Balancing team passion and product-market fit

There’s a tension brewing in the startup world that I think needs to be brought to light. Most founders who take the time to blog or write will at some point share the following advice, “You must follow your passion. Startups are so hard that if you’re not passionate about your mission, there’s no way you’ll succeed.” At the same time, the lean startup movement has entrepreneurs everywhere “building, measuring and learning” what the market wants, to find the illusive product-market fit. But what happens when what the market wants is not what you’re passionate about?

As cofounder of Wellsphere, I experienced this firsthand. When we started the company in 2005, our initial plan was to create enterprise communities in which employees would support each other and gain incentives for engaging in healthier behaviors (exercising, eating right, doing yoga). We struggled to find product-market fit, so we changed our focus from enterprises to consumers, and from wellness and lifestyle to general health and medicine. Although the shift in focus from wellness to medicine made sense in terms of finding a larger market (especially given the consumer-focus), I personally have never been passionate about medicine. For whatever reason, I have always been passionate about helping people go from zero to ten, rather than minus ten to zero.

Passions aside, we eventually developed an extremely effective content aggregation and distribution strategy, growing from 100,000 unique visitors a month to 6 million in less than 18 months (which we felt pretty good about in the pre-open-graph virality days). We began talking to most of the major online health companies about partnering to sell ads against our growing inventory, and we started to receive acquisition interest.

At the end of 2008, after four intense, emotional years, we were faced with the choice of selling the company or charging forward toward our next funding milestone. I had to ask myself, “Do I have the energy and the passion to charge ahead?” As individuals and as a team, we all had to answer this question. We ended up deciding to sell the company to IAC-backed The Health Central Network.

Although we had a successful outcome, especially in the face of one of the most challenging acquisition environments in the last decade, we still had a long way to go toward fulfilling the company’s potential as an independent consumer health organization. I think if we had been focused on what we were passionate about rather than product-market fit, things might have played out differently.

Product-team-market fit

Sure, there are those lucky few entrepreneurs who hit it on the first try, chasing their passion and finding a perfectly overlapping market need. But for the rest of us, how do we decide between team passion versus market pragmatism?

I think it’s a false choice that many entrepreneurs make, whether out of convenience, lack of creativity, or simply because they don’t realize that there’s a third option. As if starting a company isn’t hard enough, I recommend you make it even harder — don’t settle for what you’ve discovered the market wants if it doesn’t intersect with what you and your team are passionate about doing. Keep iterating. Think of it as an investment in your future energy and in the long-term potential of your company. Only when you’ve created a product that your team is passionate about and meets the needs of a large market should you move ahead and scale the company. Do not stop at product-market fit, make sure you find product-team-market fit. From there, you’ll find the journey toward scaling a large, successful business more energizing and fun, and your chances of making it through the challenges and speed bumps that lie ahead will increase exponentially. The most important, and most scarce, ingredient to startup success is human energy. Building a product that your team is passionate about will leverage that scarcest of resource, maximize your chances of success, and enrich your life.

Dave Kashen is founder of Quantum Leading, a leadership and culture development firm for startups, and the Unleashed conference series. He writes the awesome culture blog and tweets @awesomeculture.