Making a Business of Your Passion

“If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.” – Benjamin Franklin

One of the most common recommendations that you will hear from business-opportunity “experts” is to “find something you love” and make a business out of it. In fact, I used to make that recommendation myself, arguing that turning your passion into a career is a good way to make a good living.

This is the kind of advice that feels right and inspires loyalty. But when I thought about the successes in my own business career, I didn’t see that pattern.

When I decided to get rich back in the early 1980s, I didn’t stop to ask myself “What do I love?” I set to work the very next day transforming myself from a sometimes-good, sometimes-disgruntled editorial director into a 24/7 marketing maven, and I boosted a marginally profitable, million-dollar business to a $135 million cash machine. I didn’t love the products we produced, but I loved the process.

I retired from that business – but didn’t stay retired for long. With my second career, I was determined to stay a little closer to my childhood dreams by selling publications instead of products, ideas instead of things. Because I partnered with someone who shared that mindset, I have been lucky. I’ve made as much money this time around, and without the emotional conflicts over selling products I was less than enthusiastic about.

But even as a publisher, I haven’t really “followed my dreams.” My true passion – in terms of publishing – would be fiction and poetry. I can say without any doubt that had I followed that road, I would be running a much smaller, much less profitable business. And it might not have given me any more pleasure than I get now.

As a recommendation, “turn your passion into a career” no longer rings true to me. As I said earlier, it’s the kind of advice you want to believe… but it doesn’t take reality into consideration.

Proceeding with a pragmatic purposefulness, it seems to me, is the best course of action.

By “pragmatic purposefulness,” I mean an ounce of passion and a pound of practicality. I mean facing the facts and making a realistic assessment of the business idea you love so much. Will it really work in the marketplace? Will it really live up to your dreams?

The usefulness of this approach was made clear to both me and the businesspeople who attended my Business-Building Retreat last month. Of the 30 people in attendance whose business plans were scrutinized, at least six realized that the financial expectations they had attached to their dream projects were totally unrealistic.

“You have to adjust your wealth expectations or change your business,” they were advised. It would be silly for them to push ahead, following their passion, when it was easy to see, by putting pen to paper, that the businesses they had imagined could not work.

That’s basically the same advice I have for LG, an ETR reader who recently wrote to me. LG has been advised by a well-known guru (who shall remain nameless) to “find something I love and make a business out of it.” He says he has found a business for sale that matches one of his favorite hobbies: golf.

“It is a patent for a machine that uses sonar to clean golf clubs. Attached to the machine is an LCD screen that displays ads. The money to be made is not in the actual cleaning of the clubs but the selling of the ad space. It is an absolute novel idea, and the owner claims that he has patented it all over the world. My only problem is the cost for the patent in my country. He is selling it for what would be about five million in U.S. dollars. I’ve done a couple of sums, and I can see this business paying off itself after 3-4 yrs. My only problem is finding an investor that would possibly want to fund this. I know that the investor would make a very good ROI, but I somehow need to find that person.”

LG “really wants” to get this patent, and is hoping I can tell him how to go about looking for the five million bucks in start-up capital that he needs.

This is precisely the danger you face when you follow your passions into business. You make these kinds of mind-bogglingly foolish mistakes. Invest your time and someone else’s money into a machine that spits out advertising as it cleans golf clubs? Are you nuts?

If I had to list the top 10 stupid business ideas I’ve ever heard, this would make it onto that list. It is stupid not just because the idea itself is so idiotic, but because the person behind the idea – the person supposedly holding the patents – thinks he will find investors to buy into it.

Maybe that guy isn’t so dumb. He has found, in LG, somebody who is seriously considering it.

I don’t have space here to list all the reasons why this is a completely crazy business idea. But let me use LG as an example for any other ETR reader who may have bought into the “follow-your-passion” fancy.

Listen, I know that it IS possible to turn your passion (a hobby or lifelong dream) into a way to earn a good living – but ONLY if there’s a good business idea to support it.

How do you find out if your passion makes business sense? Start by asking friends and colleagues what they think of it. Tell them to be brutally frank. Then look around and see if there’s anything like your idea out there in the marketplace. If there isn’t, chances are it’s not going to work.

Unfortunately, because there are so many stories about entrepreneurs who succeeded against all odds, the idea of pursuing a screwball idea is often lauded. But following your passion when it makes no sense… makes no sense. And if you have a family to support, it’s irresponsible.

The first and most important rule of entrepreneurship is this: Never invest in anything unless you understand it extremely well – unless you have the kind of knowledge about the business and the industry that you can only get by working in it, on the inside, for several years.

Staples founder Thomas Stemberg said it this way: “I think following your passion is a really dumb idea. I follow a great market that provides an opportunity to satisfy customers and to make money.”

LG has a passion for golf, but what does he know about selling advertising? Does he have any idea of the kind of advertisers that might be interested in this kind of program? Does he have any idea what kind of numbers such advertisers would need before investing their money? Does he know anything about the size and volatility of his target market?

I don’t need to ask him to know that he doesn’t know these things. The way he talks about this business makes it clear to me that he is a total tyro.

The good news is that LG will not find the start-up capital he needs unless he hooks up with a Nigerian direct-mail scamster and steals it from some rich old lady in Pittsburgh. The bad news is that LG may continue to believe the foolish mantra his guru has been chanting and continue to follow his passion… instead of learning something about business before he jumps into it.

LG and others like him would be well advised to hold their passions in check until they’ve asked all the right questions and thoroughly researched their market.

If there are other people out there making good money doing more or less what you want to do (but your idea is better), by all means, go out and try it. But if no one is doing it – and people you trust give you that distant stare when you tell them about it – be smart and put your energies into a business that has been proven to make money.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]