Purity of Motivation: How the Best Startup Founders Master Their Craft, and What You Can Learn from Them

Michael Jordan as a rookie on the Chicago Bulls (NBA.com).

When Michael Jordan signed his rookie contract with the Chicago Bulls, he insisted on a peculiar contract clause. Jordan requested to play offseason basketball whenever he wanted, against whomever he wanted. The Bulls opposed this clause, which became known as the “Love of the Game” clause, because they feared Jordan would injure himself. But Jordan insisted on it, knowing it would enable him able to gain an unfair competitive edge against his peers during the offseason.

Jordans offseason work ethic in the NBA eventually became legendary. He improved his game every offseason, adding new moves and shooting skills to complement his astounding athleticism. When he retired, Jordan attributed much of his success to his burning desire to improve, which can be traced to this contract clause. In his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, Jordan said, “In my contract, I have the ‘love of the game’ clause. That means I can play anytime I want, any place I want.’’

Greatness in any endeavor is often attributed to singular natural talent or ability, which can obscure the long-term commitment required to reach excellence. We gawk at Michael Jordan’s ability to dunk from the free throw line, but we don’t see the countless hours he spent in the gym, perfecting his jump shot.

Michael Jordan sinking the jump shot to win the NBA Finals. Jordan’s jumper was the product of countless offseason hours spent in the gym in the offseason (YouTube).

The same applies to entrepreneurship. We admire founders who have brilliant vision, risk-taking ability, or leadership skills. But we often miss the willingness to do the unsexy things that characterizes great founders. An underlying passion to solve a problem often drives great founders long before they reach recognition and financial success.

In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth describes the qualities of those who excel at the highest levels in their professions. One of the most important qualities is passion, manifested in the form of commitment to “deliberate practice” over the long term. Deliberate practice is defined as “thousands and thousands of hours of practice over years and years.” More than just the amount of hours spent, deliberate practice is characterized by specific behaviors such as creating stretch goals, constantly seeking feedback, and focusing on improving weaknesses.

Great startup founders are like Michael Jordan in having “love of the game”, which manifests itself in maniacal focus and constant focus on improvement. At 645 Ventures, we call this quality in founders purity of motivation. Purity of motivation can often be identified in exceptional founders long before they start a company.

How does such purity of motivation signal itself in exceptional startup founders? It appears in the following three ways:

Focus on Mastering a Domain Long Before Founding a Startup: Exceptional startup founders often evidence a desire to master a specific domain, often many years before they seek to build a company in that domain. This period of study enables them to develop deep insights into how to solve a problem.

In high school, Bill Gates and Paul Allen were honing their programming skills and doing contract work into the late hours of the night for computer companies as part of the Lakeside Programmers Group. Their insights into the power of software in enabling a broad range of consumer applications became the spark that led to the formation of Microsoft.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen, hard at work as members of the Lakeside High Programmers Group (Computing.co.uk).

Trip Hawkins was so passionate about video games that created his own major at Harvard called “Strategy and Applied Game Theory”, which Hawkins described as the world’s first degree in games. More than ten years later, he launched Electronic Arts, which today is one of the largest gaming companies in the world.

Michael Rubin, founder of the billion-dollar sports e-commerce company Fanatics, was running a ski shop from his parents’ basement at 12 years old. More than fourteen years later, his deep understanding of the sports equipment and apparel business enabled him to see how the Internet could transform the category. Fourteen years after founding his ski shop, Rubin founded Global Sports, an online commerce company in the sports equipment vertical, which would eventually be acquired for $2.4 billion by eBay.

Michael Rubin in his ski repair shop as a teenager (Paulette Rubin).

Purity of motivation can also manifest itself across a sequence of professional experiences, which culminate in a new startup. As an example, Katrina Lake, CEO and Co-Founder of Stitch Fix, discovered her passion for retail innovation while a student at Stanford University. She honed her understanding of how technology was changing the retail industry as a consultant at the Parthenon Group, then as a venture investor at Leader Ventures. While a student at Harvard Business School, she envisioned the impact that data could have to personalize the process of buying clothes. Stitch Fix, now worth almost $3 billion, was born.

Stitch Fix CEO Katrina Lake, during the early years of Stitch Fix (HBS Retail and Luxury Goods Club).

All of these founders manifested a passion for a specific domain and honed their knowledge and focus over a long period of time. After many years of study, they were able to identify an entrepreneurial opportunity that others, who had less preparation, were unable to see.

