Love the Mission or Love the Game | Theory No. 30
Are you a Type I or Type II entrepreneur?
Nearly every entrepreneurial origin story you hear is about someone with such a strong passion for something that they couldn’t help but manifest it into existence. Usually it’s a passion for solving a particularly troubling human problem or a deep curiosity for exploring a given subject or an unyielding obsession with a futuristic idea. But what we don’t talk enough about is a deep love of the game of building “enterprises” itself.
The way I see it, there are two types of true entrepreneurs. There are those in it for the love of the mission that they’re obsessed with championing. And there are those in it for the love of the game of entrepreneurship itself, almost irrespective of the mission of the business. Sometimes the mission is the business and sometimes the business is the mission. Type I, and Type II.
People who are in it for the love of the mission:
They need to be deeply inspired and obsessed with a problem or idea in order to dedicate time and mindspace to working on it. Any amount of rationalizing something they “should” work on will fail in the end. Even if they try, they’re energy will be sucked away when they encounter something else that sparks that fire in them. You might call these people missionaries or visionaries or something else. They’re driven by a view of the world they want to turn into reality.
People who are in it for the love of the game:
They’re obsessed with the game itself. The game is entrepreneurship — with some mix of building a business, creating something from nothing, “winning” against a field of competitors, capturing the world’s attention, making a lot of money, rising to the top of the entrepreneurial respect ladder. To a large extent, they could get excited about any idea, so long as the game around it is compelling. Importantly, they are deeply driven by playing the game, not just by winning it.
I think it’s a fairly simple tell. If you need the mission to get and stay motivated, then you’re type I. If you don’t, then you’re type II.1
An interesting thing is how people can transition from Type I to Type II — some people need to play the game for a while, introduced to it by a gateway mission perhaps, in order to really understand and appreciate the game. I suspect some experienced entrepreneurs transition from Type I to Type II in this way.
People who love neither deeply:
All that said, there is a group of entrepreneurs that are in it without loving either one. “Type III” almost always masquerades as Type I or Type II (maybe intentionally, but I believe most often unaware they’re not Type I or Type II in earnest). I don’t doubt that some notable entrepreneurs started out in the Type III category but later unlocked a Type I or Type II drive within them.
In the best case, Type III’s are Type I and Type II curious — they want to explore and find out if it’s right for them (like with any career). On the other hand, they could want the superficial benefits or the glorious outcomes they’ve seen. Type III can fare fine when things are going well, but otherwise they’re internally misaligned and at high risk of quitting (as with anything your heart isn’t fully in).
We don’t talk about the third type much, perhaps because it’s not one to aspire to.
The Finer Print
Importantly, this doesn’t mean that Type I won’t be good at playing the game and Type II won’t have any preference for mission or vision. But a Type II won’t be meaningfully worse at playing the game or persevering even if the mission changes (all else equal). Type II’s foremost gets energy and motivation from the game itself.
I can already hear the critics coming at me: you’re wrong, only the people who are obsessed with a mission will ever be successful. And to that I say I kind of agree. But your definition of “mission” is just too narrow. Sometimes the mission is the business and sometimes the business is the mission. Type I, and Type II.
Another counterargument: the best people are equally both. They’re in love with a mission and the game. I don’t buy it. I believe that one of them is always a primary motivator. One of these gives you more energy, comes more naturally to you, is a constant source of comfort in your mind even in times of stress and doubt.
That doesn’t mean you hate the other. You need some appreciation for both parts — the mission and the game — enough to pass the invisible threshold level. And if you focus on the right things on the journey, your appreciation for both grows.
One more adjacent, perhaps reasonable rebuttal: there are people who just like the day-to-day work itself, regardless of the bigger mission or the meta game. I think there are, but I don’t think they become founders. To be self-motivated to create something from nothing, build a team around it, and aim for big goals, you need one of the entrepreneurial drivers — love for the mission or love for the game.2
This too is part of the finer print, but it’s so important that it has its own section. Momentum is a confounding factor that can make it hard to tell type. Early momentum can even make Type III’s appear to be Type I or Type II.
Momentum can make anyone look like they’re enjoying the thing that they by default don’t. A visionary whose startup is going well might start enjoying the game a bit more. They say “growth solves all problems” — it also obscures a founder’s entrepreneurial type. Lack of momentum for long enough can make anyone stop enjoying the thing that they by default do enjoy. A gamer whose startup isn’t progressing at all might start enjoying the game a little less.
I’ve noticed entrepreneurial type peek through most in states of discovery, decision, or change. Maybe you’re in the process of starting something, quitting something, changing direction, or facing down a looming existential crisis. In a sense you can only fully validate someone’s type once they’ve been through a painful cold start or the trough of momentum despair.
