For Startups, Can Motivation Be A Bad Thing?

Ever notice that the people that need help the most are often the ones least likely to accept it? This certainly holds true in the world of advising and training entrepreneurs. One of the clearest markers of how long someone has been playing the entrepreneurship game is how open they are to feedback. While seasoned entrepreneurs are always seeking feedback (from customers, from advisors, from performance statistics, and even from competitors), new entrepreneurs are more likely to get emotional and defensive in the face of even gentle feedback about their business.

A recent example of this took place as part of a university program that mentors young entrepreneurs. “We have a $100,000 per year opportunity to provide software to the university, and we need funding” one startup declared. $100k is not large enough to attract the attention of most investors, so I suggested that they add an estimate of the total market opportunity – including other universities across the country- to their pitch. “No, we are only going to do this university, we don’t want to change our plan” they replied. “If you need funding, it makes your story more appealing just by mentioning the larger market – even if you don’t plan to act on it” I offered. Defensively, they refused to consider the suggestion and as a group got visibly upset. As a marker for inexperience, resistance to even listen to advice and feedback ranks at the top of the list.

The smaller and earlier the business, the more likely this kind of reflexive defensiveness is to occur.  Perhaps it is a global truism that those who need help won’t accept it, but why is it the case, and what can we do about it?  The problem arises in part when entrepreneurs make the mistake of placing their identity in the wrong place.  This is a simple and avoidable mistake – a malformed motivational structure – that can be easily remedied. We can understand this phenomenon by looking at why entrepreneurs are doing their business in the first place:

Entrepreneurs often report that they do what they do for “freedom”, “to help people”, and “to make money”. What most often hides underneath these stated motivations is even more fundamental: It is the pursuit of identity and self actualization. Entrepreneurs are often living out a story of their own creation, a process that began with them imagining what their business was going to look like. Entrepreneurs are often powerfully driven by this private set of mental images. A problem with having motivation connected to a set of images, is the feeling of resistance and risk when the need arises to question them. Fundamental ideas such as product, communication, and market opportunity, are often unknowingly held as sacred sources of motivation on the screen of the entrepreneur’s mind:  “I am going to run a company that sells X to this exact group of people, and I am going to message it to them in THIS way”. This is a recipe for disaster, since no amount of genius can predict all of the details that are going to work (or not) ahead of time. I call this process of mental attachment to a set of images or ideas “anchoring”, and doing it right makes a big difference.

Effective Anchoring:

Effective anchoring starts with a ‘deep in the bones’ knowledge hat no startup can understand all of its market opportunity, and that understanding only improves with high quality feedback from the environment. The active pursuit of feedback stems from a willingness and expectation that what we do tomorrow will be different from what we are doing today.  The entrepreneurs that survive long enough will learn to shift from rigid anchoring to more flexible “meta” images of success such as “highly engaged customers” and ” growing market share”.  Holding and sticking to images of exactly how you are going to be successful works best when you are lucky enough to be right from the get-go (which almost never happens).

All successful long-term business models are always up for re-imagination. Even established companies are constantly being challenged by their markets to reinvent process, message, and product. So much more so for small businesses that are just starting out. The pattern is such that first-time entrepreneurs have the odd, perhaps inevitable combination of needing the most help, and being the most resistant to it.

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Kevin Ready

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