Scott Shayko was leading an environmental consulting firm when an idea struck him that, in turn, led to the creation of his company.
While conducting assessments on highway pollution from motor vehicles, he noticed a correlation between noisy roadways and poor air quality. Sound barriers—tall walls typically made of concrete between busy roads and residential areas—provide a simple solution to the first problem, but did nothing to mitigate the vehicle emissions.
The realization sent Shayko and his business partner, Xin Qiu, an air quality scientist, down a decade-long path to research, develop and market noise barriers that also absorb emissions. They founded EnvisionSQ in Guelph, Ont., in 2014. But ask him why he devoted a decade of his career to the idea, and Shayko says that it doesn’t have anything to do with passion, an intense emotional reaction that many assume is necessary for entrepreneurial success.
“I don’t consider myself to be passionate,” Shayko says. “I’m willing to work very hard and take on great risk to provide a good life for my family and employees, and do something for society.”
The idea of entrepreneurial passion is often tied to successful ventures. Founders who passionately believe in their product come across as more persuasive and motivated, traits that tend to attract funding and clients. But the path to victory is often misconstrued, according to research from the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. Entrepreneurs don’t necessarily need to be emotionally invested in an idea to be successful; sheer effort and hard work contributed to greater success.
Moreover, passion can send unwitting entrepreneurs down a dead end, according to Shayko. “I have met entrepreneurs who are very passionate about their product, but sometimes that may skew their thinking,” he says. “If they come up with an idea, and it’s not a good idea but they’re passionate about it, they’ll keep on pursuing it. But eventually you need to know when to say this isn’t going to work.”
Those who believe that passion is the starting point to entrepreneurial success are following a myth, according to Matthias Spitzmuller, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the Smith School of Business. Working with researchers in the Netherlands and Germany, he analyzed 54 startups over eight weeks and found that passion more often springs from intense initiative and effort, not the other way around.
“We have this misguided notion that we have to be passionate about what we’re doing,” he says, pointing to former Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s Stanford University commencement speech in 2005. (“The only way to do great work is to love what you do,” the legendary tech founder told the crowd.) Says Spitzmuller: “Often these comments have been misunderstood by students and entrepreneurs believing that if they don’t have this warm, cozy feeling about what they’re doing from day one, then they have to look for a different career.”
Instead, founders should consider other motivations, Spitzmuller says. Burgeoning entrepreneurs tend to set lofty, long-term goals without celebrating incremental successes. The study found that entrepreneurs who acknowledged smaller victories felt more motivated to continue to develop their ideas, even without being passionate about the underlying concept.
The distinction influences how entrepreneurs are trained and funded. In his courses, Spitzmuller provides students with exercises that develop an entrepreneurial mindset. The assignments are designed to teach students to drive and influence their environment rather than simply react to situations that could affect their businesses.
“The starting point for an entrepreneur is initiative, so how can we cultivate and emphasize that?” Spitzmuller says. “With personal initiative also comes the feeling that we can persevere in the face of obstacles, change orientation and inflict change on our environment. It’s a really underappreciated concept in entrepreneurship training in most Western countries, which often focus more on business skills, such as marketing and accounting.”
By encouraging entrepreneurs to start with initiative and curiosity rather than pursuing a passion, founders could better identify blind spots in their ideas. Out of 101 failed startups, only 9% of founders said that a lack of passion or knowledge in the product was a key reason for failure, regardless of whether they had a good idea, according to a 2019 study by CB Insights. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs tackling problems they considered interesting, rather than solving a market need, was cited as the top reason for failure, at 42%.
Inability to adapt an idea into a product or service that solves a problem leads many businesses to fail, according to Dan Legault, chief executive of Toronto-based Antibe Therapeutics Inc., who worked as a consultant helping struggling businesses develop turnaround strategies before joining the biopharmaceutical company in its early stages in 2005.
“Sometimes the market or the world have changed so much that you can’t do that thing anymore, and you need to make a strategic change and adapt,” Legault says. “There are entrepreneurs who have a passion for one thing and that can be brilliant, or it could also be an issue. If the world changes and that passion or vision is no longer what the world needs or wants or values, then [the business] is going to be in trouble. Passion can help you persevere, but it can also make you a one-trick pony and makes it harder to adapt.”
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