What are the implications of entrepreneurial type?
For one — how you get, choose, and activate ideas. The -1 to 0 and 0 to 1. Type I’s need to be captivated by a problem or idea usually organically. They may zero in on a mission based on personal experience or something prescient in their social or professional circle.
Type II’s don’t need that organic path. They can just as well search for the idea that fits criteria for the game they want to play. They can do market research and methodically isolate the “best” idea to go after.
Naturally then I believe Type I’s are more likely to spend years, maybe even decades working towards the same ultimate mission or vision, sometimes regardless of their success along the way. Type II’s are more likely to change what they work on as the context and opportunity changes. They may be likely to be serial entrepreneurs, perhaps in many spaces, with varying project durations.
There was a time that I thought I could be a Type II, but after a few abandoned projects, I realized that I was a Type I. I needed to be mission-aligned to sustain energy. I suspect many people figure out their type through trial and error.
Entrepreneurial type also has implications for how you approach your role. As a founder/CEO, Type I is likely to lead with mission and vision. Type II is likely to lead with goals and tactics, laser-focused and ends-justify-the-means vibes. On average I think Type I’s are more likely to be good brand representatives of their product, whereas Type II’s should more often let their product be the hero.
Another way to put it is to lean into your type. And don’t try to project the type that you’re not. And if you’re a Type I, you might want to make some Type II friends or colleagues and vice versa. Each has unique strength in a partnership or team.3
Naturally, people will probably wonder about the success rates of each type. I unfortunately don’t have this data, but I do have several examples that I believe fit these types.4 (Take them in spirit, not with an intent to just prove them wrong).5
Type I Founders
The origin stories of type I founders tend to reveal an early curiosity turned obsession with something or an aha moment born out of frustration or excitement. The topic of the obsession or idea comes first. There are many such stories, but here are two that I believe fit the archetype well in unique ways.
Steve Jobs, Apple. Edited transcript from “a lost interview”, Triumph of the Nerds (1995)
I ran into my first computer when I was about 10 or 11 … They were very mysterious, very powerful things that did something in the background. And so, to see one and actually get to use one was a real privilege back then … It was an incredibly thrilling experience. So, I became very captivated by a computer. And a computer, to me, was still a little mysterious cause it was at the other end of this wire, and I’d never really seen the actual computer itself. …
When I was 12, I called up Bill Hewlett, who lived in Hewlett-Packard at the time … and I said, “Hi. My name’s Steve Jobs. You don’t know me, but I’m 12 years old, and I’m building a frequency counter, and I’d like some spare parts.” And so, he talked to me for about 20 minutes. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. And he gave me the parts, but he also gave me a job working at Hewlett-Packard that summer. And I was 12 years old then. And that really made a remarkable influence on me. …
I started going up to their Palo Alto research labs every Tuesday night with a small group of people to meet some of their researchers and stuff, and I saw the first desktop computer ever made, which was the Hewlett-Packard 9100. It was about as big as a suitcase, but it actually had a small cathode-ray tube display in it, and it was completely self-contained. There was no wire going off behind the curtain somewhere. And I fell in love with it. And you could program it in BASIC and APL. And I would just, for hours, get a ride up to Hewlett-Packard and just hang around that machine and write programs for it …
Sara Blakely, Spanx. Edited transcript from How I Built This, with Guy Raz (2016)
Sara: I know this sounds crazy, but when I was selling fax machines door to door, I kept feeling like I'm in the wrong movie. You know, like, where's the director? Where's the - where's the producer? This is not my movie. And I was really determined to create a better life for myself.
Guy: So how did working there, like, help you discover what it was you were supposed to be doing?
Sara: That was when I first started wearing hosiery daily. And I realized and figured out what the control-top portion of the hosiery was doing for me in my clothes. It was really making my clothes fit so much better … And I saw an opportunity for [a new product] that would just create the perfect canvas undergarment for women …
Guy: Like, how do you then start to build a business? Like, did you have any money? Did you have access to capital? Did you have wealthy friends or family?
Sara: I had set aside $5,000 in savings from selling fax machines door to door, and that's what I started Spanx with … I went to the Neiman Marcus down the street from my apartment, went in and asked the sales associate if she thought anybody would ever want something like [this] and her face lit up, and she goes, yes. In fact, I have lots of customers who've been making their own homemade version of that because there's no right undergarment to wear under a lot of their clothes. And so that was my whole focus group, Guy. I was like, that's it. OK, there's a market demand.
Type II Founders
The origin stories of type II founders tend to reveal a more deliberate search for the “right” opportunity to pursue at a given time. The desire to try to make something work seems to come first. There’s still an evaluation of interest “fit,” but that doesn’t seem to be the most important factor in the decision.
