The Intersection of Success

by Rob Stam

What do you want to do when you grow up? It’s the question we answer with ease as children, but as we become “grown-ups” the question can become increasingly difficult. In our careers, not “doing what we want to do” can cause tremendous anxiety. Many of us get it wrong and end up pursuing an unfulfilling path that no amount of income can remedy.

In the mid-2000s I spent nearly five years of my life (and risked my entire financial stability) in an effort to develop a new music industry business model at the dawn of the digital music revolution. The problem was that I woke up one day realized that I could care less about the music industry. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been a worthy business pursuit. But for me, it wasn’t worth building my life around, no matter how much money it could have made. I just wasn’t passionate about music as business.

For many, a lack of fulfillment, like I experienced,  can serve as the catalyst for the beginning of a new (or re-focused) entrepreneurial career. If you choose that path, is there a way to make sure you’re taking the right path and increase your odds of success?

I believe there is, but it requires the alignment of three variables. In my experience, success happens where Passion, Preparedness, and Opportunity meet.

Passion.

Of the three variables, I think passion is actually the hardest to figure out because we don’t fully understand how to define passion. We sometimes get excited about new ideas and trends and mistake them as passions. We don’t want to get left behind or miss an opportunity, so we temporarily convince ourselves that we’re passionate about something. That’s exactly what happened to me with my music industry pursuits.

My wife and I had dinner a few months ago with some close friends. My friend Bob had made the dinner—something I did not know he was capable of doing—and it was fantastic. As we were talking, he shared how he’d been doing a lot of cooking lately. I asked where this newfound hobby came from, and he shared with me that for most of his life he loved cooking, he just never practiced it. He told me that whenever his mind would wander, it wandered towards food. He was constantly thinking of recipe ideas and things he wanted to try in the kitchen. He had discovered a passion.

I love the phrase, “When the mind wanders.” When your mind drifts off to some faraway place, what do you find yourself thinking about? That’s certainly a hint towards discovering a passion. As you consider that, there are three mental exercises I suggest you engage in:

Let your mind wander back: What did you love the most when you were a kid? Riding bikes? Camping? Drawing? Legos? Barbies? Locked in your past are some indicators of your passions. How did you answer the “what do you want to do when you grow up?” question before you entered high school and higher education?

Let your mind wander ahead: Imagine you’re in your later years of life, when you’re no longer capable of doing the things you can do right now. At that point, if you could go back and do something one more time, what would it be?

Snap your mind back into the present: My sister-in-law, Allison, asked me this question last year: If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do? Remove all the barriers, take a mental leap for a second, and answer that question without taking too much time to process it. If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?

Reflect on passion for as long as you need, and when you’ve got some answers, continue to the topic of preparedness.

Preparedness.

Our culture has put a tremendous amount of energy into the concept of preparedness. We invest billions of dollars into our public and private educational institutions. In the last 30 years college has gone from a question of “Are you going?” to “Which one are you going to?” for both young men and women. For those who don’t go down the college path, trade schools and on-the-job training are as prevalent as ever before in our history.

While all of that education may prepare you for a job and career, it only partially prepares you for entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is something that is extremely hard to teach. While I believe it has some fundamental principals (that I unpack in The Entrepreneur’s Survival Guide), much of entrepreneurship is built around being the innovator—the trail blazer. No one can hire you to start your business. Everything about it is unique to you.

The good news of entrepreneurship is this: you’re in complete control of your future.

And the bad news of entrepreneurship is this: you’re in complete control of your future.

So how on earth can you prepare for that? Here are a few words of advice:

Become an expert in something. Whether you’re selling widgets online or providing professional services, make sure you actually know what you’re talking about and can deliver what you’re promising. Today’s socially connected society is not forgiving of entrepreneurs. One bad Google review can set you back months and thousands of dollars.

Become obsessed with numbers. Business is a series of mathematical equations. From market research to monthly budgets, staying on top of the numbers will be the foundation for getting through the early years and realizing the greatest return on your investment in the later years. In the very early stage of business, for example, you have to know the hard costs to launch, the timeframe to launch, and the revenue you need to survive and grow. You can’t even take a first step without crunching numbers.

Get a coach. In every field, the most successful people have someone else advising them. Find someone with experience and a track record who has no financial interest in your business beyond what you pay them to give you advice. Let them into your world, from your business model to your personal strengths and weaknesses. And of course, listen, and take their advice.

There are obviously hundreds more specific variables to becoming fully prepared, but from those three you can start to accurately identify the areas in which you may lack preparedness, and can start preparing accordingly.

Opportunity.

In my entrepreneurial career there is probably no phrase I’ve heard more than, “I’ve got an idea for a business.” Sometimes it’s just a passing comment over a beer (which, ironically, are often the best ideas), other times it’s in a formal meeting with someone wanting to engage with Navigate or me to help them propel the idea.

These ideas aren’t always bad, but here’s the problem with most ideas: they haven’t been market tested. We all have moments of cleverness. We all see opportunities to invent or improve something. Humans have been doing that since we turned stones into axes and arrowheads. But beyond a great idea, the question an entrepreneur needs to ask is whether or not there is a market opportunity for that great idea.

I have to be honest: measuring opportunity is by far my least favorite part of entrepreneurship. All entrepreneurs have a bit of narcissism. We like to believe we have an intuition that others do not—that we know how the market will respond before anyone else does. To some extent, that may be true. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs in history were so far ahead of the market that people thought they were legitimately crazy.

Edison’s lightbulb was called “unworthy of the attention of the practical or scientific man.”

Farnsworth’s TV was called a “commercial and financial impossibility.”

Walt Disney was fired from a magazine for not being “creative enough.”

You get the idea, and there are countless more examples. However, (and I’m sorry to burst your bubble) chances are you (and I) are not the next Edison, Farnsworth, or Disney.

Sometimes, like the above inventors and creatives, entrepreneurship involves blazing a trail. You’re bringing something unique and innovative to the market, and it can be very tough to measure opportunity. You have to compare it to other spending habits and test it via hypothetical scenarios: i.e. if product “X” existed, would you pay “Y” for it?

Other times you’re business is similar, or even identical, to something else already in the market. In that case, the question becomes one of competitive advantage. Is there room in the market for you? What can you do to get noticed? To be better or most cost effective?

The topic of opportunity is very specific based on your business, so there’s no way I can tell you exactly how to measure it. What I can tell you, however, is that you have to actually do it and do it objectively. Don’t let your personal bias towards your idea or abilities cloud your ability to make a good decision to move forward with your idea.

Passion. Preparedness. Opportunity.

At the intersection of these three things, you have a higher probability of success in entrepreneurship. Take the time to fully examine each of those variables, and your next step in entrepreneurship is sure to bring you one step closer to success.