What motivates entrepreneurs?

Understanding common characteristics and what motivates entrepreneurs to start and sustain their venture is important to understanding the entrepreneurial life cycle. By definition, “entrepreneurs are optimistic and idealistic.” They have great commitment, and a vision and passion that can be observed.

According to Jack Stack, a judge for Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year (EOY) Award Program, “You can see it in their eyes. You can see it in their confidence. You can see it in the way they talk.”

Although this topic of discussion is beyond the scope of this Article and best left to the many experts in the field of human behavior, our research of the literature on the subject turned up common traits among famous entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Scott McNealy, Andrew Grove, and Larry Ellison. For example, entrepreneurs place an enormous value on creativity and are willing to take risks if they know they can influence the eventual outcome of the event. They are innovative, aggressive, self-confident, willing to work long hours, fiercely competitive, and intensely focused.

Intrinsic Motivation

But what motivates an entrepreneur to take all the risks and launch a new business venture? The most successful entrepreneurs are often not the most talented, but the ones with an “entrepreneurial obsession,” who see an opportunity and pursue it with profound existence. They have conviction and believe in their ideas so much that “they will them into existence.” It is not a question of whether they want to do it—they have to do it.

This drive is called intrinsic motivation, defined as “the motivation to work on something because it is interesting, involving, exciting, satisfying, or personally challenging.”

This is the opposite of being extrinsically motivated, which means being motivated by expected evaluation, surveillance, competition with peers, dictates from superiors, or the promise of rewards. Entrepreneurs do what they love, and they love what they do.

For example, Robert Mondavi felt “reborn” after starting the winery that bears his name. “I was like a kid again, bursting with energy, ready to climb the mountain, conquer the world, go for the gold. Yes, at the unlikely age of fifty-two, the great adventure of my life had finally begun.” Michael Dell simply says, “Do you have any idea how much fun it is to run a billion-dollar company?”

The Mythic Quest of the Entrepreneur

MIT professor Edward Roberts studied MIT graduates who had gone on to start technology-related businesses. He discovered that the most successful ones did not seek “some intangible objective.” They were not interested in devising brilliant ideas that only other brilliant people like themselves could recognize. In fact, they wanted to create something “significant and tangible” and did not want to go after it if it was not a challenge.

Schumpeter recognized this too. In his 1949 classic, The Theory of Economic Development, he proclaims, “The entrepreneur-innovator’s motivation includes such aspects as the dream to found a private kingdom, the will to conquer and to succeed for the sake of success itself, and the joy of creating and getting things done.”

Van Doren accurately profiled Columbus. He writes, “Brilliant as he may have been, and mad as well, Christopher Columbus was one of the most remarkable men who ever lived. He never turned aside from the opportunity of wealth, but wealth was not what he sought, what he was willing to give his life for. What he sought was eternal fame, for he knew, as perhaps no one else realized in his time, that the discovery of a New World would bring him that.”

Their Gift to the World

Wendell Dunn, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School, believes that “entrepreneurs are in it to prove a point.” Steven Berglas, instructor at The Harold Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at UCLA, has devoted a career to understanding what makes serial entrepreneurs tick. He found they “leave as many intellectual and creative entities for others to derive developmental opportunities from as possible.”

After a ten-year period of teaching and studying entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School, Amar Bhide concluded that “it takes a really extraordinary individual to build a promising company—extraordinary in terms of someone who has an almost maniacal level of ambition. Not just an ambition to make a comfortable living, to make a few million dollars, but someone who wants to leave a significant mark on the world.” As technology guru George Gilder describes it, “Because an entrepreneur can never be sure of a return on his investment, starting up a business is like offering a gift to the world, in the hope, but never the certainty, that the gift will be reciprocated.”

It’s About the Money Too

Entrepreneurs also want to be “rich.” Out of the richest one percent of Americans, more than nine in ten are entrepreneurs who made their fortunes themselves. In 1996 when Microsoft’s stock soared by 88 percent, Bill Gates made nearly $11 billion on paper, or about $30 million per day. He was earning about $347 per second; he could buy a Honda Accord every minute. At the end of December 2000, Gates was worth about $55 billion, or about $200,000 for every living soul in the United States.

On Fortune’s list of “Richest Under 40″ for 2002, eight of the top ten were entrepreneurs. Number one was Michael Dell, worth $16.49 billion. Others were Pierre Omidyar of eBay worth $3.82 billion and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com worth $1.66 billion. Entrepreneurs especially like cash for their hard work.

Jeong H. Kim founded Yurie Systems, a high-tech communications equipment company, in 1992. In 1998 he sold it to Lucent Technologies for $1.1 billion. Kim, who came to the United States from Korea with his family at 14, was asked why. “I sold out to Lucent for two reasons. One, it was $1.1 billion, and two, it was in cash.”