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Intention in Entrepreneurship

This post is from September 15, 2010 and originally appeared in an earlier, now-defunct blog that I had called Seitzian Rudisms.  I’m reposting it now for a friend from Venture Cafe who asked me about my experiences with Bill Warner’s startup methodology.  It’s been two years since I attended Bill’s AnythingGoes seminar and I think it’s time for a follow-up post about what’s happened since then; I’ll link to that here when it’s written.

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Some entrepreneurs just want to focus on doing stuff. The question why – what’s my intention? – doesn’t matter so much as achieving a tangible result: launching a product, winning customers, making money, and so on.

For other entrepreneurs, why is really important.

In the entrepreneurial world, there’s lots of advice to be had. Everyone wants to give you advice – mentors, peers, business school professors, even competitors.

Most of the structured advice available to entrepreneurs – what you get in formal mentorship programs, seminars, workshops – focuses on execution. How to get stuff done. How to write a business plan. How to do a deal. How to raise money. How promote your product.

There are fewer organized, public opportunities for entrepreneurs to consider what really makes us tick – why we’re taking these huge risks, what we’re really aiming for. Bill Warner’s AnythingGoes program, which I attended for two weeks in July 2010, was one such opportunity I had, and I’m grateful for it.

Bill Warner, in thinking about his own businesses (in particular, the contrast between Avid and Wildfire), has developed a powerful set of concepts that can help an entrepreneur better understand their own intentions, and ultimately follow the call of their heart. That sounds like a tall order, but I know a bunch of us who attended Bill’s alpha launch of this program were changed by the experience.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’d actually explain Bill’s key concepts to a new seminar participant. While Bill’s concepts of “timeless intention,” “belief,” “people,” “invention”, and “co-flow” are a powerful foundation, I think they raise just as many questions as they answer. When I start to explain them I find myself filling in gaps with some ideas I’ve come upon in my own ventures and reflections.

If I were to teach the AnythingGoes curriculum in my own words, given a few hours to prepare, freely adding some of my own ideas into the mix, here’s what I’d say (below). Basically, this is how I understand the concept of “intention” and how I think entrepreneurs can get closer to understanding and manifesting their intentions.  [Rough-draft, version 1, written in 3hrs.]

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People start businesses for a mix of reasons.

One single entrepreneur might have a handful of different reasons for taking a big risk.

What makes someone invest time, money, and effort in a new venture?

If you’re an entrepreneur, you have probably thought some or all of these things:

I want to make money.

I want to have an impact on the world.

I want to help other people.

I want to be famous.

I want to do something important.

I want to give back to my community.

I want to fix something that doesn’t work.

I want to lead a team.

I want to set my own destiny.

I want to build something great.

Let’s divide an entrepreneur’s motivations into two categories:

The entrepreneur wants things for him or herself.

The entrepreneur wants things for other people.

It’s tempting to call these categories “selfish motivations” and “altruistic motivations” but that’s a value judgement that can make matters more confusing.

For example, some things an entrepreneur wants for himself (“I want to get rich”) might seem selfish, while other things he wants for himself (“I want to set my own destiny”) – or she for herself – might seem, to a Western audience at least, admirably free-spirited, ruggedly individualistic, even heroic. There are altruistic reasons for wanting to get rich (“…so I can give money to causes I care about”) and selfish reasons for wanting to chart one’s own destiny (“…so I can retire early and have all my time to myself and never have do anything anyone asks of me”).

Now, most entrepreneurs are motivated by both sets of concerns – things I want for myself, things I want for others. However, there are extremes:

Some businesses are basically get-rich-quick schemes where the entrepreneur aims to do nothing more than acquire money.

Some businesses are basically charities where the entrepreneur is only trying to help others without any personal gain (aside from the satisfaction of having done it).

It can be very difficult for an entrepreneur to sort out which motivations are primary and which are secondary. Is it more important to help people or make money? Well, if I don’t make money, I can’t sustain my efforts and won’t be very effective at helping people. But if I’m not helping anyone, I could lose my motivation, build a mediocre product or give up entirely, and wind up not making a dime. (Or, I could make a lot of money and feel bad about it.)

For now, we’re going to forget about entrepreneurs who are motivated only by personal gain. We’re going to assume that helping others is one of an entrepreneur’s various motivations, and we’re going to bring that particular motivation into focus.

So you, an entrepreneur, want to help others – how?

It can be hard to understand how you really want to help others. You can sense it but you might not be able to put it into words, or at least not clear ones. Usually there are various people an entrepreneur could help, and many good reasons for wanting to help them. But who do you really care about and what kind of impact are you really aiming for? The goal of this exercise is to separate the superficial motivations from the deeper ones.

Why do this?

