Subscribe to Inc. magazine

Why Entrepreneurs Do What They Do

If you ever wondered whether starting a business is worth the hell you put yourself through, read this.

Every time a new founder/billionaire is minted—and there have been plenty lately—people who aren't entrepreneurs tend to lose sight of what this calling is really about.

One social entrepreneur we interviewed for our book Breakthrough Entrepreneurship, an Episcopal bishop named Rev. William Swing, put it this way:

"There are two fields of genius available...laborers who live on yesterday's insights and entrepreneurs who live on tomorrow's possibilities.   Both have their own dignity, but entrepreneurship pulls life into its destiny."

Entrepreneurship isn't simply about launching new ventures or making money.  Instead, it's about solving problems and creating social progress; building great new things that make a better world.  It's about celebrating each step toward the ultimate human longing for an enhanced and enriched enterprise of life.

 But it gets even more interesting.  A true entrepreneur might toil in obscurity for life.  He or she might never actually leave the day job or create a venture that becomes a household name.  There might never be great success or wealth in his future.  But breakthrough entrepreneurship is equal parts attitude and attempt. Even if the entrepreneur falls and fails a thousand times, there is a real sense of winning in the effort—especially if he can pass along the benefits of his experience to those who come behind him.

 Most of the highly successful entrepreneurs we interviewed while researching our new book, Breakthrough Entrepreneurship, did not cite money as their prime motivator. That’s good, because money doesn’t buy happiness anyway. In fact, studies show that once you reach $75,000-a-year in income, more money doesn't do much to increase your contentment. 

 Instead, it's the creative process itself, with a focus on meaningful problem solving, that leads people to deeper levels of consciousness and truer truths.  We found scores of entrepreneurs who talked about how they find it an especially fulfilling journey when it's fueled with their personal strengths. Bishop Swing, founder of the United Religions Initiative, put it in terms particular to his profession:

The impossibility of the task is the thing that makes it so attractive. Entrepreneurs are always on a pilgrimage which finally leads to the realm of the Spirit... Inexorably, one has to end up in the field of the ultimate.

It's deep stuff, and it doesn't mean that you have to dwell on this all the time as you're trying to do what you have to do to succeed: Identify important customer needs, create solutions, develop a compelling value proposition, gather necessary resources, build credibility, and lead your venture to greatness.  But on those dark days when you lack motivation—or when you're just wondering whether it's worth trying to escape from Cubicle Purgatory by starting something of your own—remember that you’re trying to create something new, something better, something closer to the ultimate.

We asked Bishop Swing his thoughts about this column after we wrote it.  He emphasized, “Remember achieving success is not the point.  The point is to jump into the stream that you intuit is leading inexorably to the breakthrough.  I used to say....’before we ever flew, there were plenty of people who got up on the barn, glued feathers to their arms, jumped off and started flapping.  That's all you can ever do...use the stuff that is around you and spring for the future.’”

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Feb 15, 2012

JON BURGSTONE | Columnist | Professor, UC Berkeley

Jon Burgstone was co-founder of SupplierMarket, acquired by Ariba for $1.1B. He now teaches at Berkeley, where he helped launch the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology. He is co-author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship.

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

Register on today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments

Or sign up using: