Monday, July 25, 2011

What Motivates An Entrepreneur?

Motivation has been a popular topic at My City Lives HQ lately. We’re obviously keen to identify ways to motivate activity on our platform and having recently doubled the size of our team, the motivation discussions have grown to asking how organizations motivate and catalyze the talented people they work with. Even at our home at The Center for Social Innovation – a startup incubator and a startup itself – we find ourselves in an environment rich with dialog and perspectives on motivation.

In his TED talk, “The Surprising Science of Motivation“, Dan Pink makes a case for businesses to consider what science has established for years: money only works as a contingent motivator (i.e. if you do this, you get that) in which there are a clear set of rules and one solution. But when a task requires creativity and problem solving, a contingent motivator is a negative force because it focuses the mind when it needs to be open. The human psychology, more importantly, just doesn’t seem to get motivated by a bigger carrot as much as it is by three simple to understand factors: Autonomy (having choice and freedom), Mastery (getting good at something valuable) and Purpose.

Why do we do what we do?

 Pink’s 3 pillars completed a process inspired by author Simon Sinek last year, when he challenged me to consider why I do what I do. Sinek is a “why” advocate – he believes that if we start by understanding our why, we’re more likely to do things that we want to do which correlates strongly to our happiness and not surprisingly, our ability to excel.

Until I was able to connect Sinek’s case with Pink’s, my response to the question “why I decided to start a company” was that it made me happy. Now, I understand that happiness is the outcome but not the why. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are my whys and by understanding that, I’m more aware than ever of my motivation for being an entrepreneur and thus, given Sinek’s case, in a better position to succeed.
So what motivates an entrepreneur?

Autonomy and the Entrepreneur

 I really don’t believe that the prolonged motivation of an entrepreneur is being “their own boss”. The allure of being your own boss is short lived because the reality is that being your own boss is arguably one of the most difficult things to do. Self accountability is the antithesis to a walk in the park.
It’s not that I begrudge “being my own boss” – it does have its perks after all – but I just never really think about it nor find myself passionate about it. I am passionate, however, about the possibilities that autonomy provides me. Entrepreneurs are dreamers at their core. Every product or service was at the some point some person’s “crazy idea”, which they turned to reality only because the systems or status quo didn’t allow for it. The autonomy factor for entrepreneurs relates to a deep need to actualize their dreams.

Mastery and the Entrepreneur

No one starts as the best but what distinguishes successful entrepreneurs is a never ending quest to get better. I’ve often understood Mastery through the lens of competition. You don’t have to be a sore loser to agree that losing sucks. As an entrepreneur, you’re going to “lose” many times but I’ve noticed the critical difference with those who are successful is that they take personal accountability for not being the best. By doing so, they fuel their inner passion to get there. Simply put, entrepreneurs are motivated by an inner desire to be the best at what they do, period.

Purpose and the Entrepreneur

I’m a purpose junkie. I’m constantly fascinated not only by my own purpose but what other people identify as theirs. Part of the reason for this is that you’ll never find identical answers and you can learn a lot about a person and yourself if you understand the purpose that drives them be it personal, social, a trigger event or even another person.

Startup romance dictates that if you build it then they will come. Startup reality, however, is that building it is just one part of the puzzle. The reality is that starting a company is a constant fight against competitors, against naysayers, against barriers and even against yourself (I’ve seen a lot of friends self select themselves out of being an entrepreneur and have nearly done it to myself). If you don’t have a reason to fight when the going gets inevitably tough, you’ll likely find yourself on the wrong end of the startup failure rate.

Why is understanding what motivates you important?

Given the high failure rates in entrepreneurship, you’re going to have to bring everything to the table and to do that consistently is challenging especially if you don’t know why you’re doing it in the first place.

Adil Dhalla is the Chief Dish Washer at My City Lives. He can be reached on Twitter (@mycitylives) or via email (

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