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In praise of the passion-driven, ‘accidental’ entrepreneur

By Jodi Goldstein
3/9/2016

Innovation is often deeply personal.

Because of that, it shouldn’t be surprising that passion has been the prominent quality and driving force behind most of the successful ventures, teams, and founders that have been — and are continuing to be — built at the Harvard i-lab and Launch Lab.

Ventures founded on personal passion are most often formed by a compulsion to solve a personal pain point; this is especially true in cases where the founder feels that he or she is uniquely qualified to solve the particular problem. This form of entrepreneurial drive comes from an intrinsic motivation — the founders simply cannot NOT attack the complex problem, which, in many instances, often evolves into an obsession.

It has also been our observation that ventures with intrinsic motivation have a higher likelihood of prospering — because of their desire to make a positive impact, they possess the resilience to weather the hard times better than those organizations that are not built on personal passion.

This is quite different from many ventures built from a perceived “market opportunity.” This can be found in businesses created by entrepreneurs who innovate in areas where they find a technological weakness, or in industries that haven’t leveraged the marketing opportunity of the Internet, mobile device ubiquity, or breakthroughs in hardware, robotics, manufacturing, or some other mechanical or operational advancement.

Founders of this type of venture are often primarily motivated by financial gain. They are not driven by a burning desire to improve upon the challenges experienced in their own lives.

When personal passion informs the mission of a venture, the impetus that leads to the creation of that enterprise often originates in unlikely places. Because of the diversity of students at the i-lab and Launch Lab, we have witnessed, first-hand, a unique breadth of ideas that come from a very personal place for the entrepreneur.

Take, for instance, the winner of last year’s Harvard President’s Challenge RapidSOS. The company’s founder and CEO, Michael Martin, came up with the idea for the digital 911 system after a highly personal experience: Last January, Martin’s father Charles fell from a ladder breaking his wrist and hip. Because he had poor cell phone reception and couldn’t connect to an emergency service, Martin’s mother found her husband two hours later, freezing in the driveway. RapidSOS improves upon the outdated technologies that the current emergency call system is built upon.

The experiences culled from military service informed the missions of both Rumi Spice and Rallypoint. Rumi Spice sells saffron through a direct partnership with Afghan farmers. Founded by veterans who fought in Afghanistan, the company was formed as a way to enable Afghan farmers with another source of income other than the drug trade. Rallypoint, a network that allows military professionals to connect on a platform to share stories, potential work opportunities, and support each other in various other ways, was borne out of the experiences its founders had trying to connect with civilian society post-deployment.

A more well known example of passion serving as the catalyst for a successful, influential business is Blake Mycoskie and Toms Shoes. Mycoskie observed two interesting trends during multiple trips to Argentina a number of years ago. First, Mycoskie found that many locals wore shoes known as alpargatas, which he thought could catch on in America for their simple design and comfort. Second, and more importantly, he noticed that youth in the more rural areas of Argentina could not afford any type of footwear at all. Founding Toms Shoes enabled Mycoskie to find a solution to the potential issues caused by the lack of shoes in developing nations. By donating a pair of shoes to youth in impoverished areas for each pair of Toms sold, Mycoskie created a built-in motivation to make his venture a success.

There are so many of these stories in which the founders are “accidental” entrepreneurs, whose venture ideas came from a personal need. In most of these cases, the people behind these companies didn’t necessarily set out to be entrepreneurs. For example, many of the Harvard founders came to the school for other reasons, and they ended up starting a business. They saw a problem that had to be solved and set out to do just that.

Being motivated by a unique desire to fix something highly personal can be powerful. It is something that should be promoted more often, instead of the more common focus on lofty valuations, and, too often, the fallout when heavily-praised startup ventures fail to live up to their initial hype.

This type of inspiration — like that behind companies like RapidSOS, Rumi Spice, RallyPoint, Toms Shoes, and countless others that experienced far-reaching problems first-hand and then tried to solve them — should become the standard for startups. They should serve as a model for doing innovation the right way to the next generation of entrepreneurs in our colleges and high schools.

Personal passion, and not a motivation for fame and fortune, is the force that drives the best entrepreneurial ideas. In the current economic climate, this distinction could become more profound as the scrutiny on founders and startups increases.

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