Your deepest motivations are the source of your energy, and once you’ve understood those motivations you’ll be able to harness your own energy more effectively. Also, you’ll be able to explain yourself, your invention, and your business more clearly. Recognizing your motivations makes it easier to pursue and defend them.

We often get confused about our motivations because we don’t know how to interpret the complex artifacts we invent in their pursuit.

Most entrepreneurs are inventors. They create some kind of tool, a product or system, that helps people do something that’s hard.

Every entrepreneur who wants to help people has a choice: you can help people in a simple, small, local way, or you could seek a bigger, wider, more lasting impact. For many entrepreneurs, harnessing technology, inventing something new, and starting a business around it is the way we pursue that greater impact.

For example, if I want to help people make friends, I could work as an office temp, make enough money to pay the bills, and spend the rest of my time organizing and hosting parties in my rented one-bedroom apartment in a slummy neighborhood with no air-conditioning. If I’m a really good host and I do a lot of parties, people will still come despite my humble circumstances – I could help dozens, maybe hundreds of people mingle, meet, and make friends in the course of a few years.

What’s my other option? I could bring business and technology into the picture, drum up investment for a social networking website or mobile app, and launch a slick product that might go viral and help millions of people make new connections. My product will be out in the world manifesting my intention even when I’m asleep, and I’ll be making money at it (hopefully) and maybe I’ll buy a Porsche and move out of the slum.

Entrepreneurs are, basically by definition, the people who aren’t content to just hold private parties but instead decide to go out and start businesses and build technologies so they can have a bigger impact. Given a choice between helping hundreds of people and millions, they go for millions. Through inventions, they seek to magnify their impact – they seek to have a lot more of same kind of impact that they could have had sooner and more easily, through simple personal actions not involving business or technology.  In addition to magnifying their impact, many entrepreneurs hope to magnify their returns.  Entrepreneurship is in some sense about deferring the immediate realization of a goal in favor of a future big-bang manifestation of that goal.

In some cases, the entrepreneur might be shy of taking a direct personal action (hosting a party) but instead feel more comfortable interacting with the world through the proxy of an invention (a software system to help people mingle online).

Now, it can take a long time to build an invention and it’s easy to get lost in the details. Inventions often arise through a complex process of experiment, reasoning, conversation, market research, intuition, inspiration, and collaboration lasting months or years.

Some entrepreneurs end up inventing the exact tool they they hoped to contribute to the market or the world, but many entrepreneurs end up with an invention that’s somewhat different from what they wanted or conceived initially. Businesses evolve, inventions evolve and might even come to surprise the inventor.

Oftentimes, an entrepreneur will look to his or her current invention as an answer to the question “Who do I want to help?” For example, an entrepreneur might go through a long process of product design and experimentation and finally end up with a tool that, it turns out, is just what some group of people, say, conference organizers, really need. The entrepreneur sees that a given (possibly unexpected) invention fills a need in a specific market (conference organizers) and begins to pitch the product to that market. In that process, the entrepreneur might develop marketing materials that profess a “sincere” desire to help conference organizers do their jobs:

“We are passionate about helping you make your conference a success.”

It might be the case that the entrepreneur doesn’t really care about conference organizers at a personal level, but merely sees them as a promising market for a given concept/product, and therefore attempts to win their favor by professing to love them and want to solve their problems. In some cases, the entrepreneur might actually convince him or herself of the reality of these statements, and yes, in some cases an entrepreneur might develop a genuine empathy for a class of people who were originally identified as nothing more than “most promising potential market.” Feelings can grow and, as is the case in certain successful arranged marriages, two people (or families) who do not start out with a deep connection might cultivate such a connection in time.  However, when you marry a spouse or a customer just for their money, it might not work so well.

In some cases the entrepreneur really cares about a completely different set of people than the product aims to help, but the entrepreneur has a hard time admitting this.  Who does the entrepreneur’s empathy rest with — who does the entrepreneur really relate to, really care about?  Maybe the entrepreneur is truly motivated by bringing a business team together and he or she could care less about the actual product?  Maybe the entrepreneur is pursuing this business simply as context for working with talented people and helping them be effective?  Maybe the entrepreneur’s true “people” are not conference organizers but other startup folks — hackers, designers, finance people, sales folks — and the real way the entrepreneur wants to help others is by uniting them, giving them interesting work, guiding them towards effectiveness, showing them how to make each other smarter?  In this case it’s best for the entrepreneur to focus on just that — building a team — and find a business partner who’s totally passionate about conference organizers and sees how to use the product/team to help them.  This is what Bill Warner calls setting up a “co-flow” — topic for a separate discussion.

