Starting a company is hard. Best case scenario: your bet pays off and you uncover a monster opportunity. Worst case scenario: you don’t (but you spend a few years working on something you love). Read this post for the key to finding the right mission.

You can get trapped leading a startup the same way you can get trapped in a cubicle for 70 hours a week.  Tweet This Quote

When people tell me that they want to start a company, they’re just not sure which one yet, I tell them to wait and build something they care about. Here’s why.

The urges to have financial freedom, create your own thing in the world, and to run a business, are all valid. But it’s possible to become trapped leading a startup the same way it’s possible to get trapped in a cubicle for 70 hours a week.

People also want to start companies because that is a major way to alter the future, to manifest things in real life – to “change the world” – which is a common desire to have. But there is a difference between “changing” the world and making a better world. And changing the world by introducing a new thing (“It’s Instagram for plumbers!”) is fundamentally less compelling than finding something that is of substantive, real value to people – not to mention, far less lucrative.

But planning to start a business before you have a problem worth solving is a dangerous priority.

There is a difference between “changing” the world and making a better world.  Tweet This Quote

The reason is that starting a company is really difficult. I’m not the first to say it, but I realize now (two years into a growing startup) that I always ignored or glossed over blog posts or conversations where people tried to highlight that to me. It’s really freaking hard. Lots of days are difficult. Sometimes, it’s not fun at all. And every now and then you are sure that you’re done for – and that’s a stressful feeling.

First of all, the danger in thinking “I’m going to build a company, I’m just not sure which one yet,” is that you might pick the wrong one because you’re so eager. Especially if it’s your first time building something, it is far better to wait until you have a problem that you’re really passionate about solving.

Second of all, the odds are that you’re going to fail. Just statistically speaking, you probably won’t succeed. So if you’re going to do this difficult thing that can be scary, and hard, and lonely if you don’t have co-founders, and you’re likely to have little to show for it down the road – at least make it something that you’re passionate about so that you can have no regrets.

This is admittedly anecdotal, but it’s worth mentioning that all of the most dedicated, successful, formidable (not to mention enjoyable) entrepreneurs I’ve met have been moved to build their companies because of something they really cared about. Their concern and dedication is contagious, tangible, energizing.

The best advice I can give to someone who says they want to start a company, but isn’t sure which one – and who is willing to take the advice to wait and be patient—is the following:

  • Work in the industry that you’re most excited about. Maybe it’s tech, maybe it’s fashion, maybe it’s media, maybe it’s food. Go there and get in the trenches, get in the weeds, see what’s happening. Listen, watch, inquire. What’s missing from the ecosystem? What would people value, but don’t have? It’s very difficult to correctly evaluate an ecosystem – and it’s opportunities – from afar. There are stories of complete outsiders disrupting industries, but there are far more companies that have been built by folks familiar with the challenges and issues within industries and sectors.
  • If you can’t go to work in the industry you’re most excited about… do the next best thing: talk to people who are on the leading edge of that industry. Make it your business to get on the phone with folks – including people on the frontlines, managers, and executives. Ask them what they see in their work. What problems do they face that they don’t already have solutions to? What would they pay to have addressed? If they could wave a magic wand one time, what would they change about their work? The answers to questions like this will lead you to sparks of ideas that could turn into a worthwhile venture.

If you follow your instincts and get a job in the field that you suspect will be a fun and lucrative industry to build a startup in, you’ve limited your personal downside risk. The best case scenario is your bet pays off and you do uncover a monster opportunity. The worst case scenario is that you don’t – but you spend a few years working on something you’re interested in, before deciding to move onto something else.

So think ahead. Minimize your risk. Enjoy the path. And only start things that actually matter!

Think ahead. Minimize your risk. Enjoy the path. And only start things that matter!  Tweet This Quote

Nathaniel Koloc

Author Nathaniel Koloc

Nathaniel Koloc is co-founder and CEO of ReWork, a recruiting firm dedicated to helping people find meaningful work. ReWork recruits exceptional professionals for companies making social, environmental, and cultural progress. Nathaniel's is a Singularity University Alum, an Unreasonable Fellow, and a contributor for Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, and Inc. among others.

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