Entrepreneurship: The Money or The Motivation?

Posted By: Rick L Hodge NACCE Blog,

Is it the money or the motivation that drives entrepreneur success? It was Ayn Rand who said, “Money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver.” How do we know this to be true? Do the success stories that we hear about start-ups, corporate buyouts, and VC funders reflect the fundamental instinct to make a lot of money and step into the millionaires’ club, or is there something more compelling driving successful entrepreneurs?

Most entrepreneurs start their journey with no capital, no funding, and sometimes no education or experience, yet despite the odds, they find their way to success. Let’s look at how some of these success stories happened.

  • John Paul DeJoria, self-made billionaire and co-founder of hair care company John Paul Mitchell Systems, was homeless at two different times in his life. DeJoria claims, “It’s not where you are today and how much money you have or what kind of a big position you have. Success is, are you the best at what you do?”
  • Melissa Galt, a successful boutique interior designer, focuses on “the goldmine of who you are and the unique difference you make.” She elaborates: “I worked 15 hour days, 6 days a week, because I wanted to. I couldn’t wait to get up, and hated to go to bed at night. I was totally on fire.” Melissa went from $70K in debt to rocking six figures and becoming debt free in 18 months. She doubled the company’s revenue every year for 5 years. Her advice is to find what lights you up, and do whatever it takes to make it happen.
  • Kevin Plank's unremarkable career as a college football player hardly ranks him among football hall of famers. But Under Armour, a bright idea he hatched during his days as a walk-on fullback at the University of Maryland, started with his idea to create a T-shirt that wouldn't hold moisture and especially, not moisture's weight. “One of our first customers asked me how big we want to be. I said I want to be really big. Now I say I just want to be a great company,” Plank said.
  • Jan Koum, born in Kiev in the Ukraine, moved at age 16 with his mother to Mountain View, California, where a government subsidy helped them get food stamps and an apartment. To help make ends meet, Koum worked as a janitor and his mother babysat. “It started with me buying an iPhone. I got annoyed that I was missing calls when I went to the gym,” Kourn said. To address the problem, Kourn created WhatsApp, a mobile application to quickly send and receive messages from your computer. Ultimately, Facebook agreed to pay more than $19 billion to acquire WhatsApp, turning Koum into an instant billionaire. 
  • Blavity CEO and co-founder Morgan DeBaun pivoted from her corporate tech job in Silicon Valley to running a successful media company and securing $6.5 million dollars in new funding at just 28 years of age. At times in her career she was the only woman in the room and the only African American in the room. Morgan quickly realized that if entrepreneurship was the path she was headed down, she had to be present, perceptive, and persistent. "I try to ask myself: How can I be better today? Do I know my information? Am I performing at a level that's in alignment with my peers? And if the answer is 'yes,' and all those things are true, then that's the best I can do. I focus on just being my best self and let the results be the results."

Clearly, from these examples, money is far from the sole motivation for entrepreneurs. What drives many of them is the urge to build or create something, to be the best at what they do, or to change the world for the better. You often hear musical artists say they were tempted to go for the “hot pop market songs” instead of being true to who they are. In the end, finding their unique style is so much more rewarding. They learn that by the time you discover what is hot, odds are it will have started to cool off. 

Businesses that are driven by money will be tempted to cut corners and provide customers with cheaper, lower quality products that disappoint. These are usually the businesses that fold their tents and are taken over by new management. Instead of trying to solve a problem and provide winning solutions to consumer needs, they concentrated on making money. Entrepreneurship is not just about making a living; it is about making a life out of the activity we perform. An entrepreneur is self-propelled—he or she does not need any external forces motivating them. Their fundamental incentive is about creating something larger than themselves; the money is merely a consequence. As P.T. Barnum once said, “Money is a terrible master but an excellent servant.”


Rick Hodge

Dean, Academic Affairs/CTE

Los Angeles Southwest College