7 min read

Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship is not for Everyone

An entrepreneur hero leading a team and marching toward the victory of business success, digital art
An illustration generated by the DALL-E 2 Artificial Intelligence with the prompt "An entrepreneur hero leading a team and marching toward the victory of business success, digital art"

When I announced this project on LinkedIn, something wonderful happened. Yes I did start to get sign-ups from the amazingly supportive people in my network, which is indeed wonderful, but another interesting thing I really love is that even before writing the first post, I have been challenged!

The challenge came from a comment on LinkedIn:

All the best! I really encourage academia "to get out there". I do sense a big difference in how you talk about your journey compared to entrepreneurs I know. They either love their product or the problem and want to have an impact on the world. You, on the other hand, "will try to make money with these side projects". No judgement here of course, just interesting difference in use of words.

It got me thinking. One of my goals in doing this project is to inspire others to experiment with entrepreneurship. But am I being inspirational here or am I sounding like a soulless opportunist and money grabber?

After thinking about it for a while, I want to share with you my ruminations. This might be controversial, but I'm going to go ahead and say it: I think mission-driven entrepreneurship is over-glorified.

I know that mission-driven entrepreneurship where entrepreneurs are driven by a passion to solve a challenging problem is considered to be the most "noble" kind of entrepreneurship. It is the hero-like feel-good story of the startup world. People have written books about it.

In their amazing YouTube series on "How to Start a Startup," Sam Altman of YCombinator emphasizes the importance of being mission-driven because it helps the entrepreneurs recruit people to their cause, and keep themselves motivated throughout the entrepreneurial journey:

Agreed. I too am a big fan of some of these mission-driven entrepreneurs that are trying to change the world. Good on them! But I think not all entrepreneurship has to be mission-driven, and that's also OK.

Here are some other completely legitimate drivers of entrepreneurship:

Mission-financing entrepreneurship

Perhaps I do have a noble mission to address a grand societal challenge or injustice of some sort, but that mission does not coincide with an attractive market opportunity that could support a business. Suppose I want to help support the education of children and women in Afghanistan, but I can't find a business model that would sustain itself in that market. Or even if my mission could potentially be addressed through a startup, maybe I would feel better about taking the plunge and going all in on that startup if I had more spare cash at hand to invest or to support my family while I take the risk of leaving my job to work on a startup. In either case, stepping-stone entrepreneurship is legitimate entrepreneurship.

Lifestyle-driven entrepreneurship

I may not be trying to solve world hunger, but I may be trying to be a better Dad. Maybe I just want to have a lifestyle where I have more time flexibility and less limited by the demands of a 9-5 job, so I can spend more time with my family, or just so I can be a happier and healthier person for them and for myself. Societal trends like the increasing popularity of Tim Ferriss' Lifestyle Design movement are a testament to the fact that many people are unhappy with their work-life balance and entrepreneurship is a way for them to change that.

Small problem-driven entrepreneurship

Perhaps I want to solve problems and create value for people, but those problems are not necessarily grand challenges that inspire and move people to join my cause and change the world. Maybe there's this one small utility I need to help me accomplish a task slightly faster on a spreadsheet, and I suspect that maybe a few hundred people around the world could use it. It may be worth spending a few days to build a plugin for it and sell it. It doesn't take much time or resources and it doesn't require a team. It also does not make sense for me to devote my life to it and shape my identity or entire life story around it! Small problems can be solved through small-scale limited-timeframe narrowly-targeted entrepreneurship, and then you can move on to other things.

Learning-driven or curiosity-driven entrepreneurship

Aren't you curious to know what more you can do? How you can unlock new capabilities? I always like to have a good understanding of my own resources and capabilities. I want to have a realistic grasp on exactly what I am capable of and what my constraints are. I have to know this before I prioritize my time, and make decisions about what problems to tackle, because I want to find the highest-leverage opportunities where I can make the most impact given the capabilities and constraints I have.

