Why build a business at all?


This week I’m sharing a podcast episode from The Art of Product by Ben Orenstein, co-founder of Tuple, and Derrick Reimer, founder of SavvyCal. The podcast chronicles their struggles with and insights into building their respective SaaS businesses.

In episode 178, they’re joined by Adam Wathan, creator of Tailwind CSS and co-founder of Tailwind UI who asks them tough questions about why they’re bothering to build a business in the first place.

178: Why Build A Business At All?
Ben & Derrick have an impromptu chat with Adam Wathan about all things business.
178: Why Build A Business At All?
Ben & Derrick have an impromptu chat with Adam Wathan about all things business.

I found it particularly interesting when Ben mentioned they’d been testing a more hands-on onboarding process and found that it significantly increased activations. He then said he was planning to hire someone to do this full time.

Adam immediately challenges Ben by asking if that was indeed necessary. That is, if getting that growth was necessary in the first place.

Yes, the business grows, but is that the goal? And if so, why?

This got me thinking…

What are my business goals?

First, a caveat: I imagine my answer will change with time. But here’s what I have for now…

I want to enjoy life. But not later, when I’m retired…

I want to enjoy life right now. And always.

I know this sounds unreasonable, but I don’t think it is. In fact, I currently do this and mostly succeed.

Here’s how this simple approach to life affects my business goals:

Enjoying life now means enjoying my day-to-day work is a must.

I choose business models, marketing strategies and industries based on what I find the most fun day-to-day.

I can’t be sure, but I like to think it helps the business. That is, I think people can see that I’m enjoying myself, and that helps attract people to the business, thereby growing it.

Broadly speaking, I don’t work on things I dislike, even if I can make more money, which I can exchange for future enjoyment.

I don’t work with people I dislike.

I don’t work for customers or clients I dislike.

If I want to spend a day resting or goofing off, I do.

On the flip side, enjoying my life always prevents me from overdosing on the now.

It means I can’t rent a private jet for a once-in-a-lifetime fun trip that wipes out all my savings. Because that would prevent me from enjoying my life always.

It also means I’m happy to do small things I don’t enjoy, like writing documentation, because it’s just a blip in my overall enjoyment of life.

In a broader sense, this can be viewed as the idea that part of my present enjoyment must build towards my perpetual enjoyment. This is why I run a business and earn money from doing so.

Needing to enjoy my life now and in perpetuity means smaller doses.

I get that if I slogged away as a drone in a cubicle and optimised my career for earning potential for the next 10-20 years I can live like a king when I’m old. But honestly? That sounds like a horrible trade-off.

Instead, I much rather enjoy my life as a happy villager right now and for the next 60 years.

Many mundane things are enjoyable once I learnt to enjoy them.

For example, here are some things I enjoy that others traditionally might not:

  • Hard work
  • A challenge
  • Learning
  • Talking to customers
  • Hearing negative feedback
  • Doing things I’m bad at (it’s not fun to do it, but it’s fun to do them repeatedly then get better at them. i.e. it’s fun to improve)
  • Getting humbled
  • Building in public
  • Exploring and trying new things

I learnt to discard many attitudes and concerns which I found were unhelpful for enjoying life.

Here are some things I’ve stopped or am trying to stop caring about:

  • Comparing my financial success with others
  • Being fashionablealthough I try to be moderately presentable, I will definitely show up for a meeting in a t-shirt and comfy pants
  • Having an egoI fail at this constantly, but try hard to reduce my ego and not let it get in the way of things.
  • Holding a grudgeI’ve had my fair share of overtly sexist and abusive bosses. I could care less about them. I just find that the more time I spend agonising over or plotting against assholes who have done me wrong, the less time I spend enjoying my life.
  • Being on timeI’m sorry. I’m just really really really bad at this. And it got much worse over the pandemic. I’d much rather enjoy life and not rush, than always worry about being on time. I’m capable of being on time for very important meetings, but that’s about it.
  • Having a sense of directionI’m constantly lost, which contributes to my perpetual lateness. I’ve kind of just accepted this. It’s fine if I go through life doing 5x more u-turns than everyone else.

Fulfilment and Pride as part of big picture enjoyment.

At a glance, it appears I’ve signed myself up for extreme hedonism. But that’s not me at all.

When I talk about my lifestyle goal of enjoying myself always, I don’t mean that I plan on setting myself up for a lifestyle of chilling in cafes, sipping cocktails on a beach and Netflixing.

You see, when enjoyment is defined solely as fun, it can feel empty very quickly. And emptiness is definitely not enjoyable.

Instead, the foundation of perpetual enjoyment is feeling fulfilled and proud of oneself.

In order to achieve this, I push myself constantly to learn and grow. I also don’t back away from doing things far outside of my comfort zone – especially if I find them interesting!

On the surface, doing hard things outside one’s comfort zone might sound like the antithesis of enjoyment. But ask anyone who has done hard things and they’ll likely say it’s what they enjoy the most!

Building Newsletter Glue is hard. I’ve never built software before. So every forward step is the furthest step I’ve ever taken. I wouldn’t have done this if enjoying every single tiny piece of work was a prerequisite.

This is why being able to keep the big picture enjoyment in mind (aka fulfilment and pride in one’s work) is such a crucial part of the equation.

It’s like that well-worn parable about the NASA janitor who said, “I’m not sweeping floors, I’m helping to put a man on the moon!”

Suffice it to say, we might not have astronomical ambitions, but I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve built at Newsletter Glue so far and enjoy working on it immensely.

Coming full circle: Why build a business at all? And what amount of growth is necessary?

Personally, I build businesses because I genuinely enjoy the hell out of it and it’s a great way to make money on my own terms.

I’d like to keep growing the business until it affords both Ahmed and I a very comfortable life.

Beyond that, I’m keen to explore unconventional business models that will allow us to grow our skills and as people, while also giving back to the WordPress community, and using our business as a platform to help others learn, grow and lead fulfilling lives they actually enjoy.

Special thanks to swyx and Tyler King for challenging me to rewrite the last two sections of this post. I appreciate you both tremendously.

Seeya next Monday,

Lesley


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