Play because you love playing

Why do people start a business? In a study I recently conducted with the Cardiff Start community, I asked the question: What’s the biggest gain of founding  your own business?

The answers almost always centered around the idea of ‘personal achievement’ – of making something with your own time and that you are proud of.

Founding businesses, I’ve always had goals for myself that I would’ve described as ‘personal achievement’. But they were always somehow driven by an external goals. Making money, hitting targets. However, then I missed or hit them, I felt good or bad… for a bit. Then kind of empty.

Survival rates for start-ups in the UK are still scary. Research by the insurance firm RSA in 2014 suggests that less than half survive for more than 5 years.

I wonder how many those numbers represent. I fear that founders seeking ‘personal achievement’ are somehow setting themselves up for disappointment – reading about ‘unicorns‘ and planning the next Facebook on a business model canvas. A stark contrast to the potential reality: financial risks, personal pressure and potential failure.

The idea of ‘making lots of money’ has some how always bugged me as a metric of success. Being rich and being happy aren’t mutually exclusive, but they aren’t the same either. I said the words but didn’t believe them.

I drove myself towards these successes and subjected myself to insane pressures, long hours, exacting standards. I broke myself chasing my own dreams.

In a US study of 242 founders, 72% were concerned for their mental health and 49% were living with a life-long condition. This is significantly higher than the general population. Whether founders’ mental health is cause or effect is moot. It’s a factor and one we, as a sector, should address.

When I reflected, the things that made me feel good were human things. Learning, solving problems, working with people I respect and helping them grow. Financial success could play a role in measuring this, though it wasn’t the main part.

There’s an analogy to this situation that I feel may provide some insight. In high level sports, athletes are often subject to insane pressures. Years of build up. Elation, or despair decided by milliseconds. Months of focus and suffering validated (or not) in just one result.

So how do you mentally prepare them for that moment?  I believe that founders can learn a lot from the mantra: You don’t play to win. You play because you love playing.

To put it another way: “Love the journey, not just the destination”. Years of financial hardship and pressure, seeking a personal achievement defined by a business goal, is risky. Who are we playing for: the screaming fans, media coverage and kudos? Or for our own fulfilment?

When I discovered the lean start-up movement, it was a revelation. Here was a process that aligned with those things that fulfilled me: “The only way to win, is to learn faster than everyone else.

The words of Eric Ries aligned my own happiness with the financial success required by others. Double win.

I love building companies. I’m learning how to feel fulfilled doing it. If Nudjed somehow turns into one of the 55% who don’t make it to year 5, I’ll be sad, but it won’t break me. Because I love playing the game, more than I love winning it.

Warren Fauvel is the founder and CEO of ehealth start-up Nudjed