The Upside of Obsession

Akaash Nanda, Stanford University May 2, 2016

With entrepreneurs all vying to come up with the “next big thing,” it’s easy to see why everyone is putting work first — and the rest of life second. There are, however, some positives that can result from being obsessed, along with the better-known negatives we seek to avoid. So, while it’s important to keep tabs on when our obsession might turn into something destructive, it’s also worth noting that such behavior can play an incredibly empowering role in entrepreneurship.

Take the tale of Blue Bottle Coffee, founded just six years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a mission to deliver coffee in a way that paid special attention to the roasting process. James Freeman, Blue Bottle’s founder and a recent guest at the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders (ETL) Seminar, explained how his foray into business paralleled the artistic process of a musician. All too often, we’re told about the “greats” in any field: Mozart in music, Einstein in science and, nowadays, perhaps Elon Musk in engineering. But Freeman notes in the video clip below that, all too often, striving for that level of perfection is both unrealistic and paralyzing.

Freeman makes a good point when he describes his passion for perfecting the process, not the outcome: It’s worth being obsessed with the ritual and practice of an art, as opposed to being driven to achieve a particular end result. This nuanced form of obsession is rare — and remarkable when we find it in a person. A healthy obsession with the product or service is just what entrepreneurs need to cut out all other distractions and get an idea off the ground.Prominent venture capitalist and author Michael Mortiz echoed this very concept in his conversation with Lisa Sugar, founder and president of Popsugar, who he says embodies this sort of obsession. With a company motto that once read “Insanely Addicted,” the pop-culture website for women highlights what pragmatic obsession and undying focus can empower an entrepreneur to accomplish. It certainly made a believer out of Moritz.

Besides obsessing over a product, entrepreneurs constantly think about the health of the company they founded – at least the good ones do. This internally focused obsession is evident in a 128-slide presentation published by HubSpot Co-Founder Dharmesh Shah, famously known as the Culture Code. In a recent ETL talk by Shah, he emphasizes the importance of talking about something like culture incessantly because it’s the only way to ensure that it continues to evolve and improve over time. Like any good product or idea will show, being obsessed with iteration and growth is the only path to staying relevant.

This sort of focus is indicative of a personal conviction and dedication to the journey that entrepreneurship represents. But the downside of obsession is equally real, and the initial phases of a startup can easily eat up a founder’s every waking hour. You’re busy building your business and your team, iterating on your product and raising capital all at once. For Derek Belch, co-founder and CEO of Strivr Labs, his goal was to generate revenue and make his startup profitable.

Strivr Labs uses virtual reality to train athletes, and in order to capitalize on all the current buzz around VR, Belch said he spent an entire summer on the road — away from his pregnant wife — to sign up professional and college sports teams around the country. Fortunately, he returned just in time for the birth, explaining in this segment of his ETL talk that opportunities sometimes present themselves to a fledgling startup … and you simply have to “sprint.”

Putting our personal lives on hold in order to grow a project or idea into something that will outlive us may be worth throwing work-life balance off in the interim. Just realize obsession for what it is, and how it could benefit your endeavors as long as you know how to harness it. And hopefully, those closest to you will understand when you aren’t getting back to them.