Sometimes entrepreneurial experiments are a way for me to discover the tools and technologies available to me, and what I can do with them. They are ways for be to better understand what can or can't be achieved and how far away humanity might be from unlocking new capabilities down the road. Entrepreneurial experiments also help me better understand what problems and ideas resonate with people, how prevalent certain issues are, or if certain frustrations I am experiencing are shared by many or only a few. They help me better understand the nature of the society I live in, and to step outside of my regular professional and social circles or usual domains of comfort and expertise. Even if they fail, these experiments have a lot of learning value for me, and are an amazing intellectual stimulus.

Painful vs. Less Painful Entrepreneurship

Something else I'll say that may be controversial is that I think the venture financing industry is to some extent responsible for the over-glorification of mission-driven entrepreneurship. This is due to the simple fact that other kinds of entrepreneurship often don't need venture capital.

Let's take a closer look at Sam Altman's reasoning for preferring mission-driven startups:

I want to make this point again because it is so important: the idea should come first and the startup should come second. Wait to start a startup until you come up with an idea you feel compelled to explore. This is also the way to choose between ideas. If you have several ideas, work on the one that you think about most often when you're not trying to think about work. What we hear again and again from founders is that they wish they had waited until they came up with an idea they really loved.
Another way of looking at this is that the best companies are almost always mission oriented. It's difficult to get the amount of focus that large companies need unless the company feels like it has an important mission. And it's usually really hard to get that without a great founding idea. A related advantage of mission oriented ideas is that you yourself will be dedicated to them. It takes years and years, usually a decade, to build a great startup. If you don't love and believe in what you're building, you're likely to give up at some point along the way. There's no way I know of to get through the pain of a startup without the belief that the mission really matters. A lot of founders, especially students, believe that their startups will only take two to three years and then after that they'll work on what they're really passionate about. That almost never works. Good startups usually take ten years.
A third advantage of mission oriented companies is that people outside the company are more willing to help you. You'll get more support on a hard, important project, than a derivative one. When it comes to starting a startup, it's easier to found a hard startup than an easy startup. This is one of those counter-intuitive things that takes people a long time to understand. It's difficult to overstate how important being mission driven is, so I want to state it one last time: derivative companies, companies that copy an existing idea with very few new insights, don't excite people and they don't compel the teams to work hard enough to be successful.

This argument is excellent and I completely agree with it. But notice the assumption: what Sam is really talking about is painful startups. This is really good advice for painful startups. High-risk, high-reward, complex projects that need teams of people and funding from investors like YCombinator. And this is fine for those who want to pursue the painful startup path. It is also natural for the likes of Ycombinator and other investors to not be interested in the kind of entrepreneurship that doesn't need them. But this is certainly not the kind of entrepreneurship, for example, that will help people achieve a better work-life balance. Quite the opposite!

What I'm saying in this post is that not all entrepreneurship has to be like that. With the increasing amount of tools and technologies available, there are correspondingly increasing flavours of more painless entrepreneurial opportunities that can be pursued. Often, these entrepreneurial experiments can be conducted by a solopreneur, and don't even need to worry about the problem of recruiting others to the cause. Furthermore, I don't think that these two paths are necessarily mutually exclusive. By definition, side projects can be pursued "on the side."

Lastly, I don't think these kinds of low-cost experiments are necessarily doomed to be low-reward. I think there is potential for them to transition into something highly scalable and high-reward, especially because in this kind of entrepreneurship, it is much easier to play the numbers game. For example Pieter Levels worked on more than 70 projects and managed to achieve high-scale revenue from only 4 of them:

I will write more about the legendary Pieter Levels later. But for now, I will say that the DigitVibe project I have started is definitely more in the spirit of his style of experimental bootstrapped entrepreneurship than the mainstream hero-story of venture-backed mission-driven ventures.

I hope you enjoyed the first post in the DigitVibe blog / newsletter! Going forward I will write more about entrepreneurship, startups, technology, no-code, and most importantly, my own entrepreneurial experiments and side projects. The most detailed walkthroughs on how I accomplished something will be premium content. Please send me feedback as much as possible!

β€œThe reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” - George Bernard Shaw