Ernest Adams recently wrote a great post in Gamasutra entitled Passion Versus Professionalism. The thesis is that game companies take advantage of their employee’s passion as an excuse to mistreat them. This is so prevalent that many game studios even list “passion” as a job requirement.
There are a lot of similarities between the game industry’s focus on passion and the current venture capital climate. Ernest Adams does a much better job than I can going into the details, so please take a look at his article first.
VCs talk a lot about passion. They look for passionate teams with passionate founders working on projects they are passionate about. Like the games industry, they are hoping that the founders will put in insane hours with little compensation. What’s missing is the other side of passion, what Ernest Adams calls professionalism.
Professionalism is what sees you through the dark times. When the product has pivoted from the next white hot social network into yet another business SaaS application. When the huge market turns into an unexciting little niche. Being professional means that you see the project through to the end, doing your best job, even if the work is tedious.
I’m not sure if VCs value the professionalism side as much as the passion side. I say this not because I think VCs are Machiavellian (most of the VCs I know are great people who genuinely care about the startups they are involved with). I think that once the passion for a project is gone the chances of hitting a home run greatly diminish. This might be the perfect time to orchestrate an exit, find an acquirer that isn’t looking for 10x return. For whom a professional project is a great win.
I know at the end of Distil I had lost my passion. When the choice came to sell or push through, I chose to sell primarily because I wasn’t passionate anymore. I could have pushed through, relied on my professionalism instead of my passion, but that might not have been the right thing for the company.
So yes, professionalism is appropriate many times in a startup life. But at some point losing your passion can be a sign that it’s time to move on.