Katrina Lake, Stitch Fix. Edited transcript from How I Built This (2018)
Guy: What's the early idea that came to you? How did it even begin? …
Katrina: I kind of collected a bunch of theses and ideas in my head … I probably had a little bit of an academic approach in how I looked at these things … I was actively exploring a couple of ideas that [I thought had] a reason to belong in the world. And the idea of Stitch Fix was one that I also tested and explored …
Guy: What was your idea?
Katrina: … So one thesis overall was just like more and more dollars are moving to e-commerce stores. Like this was the math that I found was super compelling from my time in consulting, was dollars are leaving stores and going to e-commerce … And so there's this kind of like death spiral that I kind of anticipated would happen with stores …
Then on top of that, I felt like there was this massive depersonalization of retail that was happening ... So the idea was, how can you deliver a really personal experience in apparel and use data and technology to make that scalable and to make that better?
Mark Cuban, serial entrepreneur. From his blogpost, The Sport of Business (2009)
I love the sport of business. I love the competition. I love the fire of it. It’s the feeling of the clock winding down, the ball is in your hands, and if you hit the shot you win…all day, every day.
Relaxing is for the other guy. I may be sitting in front of the TV, but I’m not watching it unless I think there is something I can learn from it. I’m thinking about things I can use in my business and the TV is just there.
I could take the time to read a fiction book, but I don’t. I would rather read websites, newspapers, magazines, looking for ideas and concepts that I can use. I spend time in bookstores because 1 idea from a book or magazine can make me money.
Reasonable people might argue about which type each of these entrepreneurs are, and I’d suspect more often that not the conclusion would be that they are “both.” Again I’d say that all of these people have an affinity for both and certainly a competence, but their approach — the primary driving force — is one or the other.
These are of course just a few examples of successful entrepreneurs, out of the many successful and unsuccessful hopefuls. Without having data to back this up, I’d bet that a simple majority of successful entrepreneurs are Type I. That being said, I think we vastly underestimate how many are Type II (more on why next).6
Much of the media narrative revolves around the Type I entrepreneurial persona. These stories tend to seem more sensational and in some way principled in their appeal to us. Our best and brightest achieved what they did because of their dedication to a good cause, not to “winning” through capitalist pursuits. Not only do onlookers and stakeholders react well to this, but so do customers of course.
We like Type I stories even when there’s a Type II reality behind them. Type I stories say we are selfless rather than selfish. Or so we hope.
What’s interesting in startupland is who tells the narrative and how it continues to propagate. Around Silicon Valley, venture capitalists and journalists are most often the people narrating stories. They like the Type I story too because it says there is something mythical and serendipitous about how a winner was created.
And so founders will often tell a Type I story with this in mind. The backstory of deep obsession resulting in a sudden breakthrough is more compelling than the diligent academician that found “white space.” This isn’t just true in startups; it tends to be true in most fields, and more obvious in ambitious, non-linear arenas.7
It’s no surprise then that the Type I’s usually announce themselves, or someone else announces them on their behalf, with pride. The Type II’s usually go under the radar, some masquerading intentionally or unintentionally as Type I’s. But the people who can spot Type II’s for who they really are will know their true power.8
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In case you’re new here or haven’t keep up with recent issues, here are some of people’s favorite working theorys from the past month:
Start a business with your friends (link)
Every startup needs a “cringe hire” (link)
Try the hardest things early in life (link)
That said, some entrepreneurs can move from being Type I to Type II as they get more experienced and into the game. I suspect this happens less in the other direction.
I might even make the case that if you’re thinking about who to work for, a Type II founder might be more compelling because their skills tend to cut across ideas.
Regardless of which type you are, you have to be good at being that type. A Type I or Type II that can’t successfully utilize that strength to get things done is just lost. And a major attribute connecting both of these types is an underlying ambition, problem-solving penchant, and resilience.
Anyone want to help create an unbiased entrepreneurial type test and get some data?
The one caveat I’ll make is that the information available on these founders is largely based on existing media and interviews, which themselves are often biased in how they portray founder and company narratives (see the section titled “narrative”).
Regardless, with how many factors go into achieving any meaningful outcome, I don’t see much value in being prescriptive about what one should be.
Even in traditional paths there’s a strongly stated preference for people leading with their passion rather than their competitive spirit and competence, but I’m not always convinced that this should be the case.
Maybe this all seems like academic distinctions, but maybe there’s value in knowing your type (if not for anyone else’s sake, for yours). More than any kind of personality test this may be a revelation worth having. No doubt there’s a way that the evaluators, i.e. VCs and the like, can make use of this.