What motivates an entrepreneur? (Hint: It’s not money)
There is a snare drum being played in the MaRS lobby. As any drummer will tell you, it’s not a regular drum, but a “collapsible drum” designed by James Paterson at Humber College start-up expanDrums. The drum has a removable segment that allows it to be played at a big, boomy rock show or an intimate jazz gig – a seriously useful invention for a professional drummer.
Entrepreneurs like Paterson pass through the halls of MaRS every day with a wide array of products and inventions – what motivates entrepreneurs like this? Below is a list of observations meant to understand the entrepreneurial mind:
1. Problem-solving. The most common impetus for an invented product or service is that it solves a problem an entrepreneur is having. Paterson was frustrated by having to buy multiple snare drums, and sought to create solution to his problem. Serial entrepreneurs are often addicted to recognizing problems and seeing them as opportunities to create value by solving problems.
2. Creativity. Inventing brand new solutions to existing problems requires a certain propensity towards nonlinear thinking. Where others see constraints, a creative entrepreneur will identify ways of circumventing those barriers with brand new ideas. These solutions often come from exploring analogous problems in unrelated fields. The eighteenth century English coffee houses provided an “emergent platform” (in the words of Steven Johnson) for ideas from different fields to bump up against one another and to be re-purposed in new situations.
3. Aesthetics. Software coders will often admit that what they seek to elicit from their code is not functionality, but a sense of aesthetics. Code can be “elegant” or “clean” in the way it enables a user to solve a problem, and scorn is often heaped on “sloppy” code, even if it functions adequately. Scientists will often talk of elegant solutions to complex problems. The explanatory power of evolution, the satisfaction of swiping an iPhone screen, or the grandeur of a giant hydro-electric damn could all be described as beautiful solutions to complex problems.
4. Ego. Entrepreneurs are often motivated by a desire to be recognized as a world-leader in a specific field. Their desire to share their knowledge and engage with their subject matter is often a source of frustration to privacy-obsessed VCs, but is a key internal motivation for the inventor. Stoking the ego doesn’t even have to come by external recognition. Thousands of anonymous contributors to Wikipedia and other open-source platforms like Linux are motivated by the internal satisfaction they glean from sharing their knowledge.
5. Community. Contributions to a specific field of study often serve to strengthen community bonds and social cohesion. Specific fields in engineering, biotech or web development have their own social order and community rules. Many entrepreneurs are more excited by contributing and building communities around their product than they are by protecting their idea with a patent. This is especially true in the open-innovation movement currently touching such diverse fields as biology and education.
6. Challenge. Many entrepreneurs are addicted to the challenge of building a company from nothing. Serial entrepreneurs often share stories of leaving well-paid, secure jobs to follow a wild hunch into the market. They often fail. But an addiction to solving thorny problems, and the inherent and complex challenges of starting a company, is what keep them inventing and growing.
7. Money. This is a distant last place for many entrepreneurs, a source of never-ending frustration for investors. Entrepreneurs do need to make a living, and many of them have their eyes set on a future of bulging bank accounts and world travel. But often, entrepreneurs don’t focus on money and have their financial decisions thwarted by any of the above factors. Sometimes an entrepreneur is so captivated by an elegant solution to a problem they become blind to the fact that it will never make money. Herein lies the importance of having a talented CFO or investor partners who are prepared to make the tough financial decisions a passionate entrepreneur might not be able to make.
In his latest book, Drive, Daniel Pink introduces us to an amateur oboe-player, staying at home on a Friday night to practice her instrument. In purely rational terms, there is no reason to do such a thing. It is certainly not in the economic self-interest of a “homo economicus,” to use the favorite terminology of the Chicago school of economics.
The motivation for the oboe player is purely internal. A desire of mastery and the challenge of getting better at something is what drives oboe-players and entrepreneurs alike.
Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…