Founders: The only thing that really matters…

urlI have been telling the entrepreneurs that I meet daily through my work at BootstrapLabs and various panels and keynotes that I do, that I am looking for two things at the core of every founder that I work with:

  • Passion
  • Meaning

The first one might be easier to grasp; simply follow your passion, if you do not have passion for what you are trying to build you will not succeed, it is simply to hard (no matter where in the world you are) to build a company, that with-out the drive that comes out of passion you will simply not succeed.

Meaning on the other hand is very subjective and maybe harder to grasp, so I wanted to elaborate on this for a bit, as my approach to this grew out of many years of entrepreneurship and helping other entrepreneurs.

I think the first time somebody spelled this out was Guy Kawasaki at Garage Ventures, in his book “The Art of Start” (he talks about it in this video from 2006 @ TieCon).

Over the years and tapping into my own history of startup successes and failures, I have distilled “Making Meaning” to a compass and navigator, that helps me (and founders I work with) to keep focus on the things that will have an impact. Building a startup is about being disruptive and going against convention and breaking what everybody expects to be the truth, what is already there, and breaking all the rules (of engagement).

  • So how do you keep your priorities straight and focused?
  • How do you balance “follow the rules of engagement” with the million things you could do everyday in your startup, and pick the ones that are relevant?

You try to weigh everything you do to assess if it makes meaning, and I have divided this into 2 main things:

  • Make things that have meaning for yourself.
  • Make things that have meaning to our world (in other words have great impact, big strokes).

Making meaning for yourself, get’s you up in the morning, it creates motivation to spend all this time on building your company (sometimes taking time from your most loved ones). Making meaning to our world; is anybody else appreciating what you do? Will it make the world better? Make things more efficient? More accessible? Improving quality of life? Are you touching enough people? I can go on, but I think you get the picture. At the end if you have enough impact you are creating a lot of value.

If you follow these thoughts you will see that this resonates well with investors (here in Silicon Valley), being angels or VCs – investors invest in founders that won’t give up and truly believe in what they do and that do things that will have enough impact in our world to be really valuable.

Love to hear your thoughts on this?

6 replies
  1. Robert
    Robert says:

    Both Passion and Meaning is needed due to that the only one that believes in the idea
    100% is you and that is why you need passion to manage. To be able to success in
    the long term you also need to create a meaning for someone else. The Meaing creates the market.

  2. Mattias Östmar
    Mattias Östmar says:

    What goes without saying here is that you´re building a company. Someone said that you either do things to sell them and make money or you do them to share them with the world. My personal experience, and what I´ve seen from a lot of people that are into “startups” is that they unfortunately mix the two up – or confuse themselves by swinging back and forth between the two intentions.

    If you’re driven by passion and meaning I believe it’s better to build or do whatever it is you find meaningful and have a passion for outside, what we the last 150 years or so have learned to call “work” or “your job”. It has to be paid for, either by your on wage labour, a mecenat or the very pleasurable situation that you already have enough money not to worry about prosaic thins like bills to be paid and clothes, food and medicin etc to be bought.

    Money makes money, as Karl Marx a bit simplified, concluded. Passion and meaning (research, art, culture, care-taking, the list could be made quite long) doesn’t necessary build profitable businesses. Sometimes they doesn’t even build life-satisfaction. Making money out of money, like investing in other companies, collectibles or financial products is, not to be forgotten, a specialization in itself. Providing money to people in need of money by lending or financing enterprises without active involvement in the enterprise is a lazy, but nevertheless in some aspects a kind of “work”. The choice of what enterprises to fund might be a way of creating meaning for yourself and seeing investments in people and ideas you feel good about can also be a great outlet for passion.

    To build a company I believe you have to take a sound and healthy interest in making money. You don’t have to be greedy, by all means, but you need to be driven by the sweet and juicy feeling of closing deals and making a profit. Maybe even become rich, even if that can translate into several different measures of richness – be it have the time to spend several months a year with your family or people you love or find pleasure from being with, or just have lots of cash that makes you able to choose between more ways of enjoying life and have great and exclusive experiences.

    But. With passion and meaning alone you don’t build companies. You build yourself a life, and sometimes a business by the cheer greatness of what you are passionate about and feel is meaningful to you. But most of the time you would be better of in the long run by staying in the non-profit sector and either pay for it yourself by your for-profit work or hook up with mecenats that for whatever reason find that it is meaningful to fund non-profit endevours.

    If this post had been written on, say, a non-profit organizations blog it might well have been focused on the necessity of financial funding to do good or beautify our world with artistic expression that have little or no direct financial value.

    To me it’s a bit sad that people doing business needs to be reminded that you need passion and meaning. Because that’s not what constitutes the core of a company, as opposed to, say, collective organized action to clean up beaches after an oil-spill or helping strangers in need.

