The art of building software: Passion, Joy, and Software Startups

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Passion, Joy, and Software Startups

Passion and joy are two of the most important parts of life, so as a software developer I think it's important to understand how to create a software career that brings us the most passion and joy.  As this eHow article on How to Follow Your Passion says:
Remember that following your passion is the most important thing you can do for yourself when it comes to your career. The majority of people are programed to not follow their passion when it comes to their career because they still fear the unknown. But following your passion early on is a must if you want to live a succesful fulfilling lifestyle.
One of the best things about America is that our culture supports entrepreneurs who build their careers by following their passion.  Although there is an interesting counter-point to this: The average Peruvian is 3.5 times more likely to start their own small business than the average American.  Maybe I should start my next startup in Peru.

According to the respected publication The Economist, between 1996 and 2004 America created 550,000 small businesses every month.  Wow!  And one of the best things about being a software guy in the Bay Area of California where I live, is that we are home to so many software startups.  In the SOMA area of San Francisco where I've worked at several startups, the number of startups has just started surging in 2010, according to The Wall Street Journal.  As SFGate puts it:
In San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood, Internet-based software startups are thriving despite the worst downturn to hit California since the Great Depression.
Some of you at this point will be saying, "but how many of those startups survive?"  The table at right shows the percentage of startups still in business up to 10 years later.  This data is from the Bureau of the Census produced for the Office of Advocacy of the U.S. Small Business Administration.  Another data point comes from Scott Shane's excellent book, The Illusions of Entrepreneurship.  In it, he states that one third of startups are successful after seven years, which agrees pretty strongly with the U.S. census data.  Scott characterizes this as "only one third", but I think of it like, "Holy Shit!  That's good odds.  Just have to try a few times and I'll get it.  Might even get lucky and hit my first one out of the park."

I believe following your passion is part of American culture and especially Bay Area culture, and is part of self-actualization.  This is pretty deep spiritual and philosophical territory.  Earlier this year I blogged over on my personal blog about the relationship between self-actualization and destiny.  Interestingly, Scott Shane states that the main reason people start a small business is to avoid working for others.  I think that perhaps it's harder to self-actualize if you're following someone else's business.

When you reap the reward of joy from pursuing your passion, you may also accumulate some amount of wealth - perhaps even a lot of wealth.  It's easy to forget that the value of following your passion is the joy you reap from doing just that - not so much from the wealth you accumulate.  In fact, one famous study suggests that lottery victims experienced less overall happiness than accident victims.  I take that to mean that wealth in and of itself doesn't bring joy or happiness one bit.  It comes from following your passion.  I love this quote from Health Guidance in the article True Wealth Will Make You Happy But It Must Be "True":
True wealth lies in defining ourselves by who and what we are, not by what we do or do not have.
Many software startups that started with lots of passion become successful, so they grow big and then they have a problem as they grow larger: Innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit flicker out.  How do they keep the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit alive as they grow?  Google has made famous (but did not invent) the idea of reserving a certain percentage of everyone's time for innovation - their famous 20 percent time.  Google says this in their section on an engineer's life at Google:
We offer our engineers “20-percent time” so that they’re free to work on what they’re really passionate about. Google SuggestAdSense for Content, and Orkut are among the many products of this perk.
I think the key part here is giving people a way to "work on what they're really passionate about".  By implication, the other stuff they're doing, well - they're not so passionate about that.  Hmm... That kinda sucks then, doesn't it?  That means 80% of your time is spent doing relatively boring stuff, and that to me seems like a high tax.  I'd kinda like it if I spent much more of my time working on stuff I'm passionate about.  Where can I do that?  And the fine print of Google's employment contract says they own 100% of any vision I create in my 20% time, so I'd like to keep at least some of that for myself please.  Where can I do that?

I believe there are at least two routes to finding more passion.  One route is to find someone else with passion that's out there building something, drink from their cup of passion (which should be overflowing), and then you will join with others in this way.  If you're following this route, I think it's important to find a group of people with passion for what they're doing - don't settle for people that don't care so much about what they're building.  If that kool-aid cup contains apathy, you will most likely have a bitter taste in your mouth.

Another route to passion is to realize your own vision in the form of a startup business, based on an idea you're truly passionate about.  How do you know if you're passionate about something?  I like the way Ryan Hoback puts it in his posting The Passion Behind Business:
When I get excited about a new venture that I have been developing, I feel the excitement run deep through my body. A feeling of invigoration comes across me. When a new idea comes to my mind, I begin to get happy like a little child opening a present on their birthday. You see, this is passion, and this is what successful business organizations are built on. Passion. Passion is the driving force and inner desire among entrepreneurs and leaders across the world which makes you want to continually pursue going above and beyond.
 Cash Miller puts it this way in his article Why is Passion in Small Business Necessary?
The number one asset a small business owner and entrepreneur needs to have is passion. Passion for your business is an essential ingredient when building a business. It can help to energize you when times are tough and it can help fire up your employees. Passion is what makes people believe. Do you have that passion?
So maybe you do have all the passion in the world, but most likely you don't have the personal resources required to start your own business all by yourself.  It takes a lot of time, which means you can't use that time to earn income, which means you must have a means of sustaining yourself while you're building your business.You can't eat passion for breakfast.

In addition to your own time, you must invest money in one way or another, either by eating into savings, or in the form of opportunity cost - lost opportunities for earning income, or in the form of loans, or an angel investor.

In addition to investing time and cash, if you're doing something really big, you will need to team up with other like-minded entrepreneurs as partners.  You will all need to drink the same passion, and it will take time for you to all get on the same page and share a passion for the same vision.


  1. Great article David. I recently discovered the folks at Nation Builder. They exhibit this same spirit of vision. Keep it up!