Now, in the process of building businesses, entrepreneurs are continuously prodded (by advisers and other entrepreneurs) to refine their “pitch.” This is a process of crafting language that makes a product seem appealing to a particular audience. In some cases, an entrepreneur might decide the best way to pitch a product is to say simply and directly what it actually does. In many cases however, the process of crafting a pitch is not a search for accurate representation of the product’s value but simply an attempt to capture someone’s interest in a promise, with the aim of making a sale. In the entrepreneurial world, it can sometimes seem that people are more concerned with designing pitches than with designing products – product which, if they were really good, might not need a pitch at all.

In this exercise, we are asking entrepreneurs to use language differently from the way they may have become accustomed to using it. We are asking you not to pitch your product or profess an artificial love for your current customer. We are asking you to describe in very simple language, the way you intend to help others. We assume you have many different kinds of motivations as an entrepreneur, but here we are asking you to focus on the essence of what you want to do for other people.  We’re also asking you to think about who those people, “your people,” really are.

This is much easier said than done, and for some, it will require a process of soul-searching, self-questioning, and conversation with others. There’s no magical way to arrive at the answer, but there are approaches you can follow, exercises you can try, concepts you can employ, and ways you can work towards this understanding with the help of your peers.

This exercise is really about aligning your personal intentions with your business intentions. It’s possible that they’re not aligned currently. If you start describing what your product does and who it helps, it might turn out that you don’t have much concern for those people (even though you’ve been saying you do), or that the way your product helps them doesn’t match your intentions.

At this point, you might be asking a few questions. First, do I have to give up my business and go back to the drawing board to continue with this exercise?

No you don’t have to give up your business. To proceed with the exercise, however, you might need to forget about your business for the moment. Allow yourself some time to explore your personal intentions without the cognitive overload of trying to reconcile them with your current business. Once you’ve better understood your personal intentions, you can return to thinking about your current business and consider how the two spheres relate.

Another question you might have is: should my personal intentions and my business intentions be connected at all? Isn’t it reasonable that I, as entrepreneur, keep business and personal life separate? I might care about helping my friends and family in one way, and I might like hanging out with a certain kind of person in my spare time, but when I enter the business world, I have completely different concerns, and different people I want to interact with. I want to help customers in totally different ways from how I help my personal friends – they’re not the same.

Certainly there will always be some distinction between personal and business life, and entrepreneurs have different opinions about how much of a separation is possible, natural, or desirable. Also, we acknowledge that there’s no one way an entrepreneur wants to help others. You might feel inspired to help in very different ways in different contexts or at different times in your life, some through business and invention, some through simple, direct personal action.

However, this exercise is about seeking some kind of connection between the personal and business spheres of your life. The idea is that by stripping away the details of your efforts and speaking in very simple terms, you can come upon a statement of intention that rings true for you as a person, and matches a goal that you want to pursue (or are already pursuing) in your business. When you find this simple statement of intention – your personal and business lives won’t suddenly collapse into one – but you will probably see a greater connection between them.

So, what is an intention?

The word intention has multiple meanings. It can be used to describe a plan – a course of action that one expects to take. It can also be used to describe an aim that guides action, an objective that motivates the things that you do.

We’re using the word intention in the second sense, an aim that guides action, not a specific plan for some future action.

As mentioned earlier, we’re also focusing on specific kind of intention – your intentions with respect to other people, the way you intend to help others. In essence, your intention is the deeper aim or objective behind various specific actions you take to when you interact with other people.

Again, you might – you probably do – have more than one such intention. How to find out what they are?

Remember this — intentions aren’t something you invent, so don’t try.

In this exercise, you are working to uncover something that is already true of you. You are not aiming to develop or create a new intention – an intention that sounds good, seems to make sense, or fit your current business plan. Rather, you are trying to understand the intentions that already guide your actions as a person and entrepreneur. The key thing to realize is that, whatever your intentions are, you have already been acting on them. If your stated intentions aren’t somehow reflected in your prior action, then, as we’ve defined the term, those stated intentions aren’t really your intentions.

Part of the idea here is that superficial intentions change for a person over time, but deep, fundamental intentions usually stay the same – if you had them as a kid, you probably still have them today. And once you find a way to describe them, you won’t need to change that statement radically next year or in ten years.

One key to recognizing your intentions is to look at how you’ve already been acting – what you’ve been doing in your life so far. As you start this exercise, we ask you to look not at the very complex world of your business, your invention, all the things you’d doing as an entrepreneur, but look instead at simpler parts of your life.

Consider some simple stories. When was the last time you…

Helped a stranger?

Helped a friend?

Helped a family member?

When was the last time you helped someone in a simple, direct way, without the intervention of complex technology?

These questions can catch people off guard as we do not often remember all the little ways we help others in the course of a day or week. Some of us go around feeling we don’t help others much at all on a day-to-day basis – we’re saving all that helping energy up for our big project, the business, the invention that’s going to have widespread impact.

