fifth startup now has a billion-dollar valuation and he could care less that his VCs will make a major share of the money.

In these cases and in virtually all cases, the motivations that drive an entrepreneur to prevail are typically selfish. Unfortunately, selfish motivations are hard to acknowledge because we all want to justify our actions in socially acceptable terms. On the other hand, honestly acknowledging your selfish motivations is typically very empowering and helps to focus you on the things that need to be done to fulfill your desired goal. An important side effect of acknowledging your selfish motivations is that it will give other people more confidence in the success of your endeavor, since they understand why you are taking on the challenge.

An entrepreneur’s true motivation can thwart their success if it is left unstated or conflicts with the interests of the business. Because changing your deepest motivations is almost impossible, you must find a way to put them to work for you by aligning your motivation with your new venture.

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