Hans Gruber makes for an unlikely business icon, but the villain of the classic 1988 action movie Die Hard (played with gleeful malevolence by the late, great Alan Rickman) had an apt insight into the nature of success. Having taken over the Nakatomi Plaza building, Gruber grandiloquently (and prematurely, of course) quotes Plutarch on Alexander the Great: “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”
That feeling is one many entrepreneurs can relate to. People who start companies tend to be goal-oriented: They’ll set out to accomplish a big “it”—making a better product, hitting a huge revenue target, going public, whatever—and then spend all of their energy (and most of their waking moments) in its pursuit.
It’s after the milestone that things can unravel. Because entrepreneurs also tend to thrive on adrenalin and chaos—they frequently draw “physiological arousal” from “operating within a context of uncertainty and ambiguity,” according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Business Venturing. When the urgency of a big goal is gone, it can prompt an identity crisis.
Take the experience of Gary Hirshberg, the founder of successful U.S. yogurt producer Stonyfield Farm, who told delegates at a 2013 Inc. leadership forum what happened to him after his business outgrew the chaotic startup phase and entered a period of sustained, stable prosperity. “I was getting less and less interested in the day-to-day challenges,” Hirshberg said. “We weren’t having the crises we had had in that early startup. And as you know, crises have a way of keeping you absolutely gripped and absolutely focused.”
Hirshberg handled his boredom by promoting himself to an advisory role and hiring someone else to run the quotidian goings-on. Other entrepreneurs decamp to start the process all over again with a new venture. Both are scenarios that can benefit everyone involved—in the short term, at least. But when disengaged founders opt to stick around, the results generally aren’t so positive: They start half-assing their work or change the focus of the company just to see what happens. Or, worst of all, they meddle in parts of the business they really shouldn’t.
There’s another way to deal with founder’s boredom: Keep it from appearing in the first place. One approach is to follow the lead of Yancey Strickler.
Strickler, the 30-something founder and CEO of Kickstarter—which, since its launch in 2009, has become the most popular crowdfunding platform in the world—does not yearn for the traditional talismans of a thriving venture. He has no desire to go public or sell the business, and he doesn’t want to be rich (indeed, he claims to be unable to afford a house). This fall, with the support of his investors and employees, he even reincorporated the company as a public benefit corporation, which legally requires it to prioritize its effects on society as much as its profitability.
“We decided we’re not going to use [our position] to squeeze every dollar out and enrich ourselves personally,” Strickler told Quartz recently. “I have no desire for wealth, and I don’t think that would be a correct way for the business to function.” His MO is simply to make the world more diverse and interesting by bringing Kickstarter projects to life. The company is by no means a charity, but as long as the bills are paid and everyone makes a fair living, all other financial concerns are secondary.
It’s not the idealism of Strickler’s stance that makes it remarkable. Rather, it’s his decision to pursue a purpose instead of merely a series of arbitrary milestones. Because there is no tangible goal at play—no moment at which he can claim “mission accomplished”—it’s entirely plausible that he’ll derive fulfilment from work he loves without ever feeling the ennui of those who view business success as a series of achievements to be checked off. In reframing the so-called “why” of his business, he’s given himself limitless worlds to conquer. And it’s hard to imagine growing bored with that.
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