Max Levchin, one of the founders of PayPal, a Yahoo board member and an angel investor, once shared with me the following observation about a hot new Silicon Valley startup (that shall remain nameless): "I see them around riding their bikes more than I think they should be." As I understood it, he was pointing out that this startup's founders must not be that passionate about their company if they were taking off for bike rides in the middle of the week.
Now, I'm not against a work-life balance. There's nothing wrong with decompressing and recharging one's batteries--in fact it's often necessary to spark new ideas and solve problems.
But Levchin's insight does point to the difference between a startup that's pursuing a dream--to change the world, disrupt the status quo or accomplish a goal that's dear to its founders' hearts--vs. one created to seize an opportunity and produce a fat future payout.
It's easy to see which is which. People in love with their business can't think about anything else. Even sleep is a distraction. They wake up every day excited about where their company is taking them, and their enthusiasm infects the rest of the staff. This passionate group wants to work nights and weekends--not because they have to, but because they don't want to miss out on the fun.
By comparison, the vibe at a money-driven startup is serious and often simmering with an undercurrent of fear. That fear comes from the fact that the product or service is built to maximize profits--or an outsized sale of the company. The founders are racing against time to grow big and grab market share before a better-funded competitor emerges or the market collapses.
I've worked for both types of startups, and in looking back on my former colleagues, I found a startling trend: Those who were pursuing a dream are still in the same business and enjoying success, and the company we worked for was eventually part of a $200 million sale. On the other hand, very few of us from the money-driven startup are working in that industry, and the company is bleeding millions of dollars to this day.
While I admit my sample size is tiny, I believe that Levchin's bike riders could take a lesson from my experience and opt out of their current startup to do something they love. A startup that involves cycling would be a good place to start.