When Jason Johnson was a kid, he witnessed his single mother stress over paying rent, an experience that would shape his entire career. He decided then and there that he never wanted to be poor—instead, he wanted to make money.
So he did. After founding, developing and selling several successful startups, he spent six years at Dolby to develop their first venture startup business, which grew to more than $170 in annual revenue. He left Dolby to create Founders Den, a community space for entrepreneurs, and work on other projects such as AirCover and August. In his spare time, he’s chairman of Internet of All Things Consortium and a chairperson for TEDxSF.
“Money was always my primary motivation,” Johnson told the crowd at Big Omaha. “It’s important to know what motivates you, because identifying your motivations is key for success in the startup world.”
On stage at KANEKO, Johnson outlined three categories of motivation: making money, being famous and making a difference.
“Wanting to make money is okay. Don’t judge it, if that’s your motivation. But know where you are on the spectrum: making money can be about providing basic needs, or it can be about luxury and comfort,” Johnson said.
He explained that entrepreneurs often make the mistake of focusing on money at the beginning. “People come to me at Founders Den with a great idea, they pitch it, and then they ask who can finance it. No. Startups don’t need money, they need momentum. Building a company takes money, but first, focus on your prototype, get customers, know your motivations before you try to raise money,” he said.
Another common motivation Johnson sees is the desire to be famous. “It ranges. Do you want to prove that you can be successful? Fine. Do you want to be the next Steve Jobs? That’s fine, too. But know what you want.”
Johnson says to be realistic about the fact that the startup life will often involve doing things that aren’t fun, because successful startups need leaders who are passionate and energetically champion their business. “It’s like being a used car salesman. You have to sell every single day, to customers, to employees, to investors. If you don’t like to sell, you have no business being an entrepreneur.
“Never start a company unless you are so passionate about it that you’re laying in bed at night thinking about it and you can’t sleep. If you don’t have that level of excitement, you won’t have the energy necessary to endure building a startup.”
Making a Difference
Many entrepreneurs want to build or create simply for the sake of doing it, which is another motivating force. Johnson said there are lots of ways you can make a difference along the way, whether you’re creating a product that is better than what’s out there today, or developing something brand new, or doing something cheaper than your competitors.
Johnson differentiates between entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. The former type likes to build companies from scratch; these are the people that already know what motivates them and go and do it. “But not all of us have that desire,” Johnson said. “There are unsung heroes in this room who aren’t entrepreneurs, but work for larger companies where they’re making a difference.”
That’s actually a good position, according to Johnson.
“If you want to be an entrepreneur, but work for an organization already, I actually don’t recommend quitting your job. I know a good portion of your time is spent dealing with office politics and internal stuff, and that’s a drain, but stay as long as you can. Use the resources that exist in the safety of your company. Take it for what it is and leverage the good. Build relationships with your coworkers who might become your cofounders some day. If you know someday you won’t be working for this company—which, face, it, will happen—then embrace it for now. That way, when you decide to take the plunge, you’ve already developed some resources.
“The time to start a company has never been better. Know yourself and know your motivations, so that you can be an entrepreneur within your organization or on your own.”