In this exercise, we ask you to assume that, in fact, you have been helping people all along in simple ways – you just might not have been paying attention.

We believe that if you gather a bunch of simple, true stories of how you help others in your personal life – even if it’s nothing more than picking up a piece of paper someone dropped on the floor – you will start to see patterns. You will start to see your own personal signature in the kinds of people you help, and the ways you go about helping. Those patterns will reveal the outlines of your intentions – the same intentions that guide your larger actions, the kind of projects you take up, the kind of inventions you make.

In searching for these patterns, we ask you to progressively simplify your language. Can you tell these stories in terms a kid would understand – using grade school vocabulary? Can you use only “timeless” language – words that would make sense to someone hearing them 1000 years ago?

Can you tell your personal stories in simple, timeless language?

Can you phrase your intentions in simple timeless language?

Some example intention statements:

I want to help people make music together

I want to help people feel understood

I want to help people follow their hearts

I want to help people stay healthy

I want to help people find food

I want to help people get along

I want to help people make new friends

I want to help people fall in love

I want to help people get things done

Some people struggle with writing these statements because they’re not sure how to phrase something so it’s “simple and timeless.”  It’s actually quite simple (though it can take some time to experiment with): stick with grade school vocabulary, make it fit on a post-it, and don’t use words that wouldn’t have made any sense 1000 years ago (no “web 2.0” for example). You can start with a long, complex, time-specific sentence and progressively wheedle it down to the simple, timeless core.

Now, there’s a catch to this process. If you take a complex statement, say a description of your current invention (which we asked you to forget for the moment), and you try to distill the timeless intention underneath it, you’ll see you can do this in different ways. Usually there are different intentions that could match the same story, the same invention, the same actions. All these statements seem to make sense – how do you know which intention is really true for you?

Once you master the constraints of writing in a “simple, timeless” way you’ll find it’s quite easy to invent some intention statements that sound like just the thing this exercise is asking for. Yes, you can cheat.

You might even feel these intention statements are empty or worthless because they’re general, perhaps vague, maybe so abstract as to be true of everyone. “I want to help people get along” – well, that could mean so many different things, and anyone could say they want to do this – how do you know it’s for real?

Well, once you have a statement that you think represents one of your significant “timeless intentions,” the next step is to test it.

Here are three simple ways of testing your intention statement:

One is to tell it to others, see if they believe you. How do they respond? Does your statement match what they know of you, what you’ve said about yourself, how you’ve interacted with them? Do they have questions? Do they perceive different intentions in what you’ve been doing and saying?

A second test is to act on your intention. Act on it in the most simple way possible, as soon as you can.

If entrepreneurship is about the long haul, now’s your chance to have an impact in a simple, immediate way. If your statement is “I intend to help people stay healthy” and you’re building a mobile app to help people stick to their fitness schedules, but the app isn’t launched yet, just go out and find a friend who needs help with their fitness routine. Sit down with a pen and paper and help them organize it. How does that feel for you? Does it feel like this is really your intention?

A third test is to look at your past. Is this intention reflected in your history? Can you find examples of how you’ve been acting on the intention, maybe in little ways, throughout your life? If so, it probably is your intention. If it’s totally new and unrelated to your past, probably not.

So now you have your intention statement and you’ve tested it – what next?

In essence, your next step is very simple: keep acting on your intention.

The aim of this whole process is to give you a way of recognizing your intention that will make it easier to see how you can act on it. In a sense, your intention statement is a bit of language that makes it easier for you to acknowledge what you’re already inclined to do and now actually do it – do more of it.

What about details like these:

I realize my business isn’t in line with my intention – how do I bring it into line? Do I have to scrap my current business and start over?

I’m too overwhelmed with work, I can’t spend time thinking about my intention, how can I possibly act on it?

I can’t see how I can make any money manifesting my true intention – should I try something else?

People laugh when I tell them my intention – they say it’s vague or too general or it will never sell – how do I get them to understand? What do I say to my customers?

None of the people I’m working for are “my people” and “my people” don’t actually have any money — what should I do?

I’m still not sure I found a good statement of my intention – how can I get closer to something that rings true for me?

How do I find others who understand and share my intention? My business partner doesn’t share it, what do I do about that? My investors don’t share it, what do I do about that?

Ah, good questions – keep asking them. Ask them not just by yourself, but publicly, among other entrepreneurs who care about the the same things and face the same challenges. If you find an answer, share it with the rest of us.

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a few links:

more about AnythingGoes lab:

http://bostinnovation.com/2010/05/21/heart-vs-brain-shifting-the-startup-flow-to-follow-the-heart/

A TED talk that I helped Bill with:

http://www.youtube.com/v/Z1-LPzMpElU&hl=en&fs=1&hd=1

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