What Drives an Entrepreneur?
If we’re going to see a job recovery in this decade, it’s likely to come from America’s entrepreneurs since 80% of the net job growth in our economy comes from small to mid-size businesses. So, if we know our economic recovery depends on incubating more entrepreneurs, it’s natural to ask, “How can we create more entrepreneurs and what drives an individual to relentlessly work eighty hours a week on a risky new venture?”
Conventional wisdom suggests the primary motivator for entrepreneurs is money or wealth creation and, in fact, much of the political debate tends to center around what kind of tax or regulatory policy changes will turn corporate suits into small business adventurers overnight. But, what drives someone to be an entrepreneur is a much more complex question and one that I’ve grappled with in the quarter century since I launched my company.
When I started my hotel company, Joie de Vivre, at the age of 26, I saw this venture as my ticket to freedom. I’d done my time in corporate America from McDonald’s making shakes to Morgan Stanley making deals and, yet, I felt awfully constrained by the uniform – not just my clothes, but how I felt I needed to conform – that a traditional job required me to wear. So, the freedom to be myself and develop a business based upon my own rules was my first driver. Right behind that was a need to be creative. I joined a maverick commercial real estate development company right out of business school thinking that it was going to unleash my creative juices, but instead, found that I was just a transaction jockey constantly toggling between negotiating high-stress development deals and having my eyes glued to a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. This was not fertile ground to explore my creative side. Launching a boutique hotel company dedicated to creating original, stylized small properties satisfied my need to be inventive.
As my company grew, I became aware of another motivating force that led me to entrepreneurial pursuits beyond just freedom and creativity. I became more and more curious about human nature and, as we grew to nearly 40 hotels and thousands of employees, I saw our company as a laboratory for trying things in one hotel – whether it was a new incentive plan for employees or a new unique service for guests – so that we could roll it out elsewhere if we saw that we struck a chord with this innovation. And, ultimately, this curiosity led me to writing books on the crossroads of business and psychology.
But, what’s most fascinating about what drives an entrepreneur isn’t necessarily what’s most conscious to the entrepreneur. For many entrepreneurs, the fuel that keeps them going could be power, fame, a trophy wife or husband, or – possibly – as is true with many workaholics, their business is a means of running away from other elements of their life that either scare them or make them feel small. More than a few entrepreneurs use their business and their success as a means to build their fragile self-esteem. As the business goes, so goes the entrepreneur’s sense of them self. So, for many of us, our ego is a major driver for why we throw ourselves with reckless abandon into a new venture.
Carl Jung said that we are powerless over what we’re unconscious of in our lives. For me, while it was enlightening to know that freedom, creativity, and curiosity – more than money or power – were the key qualities that made my work life a calling, it was when I came face-to-face with how much of my identity and ego was wrapped up in my work that I found real freedom. Becoming conscious that my sense of self didn’t have to be strapped to that inevitable rollercoaster that defines the ups and downs of a business gave me a “joie de vivre” that I never found by just chasing the next success.
So, as politicians harp on about the importance of various tax or regulatory policies that will lead countless entrepreneurs out of their corporate closets, let’s realize that fiscal policy alone won’t fertilize an abundant economic garden. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson – these folks didn’t launch their employment vehicles because they calculated how the government had made it more financially lucrative for them to launch their businesses. For every entrepreneur who is doing it to get rich, I’ll bet you there are three others who are doing it to either make a difference in the world or their community, make a name for themselves, or just make something that makes them feel good. The best way we can encourage people to create companies that create jobs is to celebrate the diverse entrepreneurial stories and the variety of drivers that led these entrepreneurs to sticking their necks out. Telling powerful entrepreneurs’ stories and aggressively educating people on how to start a business may have more of an impact on reducing our unemployment rate than some subtle or complicated change in tax policy. Silicon Valley didn’t become the entrepreneurial capital of the world because it has some uniquely attractive tax rate (in fact, quite the opposite, it’s in the high-tax state of California).