What’s love got to do with it? For startups, everything

Fab.com co-founders Jason Goldberg and Bradford Shellhammer

A year ago, Fab.com got a new lease on life, pivoting to become a design sales site after a lackluster showing in its first incarnation as Fabulis, a gay social network. As you might have read, this year has been huge for Fab, which is now up to 2.5 million members and is on pace to bring in $100 million this year in revenue.

But what stood out to me was the backstory of the restart for Fab. Jason Goldberg, the founder and CEO said in a blog post that the company repositioned itself after realizing that it needed to focus on what the team was passionate about and was in a position to succeed at. And that, they decided after 20 minutes of discussion, was design. A social network was not, in fact, what they loved doing. It was yet another reminder for me that entrepreneurs, as skilled as they may be, need to care deeply about what they’re building to be able to build it.

It might seem intuitive or obvious that if you’re going to stake your life to a new startup, you might as well do what you love. But that lesson can get lost in the quest to build a successful start-up. That’s what happened with Fab, Goldberg told me. He said he initially built something for him and his friends but realized he was really just chasing an opportunity. Goldberg told me in an email:

It was driven from being opportunistic, not from pure passion. I think a lot of people often mistake opportunity for passion. Too many people are passionate about building a business vesus being passionate about building this business.

Not built to flip

Or as former AOL co-founder Steve Case told GigaOM in an interview last year, some entrepreneurs are looking at building businesses they can flip quickly, rather than committing to something they love. “A lot of people are starting businesses because they think it’s an opportunity to make some money,” Case said. “You occasionally get lucky, but that doesn’t really work. You have to be passionate about it.”

Kickstarter co-founder Perry Chen

The misunderstanding can sometimes come from the signals entrepreneurs receive from investors. Charlie O’Donnell, a former principal at First Round Capital who started his own fund called Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, recalled his regret passing on Kickstarter when he first met co-founder Perry Chen in 2008. In a blog post, he said he was caught up on the murky details about how Kickstarter was going to build a business and a roadmap. But he didn’t key in on the “why” behind founder Chen’s quest to build Kickstarter. He said after hearing Simon Sinek’s TED Talk he realized that people don’t buy “what” you do, they buy “why” you do it. And Chen, to his credit, kept plugging away on his idea.

I didn’t understand how important that pattern was at the time, but now, four years later, I get it.  Nowadays, one of the first things I ask someone is why they do what they do.  I used to ask it out of curiousity, but now I get how important that is to the success of your business.

Getting the passion thing right can mean the difference between success and mediocrity — or even failure. Billy Chasen, founder of Turntable.fm, recounted the story in November behind his start-up, which began life as Stickybits, a QR-code provider. He said he made the decision after losing interest in QR codes and what the company was doing with it. But what really excited him was music, which led to Turntable.fm, even though Stickybits was a modest success.

When passion meets opportunity…

Simply having passion doesn’t guarantee anything. But the opposite can be true too. You can have a great opportunity and a solid team, but if you don’t have a burning passion and a vision, things can get muddled quickly and the drive can desert you. As Goldberg points out, he needed to find a place where his passion was matched with a market ripe for disruption and a belief that Fab could be the best at what it does.

Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley

Looking at companies like Twitter and Square under Jack Dorsey or Foursquare under Dennis Crowley, you can see founders who are locked in on a passionate goal. They may not know all the details of how it will unfold but they know what they want to see ultimately because they’ve been obsessing about their ideas for a long time. As Crowley told me recently, one of the reasons why Foursquare has been able to separate from other location-based rivals is because he and many others in the core team have been ruminating on location for years. This is built into the company’s DNA and guides its direction.

Again, passion is not the only ingredient to success, but trying to build a successful business without it is tough. If you can align work and passion, the payoff can be rewarding, said Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham in blog post several years ago:

Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it’s rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you’ll be more likely to arrive at it. If you know you can love work, you’re in the home stretch, and if you know what work you love, you’re practically there.