You take a risky leap.
You experience the elation of newfound freedom.
You boldly fly higher with single-minded conviction
You ignore nay-sayers who shout warnings from below.
This is a classical situation of a passion trap, an all too real phenomenon that undermines many a new venture.
The passion trap has roots in a basic truth: Your intense devotion to your business concept can bring danger along with its obvious benefits. Passion provides courage, energy, and optimism to propel you on your flight forward, but it also can blind and deafen you to helpful data and ideas.
Anyone who cares deeply about his or her startup idea is subject to being snared by the passion trap. Seasoned entrepreneurs and successful investors alike can recognize the damage done by unchecked or misdirected passion.
The good news is that you can bring high-flying enthusiasm and confidence to your startup and also protect yourself from being blinded or blindsided by your emotional attachment to an idea.
Of the many dangers “the passion trap” is one that is squarely under your control. With awareness and the right practices, one can be certain that entrepreneurial zeal will work for you rather than against you.
What is a Passion Trap?
The passion trap is a self-reinforcing spiral of beliefs, choices, and
actions that lead to critical miscalculations and missteps, mistakes
such as significantly underestimating what is required to get a business off the ground; greatly over-assuming initial customer interest; making deep, irretrievable commitments to unproven concepts; and, in too many cases, rigidly adhering to a failing strategy until it’s too late to recover.
One of the most dangerous aspects of the passion trap is the subtle,
illusory way it takes hold. On the surface, it masquerades as the kind
of heroic determination that fuels every startup success story. Passionate business owners show boldness, commitment, and clarity of
purpose—qualities we all crave, qualities that feel good. Whether or
not you identify with the confident swagger of Virgin Group’s Richard
Branson or Apple’s Steve Jobs, it’s hard to deny that they seem to enjoy
what they do.
However, when an entrepreneur becomes too emotionally attached to an idea, boldness can be transformed into arrogance. Commitment narrows into a kind of tunnel vision. Cognitive biases filter and bend incoming data to conform to the founder’s hopes and beliefs.
Conversations are drained of objectivity. Even worse, these patterns
are generally invisible to the founder, and their negative impact is usually delayed over time. Like a termite-infested home, the seemingly
solid startup is eaten from within.
The Four Stages:
The core passion-trap pattern consists of four interdependent steps,
each leading to the next:
1. Attachment to an Idea. Whether through an incremental process or a single bolt of inspiration, you latch onto a compelling business concept: a cool product, an innovative service, or an unstoppable mission. It’s good. You know it. And you can feel your enthusiasm building. The more you think about it, the more excited you get. Your emotional attachment grows, and leads to . . .
2. Investments and Actions. You invest time, energy, money, or other resources and move forward with your idea. This can include many different actions, depending on how far you have gotten along your startup path—sharing your idea with colleagues, exploring the Web, talking to potential customers, hiring team members, or building a prototype. These actions give rise to . . .
3. Feedback or Results. Early actions always lead to something that can be seen, heard, and evaluated—the reactions of friends and family, information about customers and competitors, a duct-tape version of your first product, or even early sales results. These results are then subject to . . .
4. Biased Interpretation. At the heart of passion, the trap is the enthusiastic entrepreneur’s well-documented tendency to notice and embrace information that supports existing beliefs and to discount or completely miss contradictory evidence.
This selective filtering process is governed by a set of subtle but powerful cognitive biases operating just beneath the founder’s awareness. As a result, he or she develops an even stronger emotional attachment to the idea, and the cycle rolls forward. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Characteristics of Entrepreneurs caught in a Passion Trap
Confidence/Optimism. Successful entrepreneurs tend to believe in a brighter future. They are not easily deterred by others’ negativism or criticism. However, at extreme levels, confidence begins to function as arrogance or blind certainty.
Need for Achievement Call it to drive, ambition, or competitiveness. Successful entrepreneurs desire to fly higher and higher and are unshakably committed to their cause. At extreme levels, this high level of drive can show up as a volatile, my way-or-the-highway approach that alienates partners and customers alike.
Independence. Successful entrepreneurs are often willing or even inclined, to strike out on their own. They can shoulder the pangs of loneliness that all startup founders experience. But extremely independent business owners can become stubborn and aloof, sealing themselves off from access to constructive feedback, resources, and other sources of help
Creativity/Imagination. Many entrepreneurs are classic dreamers, full of ideas, and aspirations. They see potential where others see nothing. They ingeniously create awe-inspiring products. Unfortunately, extremely imaginative founders can fall in love with ideas that other people don’t “get” or need. They lose touch with what matters most to others—to customers, team members, investors, etc.
Risk-Taking. Effective startup founders are skilled at evaluating and assuming calculated risk. At its extreme, a propensity for risk-taking drives entrepreneurs to take risks for the sheer excitement involved (much like gambling) or, in concert with too much optimism, to believe that their risk-taking is aligned with some greater destiny.
Follow-Through/Focus. This is a critical capability for early stage businesses, where resources are usually scarce and distractions abound. But a passion-trapped founder with single minded focus can get stuck in a narrow tactical rut, stubbornly sticking to an outmoded game plan, while the startup ship takes on more and more water.
Early Warning Signs: Are You in Danger of
It’s hard to differentiate between healthy optimism and blind optimism. Below is a list of early warning signs to help you evaluate whether you are in danger of undercutting your odds of startup success.
Are you . . .
Thinking or saying, “This is a sure thing?”
Losing patience with people who point out risks or
shortcomings in your plan?
Believing your solution is better than anything on the
Feeling full of energy but lacking focus and traction?
Measuring progress by how good you feel?
Expecting most of your sales to come from word-of-mouth
or “viral” marketing?
Assuming that you are entering a space with little or no
Counting on immediate revenue to avoid financially
Plotting global domination before releasing your first
Lacking clarity about where your business stands
Delaying product releases until they are perfect?
Preventing things from happening without your
involvement and approval?
Loving your product, with no idea who will buy it?
Hearing great “buzz” but finding few (or no) paying
Finding yourself saying (about your customers), “They
don’t get it yet, but they will!”?
Thinking that planning is a waste of time?