Doing stuff you care about is the best.
I’ve been on both sides: in my early 20s, I was part of a team rolling up SaaS businesses in the developer tools space. As someone who was neither (1) a developer nor (2) a tool, I found the space boring. The team was awesome, I learned a ton, and would never change my experience. But man: pretty much as soon as I could get out of that space, I did.
After we got acquired, I played around with a bunch of ideas. I considered starting a real estate thing, building a tech company in the drug addiction space, launching a cloud kitchen brand… What ended up working was Kettle & Fire, an idea I tested on the side, not thinking it would be a big business.
As Kettle & Fire took off, I kept thinking “wow, I got lucky”. I certainly did. But in retrospect, it also makes sense to me that an idea in the health space would be the one to work: that’s where my interests lay!
2015 Justin spent his free time reading about the food system, doing Crossfit, understanding the relationship between food and health, and having disgusting cheat days. As one of my friends said, I was living in Edge City when it came to health, and was surrounded by people on the frontier of health knowledge.
I was (and still am) interested in health. To my mind, one of the great mysteries of our time is just why the US has seen obesity, chronic disease and healthcare costs explode in the last 50 years. This intellectual curiosity meant I spent so much of my free time thinking, reading, and learning about health and food. I went mostly Paleo in 2012, at a time when almost nobody had heard of it: in retrospect, it’s no wonder my first big startup win came in a space I was fascinated by.
This is certainly one of the benefits of working on something you’re interested in: you have better ideas. But the benefits go beyond that.
In my experience, not only are your ideas better, but your ability to sell those ideas is 100x better. I’m not a charismatic person, yet when I talk about the food system, I get fired up! I can’t help it. And that passion compels people, makes them sit up and take notice. When you work on something you care about, you get charisma for free. .
The charisma that comes from working on problems you care about acts as a lubricant for everything you want to do in business. Recruiting? Guess what, you’re now a compelling boss. Raising money? The same. It’s nice to sell a product you care about. It comes through, whether you like it or not.
A founder is always selling. A nightmare, if “always selling” means constant talk about developer tools. A blessing, if “selling” means discussing a topic I’m wildly interested in day in and day out.
I’m incredibly grateful that I got out of the dev tools space at 23. It wasn’t as obvious then, but had I stayed in it I would have inevitably been outcompeted by someone else who found dev tools fascinating. I’d spend my nights and weekends talking about health and wellness, while they’d be building side projects and playing with the latest and greatest tools in the space. I could get away with not caring for a bit, but compounded over decades my unwillingness to work/read/think about the topic on nights and weekends would add up. I’d have spent 2 decades learning 5 days a week, while others in the space go 7. There’s no way to make up that gap, no way for me to be the greatest in a space I don’t care about.
As a founder, this really, really matters. Work on things you’re interested in, and you practically get two extra work days for free. Your work becomes play, while others clock out at 5p. How can you help but win?
And when work becomes play… it’s game over. I will regularly have weekend conversations with friends on health and food stuff, just because it fascinates me. And the more that my work becomes part of my life, part of who I am as a person, the more that life delivers interesting people, compelling opportunities, and new ideas to me “for free”. The whole “don’t talk about work at parties” rule may make sense if you live in a suburb full of lawyers. But to an entrepreneur, to someone who is building, why would I NOT want to talk about the things I find most interesting?
This all sounds great, but how do I find what I care about?!
I think finding your passion is (1) hard to do for anyone, but damn near impossible for someone under 25, and (2) not the real goal.
Instead, of finding your passion, find your problem. For me, I kept thinking about the existential health issue in the US. In my worldview, nearly everyone in the US is getting fat, depressed, and sick because our environment is killing us. That seems like a problem! And I’ve spent most of the last 7 years ruminating on ways to solve that Big Freaking Problem.
Finding a problem is far, far better than finding your passion. Passions come and go, problems are lasting. Probably, people will want to be healthier for as long as I’m alive: problems are an infinite game, passions are finite.
I also like orienting one’s career around a problem rather than a passion because it unlocks the long game. For me, “fixing the food system” is a problem I can dedicate my life and career to. Fixing that problem will likely involve many approaches, multiple companies, and span the gamut from angel investing, starting companies, funding non-profits… if everything I do is oriented around solving this problem, my career becomes legible in a way it may not otherwise. And with every new person I meet, with everything I learn, it all can play a role in the larger game I’m focused on.
This problem orientation also allows you to ride the inevitable highs and lows of any industry. If you worked in crypto through the 2018 bear market or remained in tech after the Dotcom Bubble, you likely did pretty darn well. If you’re following the money or chasing the latest news cycle, I’m not sure that you hang around through either downturn.
Long time horizons unlock people, relationships, interests, and learning. They allow for compounding, the strongest force in the universe, to work in your favor.
At the end of the day, you couldn’t pay me to do things I don’t care about. Not simply because I wouldn’t enjoy it (though that too), but for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Do things you care about and enjoy the benefits that come with it. For an ambitious person, I don’t think there’s any other way.
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