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Entrepreneurship is About Filling a Need - Inside the Entrepreneur

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A statement I make regularly to my students is that entrepreneurs are focused on satisfying needs. This is stated in connection with the basic requirement that a business needs customers. And, in that context it is essentially important. Frankly, I wish more entrepreneurs understood this when they started new businesses. Recently, though, I have had some conversations with a few friends that have reminded me that entrepreneurship also often fills a more immediate need. And, that is the need of the entrepreneur to succeed "to prove someone wrong."

A few days ago I was talking about entrepreneurship with a good friend in the venture industry. We were trying to identify the most important personality characteristic an entrepreneur could have. Our conversation centered on the usual attributes - tenacity, self-awareness and risk assessment - but ended up fixing on something less often discussed. This was the entrepreneur's motivation to succeed as a way to find completion or resolution of an unsatisfactory personal relationship or memory. As my friend put it, he likes to back entrepreneurs that are motivated by a desire to "put it to someone." I was initially taken aback, but as I thought about this, and my own life experience, I realized that he had a good point.

The illustrative story he told me was of an entrepreneur who shared that he could have gone to Harvard or Stanford, but went to a less well known university "because if he went to _______ he could get a scholarship and stop having to be [s--t upon] by his father." The entrepreneur (unwittingly perhaps) communicated something fundamental about his personality - a desire to be his own man, to be in charge, and perhaps to excel over the negativity of a parent. My friend pointed out that this story was reflective of most of the founders that he has backed - they all share in some way a desire to overcome, or prove wrong, someone who was close to them along the way.

As I have reflected on this story, it seemed to me that there was something to it. In my experience entrepreneurs are motivated by a desire to control the world around them, coupled with a belief and vision that they can do so. It is a core value, and passion that drives all entrepreneurs that I know. Could it be that what explains this desire for control with many entrepreneurs is a desire to obtain power so that they can be safe, or secure, or to fight back against someone who has harmed them?

I've rolled this thesis around with a number of successful entrepreneurs since that time. Interestingly, all of them have in common a motivating event where someone told them they "weren't good enough" or "would never amount to anything." In fact, in each case they have pointed to these events as change-making moments that are long remembered. I have a similar story in my own life where a high school principal reminded me that while I thought I was as smart guy, "the world doesn't give a [frack] about you." That guy pissed me off, let me tell you. And, he motivated me for sure. Another friend told me of an interview for a prestigious job where he got turned down after he was told by the interviewer he wouldn't amount to anything in life and asked "if he was on drugs or alcohol." Apparently, he thinks about that interviewer often as he goes through life....

I have often remarked that the most important entrepreneurial characteristic is self-awareness. That is still true to me - an entrepreneur must be able to calibrate information, data and experiences to change paths and adapt to changes in circumstances. But, perhaps I have shortchanged the "why" of entrepreneurship? What motivates and shapes an individual's life ambition and career path to be an entrepreneur rather than employee? Could it be that entrepreneurship is driven by a deep seeded need - the need to be right, to be powerful or successful? Does ambition require a sense of inadequacy (at least for a time), to take root and drive us forward? Can you be a happy and well-adjusted child and become an entrepreneur?

I don't have an answer to this question today. Perhaps you do, and will comment on this blog post. But, I will say that I have been exposed to another tool for evaluating entrepreneurs to work with, and invest in. In future due diligence meetings, I am likely to ask "Do you have what it takes" right before asking "Who has really pissed you off."