    It’s whats builds lives. Whether you are in to making money or into just sharing stuff for free for the joy of creating and contributing. But, one thing is for sure. It’s becoming increasingly hard to get traction or last longer than your first round of investment (or first well-intending customers often consisting of friends and family) if you don’t have passion for what you do and what you do is aligned with what the meaning of your life is. The purpose of why you are here, if you will.

    Robert Steven Kaplan | What You’re Really Meant to Do. #harvardHippie

    Does this make sense?

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Mattias Östmar, great to see your comment here, hope all is well!

    I think you might be missing the core point a bit or perhaps it’s the European culture 😉

    If you think that you are creating a company to extract money from people and not sharing what you create with people, I think you should reconsider.

    Creating a company to extract money with-out any value being distributed, defeats the core of what is capitalism: it is a trade, I give you something of currency X and you give me some amount of currency Y. My product being a currency that has value to it’s buyer. Otherwise it will be pretty hard to have that customer keep using it or buy again.

    Look around you, a company such as Google is giving it’s biggest value away for free, to monetize the fact that people use that product (and it’s value for free). If Google would stop delivering more value than they take out, their revenue machine would stop.

    If you can not create something of value (meaning for the world), don’t build a company, go work for one. No negative connotation meant; talented employees contribute greatly to successful companies (and in Silicon Valley they are getting ownership in those companies as well) – but it is the core responsibility of founders and entrepreneurs to make sure that the company is achieving a bigger value creation.

    In a Karl Marx’s industrialist society everybody works for the people with the means of production, you might be right. The world we live in today is quite different, the real value or means of production in the technology startup world is the talent (people) and it’s scarce resource. Money is less so actually. Investment dollars flows were you can show it has bigger impact. And value being created.

    Reiterating back to the start, capturing money with-out adding value is not how you build a long-term sustainable business, and short-term flips or gains is not really what the Silicon Valley eco-system is about (yes I know, short term quick gains and flips is more prevalent thinking in Europe and on Wall street, but not here) – Venture Capital funds run with 10 year cycles, you invest to build something with great impact (which comes from delivering great value) and it takes time, which is what makes companies worth billions of dollars. And that results in the companies that fuel the technology around us such as Google, Facebook, Intel among others.

    Yes, a company should make money, but it’s a result of value being delivered not the other way around. And if you think that making money is a bad thing, you should not start a company. But start at the right place find something that adds value, enough value so that people are willing to pay for it. And come back and keep paying for it.

    So yes, a healthy approach to making money as is needed, but way too many times I see European startups driven by their investors to make money very early before substantial impact (in other words, figuring out a scalable product market fit were their product will deliver more value to a wider market) – and it is contra-productive. Yes, I do see founders that forget that making money is the real proof of impact over time – but much less so.

    I can make a long list of how money making machines here in Silicon Valley are empowering people across the globe by giving them access to basic information technology that will enrich their lives (access to knowledge & information) such as Google to a profitable company making super effective solar panel/LED combination lamps for rural India (kerosene lamps is till the most widely used form of lighting and a major source of greenhouse gases, and very costly to use); making money providing a more cost effective product for it’s poor (underserved) customers.

    There are more specific points that I would like to elaborate on (non-profit of your passion vs finding product market fit, and why that works in some places and not others for a startup), that we can discuss over beer sometime. Or I will do a follow-up blog post or both.

    All that said, yes – outside of building a company you need to have a meaningful life – but you spend too much time working to not have passion for your work. Find a work/endeavor that you can live of and you are passionate about!

    • Mattias Östmar
      Mattias Östmar says:

      Ah, no – of course the customer exchange the money for a service or product. This is probably that I’m still left here in Sweden where I believe we have to convince a lot of startup entrepreneurs that it OK to ask for a lot of money for what they do and get filthy rich. Maybe it’s a necessity to remind American startup entrepreneur that without the passion for the product or service and the sense of meaning in your life (even though you work all the time, are a pain in the ass for your loved ones etc) it won’t work or last.

      Nice to talk to you again Nicolai!

      Greetings from a former social-democratic country small country far, far up in the north!


      PS. Absolutely great quote there “If you can’t create something of value for the world – don’t create a company – go work for one!” I love it!!!


      • Anonymous
        Anonymous says:


        I hope the quote stays in context, you can still add and supply value to other creations, but there is a big leap to the creation of value vs. supplementing something that already have been created/proven by somebody. Creating something new of value is simply hard and sometimes painful.

        In reminding Entrepreneurs about meaning, I have to say this applies more to the Europeans than the Silicon Valley’ans; everybody here get ingrained with thinking big, and build meaning. Many of the entrepreneurs in Europe have been shaped by the culture and thinking that making meaning and making money is two opposite things. Were as here in Silicon Valley they are absolutely seen as being linked. Does not mean that some individuals stray of this thinking in either direction of course, but the culture here links them.

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