A lot of people set out to start a business. The perception of flexibility, independence, respect, and potential wealth are big draws. The millennial way of expressing this is to found a “startup.” The underlying motivations for a startup are often exactly the same but with two scoops of trendiness and pretentiousness about “making the world a better place” plopped on top.
Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with setting out to launch a business or startup. Pathwright is a little of both. But I think a lot of well-intentioned people have been sold a formula for starting a successful business that looks like this:
What should I do? = gain independence + flexibility + wealth + respect … (And, oh yeah, make the world a better place.)
We’re told that if we really want any part of this delicious pie badly enough and use the right methods, then we too could create the next Facebook, Uber, Apple, or ________. I’d argue from experience (and the research) that this is the wrong equation. It’s wrong in that it leads well-meaning people to approach starting a business with mindsets that don’t usually end well:
Millions of people fall into one of these mindsets, so it’s no surprise that there are billion dollar industries built around preying on their hopes and dreams through multi-level marketing schemes, get-rich-quick style books, courses, seminars, and even many MBA programs.
So what’s a better way to think about starting a business or startup?
Well, I think the first step is to back up and ask a more fundamental question first: What is my ideal work?
Not only is this question less complicated, it also helps determine whether starting a business is the right goal in the first place.
Your trade is the thing you’re well situated to accomplish that energizes you so much that you’re willing to put in the thousands of hours it takes to get really good at it.
From my own experience, Mark and I were fortunate enough to be born twins with big imaginations into a family that allowed no TV/video games but used library cards liberally. That situation taught us to be creative as an alternative to being bored. We’ve been “addicted” to creating new things together our whole lives.
At Pathwright, my best days are still when I get to creatively architect how all the aspects of Pathwright work effectively together. That’s the type of thing I’d do (and have done) even without pay. Mark designs and directs the code that makes software a reality and feels the same way about his work.
While having a clear picture of your trade leads to greater satisfaction for you and those around you, it’s not quite enough to answer the question: should I start a business?
I think the next question before going off to start a business is: how am I uniquely motivated to put my trade to use? Answering that type of question requires a raw, honest self-introspection that can be difficult to accomplish by ourselves, but I think one helpful way to answer it is to identify your core value.
“A core value is a principle without which life wouldn’t be worth living.”
— Dave Logan
You likely have a different core value from your spouse, friends, and the people you work with. Core values are often principles like:
Your core value is the primary motivation that drives the important choices in your life. (If you’d like help figuring out your core value, try the “Click Down” method with someone who knows you well.)
None of these values are better than the others — there’s no right, wrong, better, or worse answer. But uncovering your core value can help you determine the scale at which you can best use your trade.
For example, Mark and I both share a core value of “impact.” We’re fundamentally motivated to see what we do have significant impact on others. But if our core value was “stability,” we’d be much better off using our trade to earn a safe and reliable paycheck from another business/startup rather than starting our own.
But since our core value is impact, applying our creative skill towards helping people teach and learn was a natural fit. Our mission at Pathwright is to “multiply the impact that teachers make on the world” largely because that’s our best hope for making the impact we’d like to see using our trade.
Additionally, there’s no way for us to have that kind of impact on our own. To do something that big, we need a team of talented people to come along on this journey with us. That meant we needed to make enough money to pay ourselves and other talented people to create something that didn’t yet exist.
And voilà, we ended up “accidentally” launching a business/startup.
I’ve used the word “accidentally” not because we didn’t know we were creating a business or startup but because that’s not what we were fundamentally motivated to do. So far, all we’ve been doing is applying our trade for the maximum impact. For us, that meant launching a new software business or startup or (whatever you want to call it).
I don’t think there’s anything special about us in particular or our approach. In fact, all the people I’ve met and read about who’ve created far more successful businesses or careers than we have share some form of what I think is a better, simpler equation for figuring out what one should do with their life:
Your Ideal Work = Your Trade + Core Value
Sometimes that means creating a business or startup but most often it doesn’t involve anything nearly as risky or time consuming. And sometimes that equation even results in the independence, flexibility, wealth, and respect that people get trapped into thinking is good enough reason to start a business. But the reality is that none of those things matter nearly so much as doing the thing you were made to do within the scope of what you value most.