Overcoming Setbacks in an Obsessive Journey to Solve a Problem: A founder with purity of motivation is willing to deal with many setbacks in a specific domain to eventually build a business that solves a pain point. This founder is less opportunistic than the serial entrepreneur who tries many different businesses in various domains before identifying the one that reaches large scale. The founder with purity of motivation stays in the same domain, often dealing with setbacks in order to solve a long-term problem.

Logan Green, co-founder of Lyft, exemplifies this quality. As a young person growing up in Los Angeles, Green forced himself to travel around California without a car in order to better understand California’s transportation problems. People who knew him well described him as being obsessed with identifying an alternative to car ownership at an early age. Describing why he decided to ditch his car, Green said, “I wanted to absorb all the alternatives to car ownership. My hope was to come up with a transportation solution that didn’t require everybody to own a car like L.A. does.”

Logan Green and John Zimmer, founders of Zimride, the precursor to Lyft (Wikipedia).

While in college at UCSB, he served as the youngest director ever for the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District. He also started a car-sharing program at UCSB which eventually became Zimride, a precursor to Lyft.

Not only did Green have a deep passion for identifying an alternative to car ownership, he was willing to deal with setbacks on the journey to solving the problem. Green and his co-founder John Zimmer worked on Zimride for more than five years, without great success, before pivoting to peer-to-peer ride-hailing and starting Lyft. After those five lean years, they continued to persist even as Uber grabbed much of the recognition and market share.

Such obsessive fascination with solving a problem is not confined to technology founders. Herb Kelleher, Founder of Southwest Airlines, exemplified a similar obsessive dedication to providing low-cost flights to consumers. After founding Southwest in 1966, Kelleher and his co-founder were prevented from launching their flight service for five years, due to an injunction obtained by Southwest’s competitors. When Southwest’s board of directors sought to abandon the project and shut down the company, Kelleher shouldered the legal fees himself, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where Southwest won and was finally able to launch its airline.

When asked near the end of his life why he persevered for five years to finally launch Southwest, Kelleher described his underlying motivation. In his words, “One of the things that motivated me was to, in effect, validate the free enterprise system.”

Herb Keller, founder of Southwest Airlines (FreeEnterprise.com)

Deeply Immersing Oneself in the Customer Experience to Identify a Better Solution: Founders with purity of motivation have a deep obsession with solving customer pain point, often immersing themselves in the user experience itself. No task is too small or trivial for these founders. In fact, immersion in the small tasks provides the insight that eventually becomes a company’s competitive advantage.

As an example, the CEO and Co-Founder of Deliveroo, Will Shu, worked every day as a food delivery man in the company’s early days in order to understand the customer experience. He did this because it enabled him to “really understand ‘what restaurateurs are thinking, what customers are thinking, what drivers are thinking,” and to eventually create a better service for all three parties.

Shu continues to make deliveries personally even today, despite being CEO of a company now valued at over $2 billion. When asked his advice for aspiring founders, Shu cites the importance of purity of motivation by saying “My biggest piece of advice is to do something that you actually care about personally.”

Will Shu, founder of Deliveroo, making a delivery (The Times).

Deep immersion in the customer experience can also manifest itself in a founder providing a non-scalable service in order to identify the characteristics needed for a scalable service. The founders of AirBNB represented this concept. They first rented out their own apartment to launch the service, then frequently lived with AirBNB hosts. They even became photographers themselves when hosts requested photos. AirBNB CEO Brian Chesky said, “The creation of the peer review system, customer support, all these things came from — we didn’t just meet our users, we lived with them. And I used to joke that when you bought an iPhone, Steve Jobs didn’t come sleep on your couch. But I did.”

The founders of AirBNB, in a replica of the first AirBNB apartment (The Times).

Recommendations: If you are a founder with purity of motivation, here are three key recommendations which may help sustain you in your pursuit.

  1. Balance Visionary Idealism with Business Practicality: Founders with purity of motivation tend to be visionary about where a market is going. However, this visionary quality may lead them to overlook the practical requirements to turn a vision into a business, especially in the early days, and may also led to tunnel vision. It’s important to complement vision with constant experimentation around business model. Also understand that in order to reach large scale, your idea may need to evolve and change.

Co-Founder/Managing Partner of 645 Ventures; Focused on investing in the world’s best technology startups