Jake Peters

Why Obsession is Essential for Startup Founders

Jake Peters on

I’ve met a ton of startup founders this year, and I’ve learned a few things about how they tick. One interesting trait that they’ve all had in common is obsession.

All founders are obsessed with something.

The worst are obsessed with material things. Money. Fame. Stuff. To be honest I think they’re in the wrong business. Startups aren’t a good way to get any of those things.

The best are obsessed with intangibles. Helping people. Making the world a better place. Seeing problems with the world and being driven to fix them.

More than that, they’re obsessively focused on their mission.

Sometimes it’s nature

I’m obsessed with my startup too. I geek out over software development, customer support, even sales. I love diving into it all. So much so I get lost in my work.

For me—like many founders—it’s a part of my nature. I’m wired this way.

From a young age I’ve been obsessed with pretty much everything. I never just like a thing and do it. I have to be great at it.

A good example’s coffee. Most people just like coffee. I’m obsessed with it. I only buy beans from vendors that can tell me the farmer’s name. I experiment with water temperature, coffee:water ratio, brewing method. I even measure the total dissolved solids. I chase the perfect cup.

If I’m into something, I’m into it. I’ll never be content at mediocre. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Even right now I’m supposed to be somewhere else. The gym’s been calling my name for the past 30 minutes, but I just had to get this post done. I’m compelled to finish it.

Make your lifestyle more mission-centric

Not all founders are naturally inclined towards obsession. Many of the most successful founders I’ve met have optimized their environments and lifestyles to make it easier.

Changing your lifestyle’s definitely easy. It’s pretty simple to wake up earlier or later, and if you do you get a huge period of time where the world’s still asleep. That’s perfect time to do work.

Or maybe you could skip breakfast. Work through lunch. Or do some work in the car, or in line for your morning coffee. There’s always ways to adapt your day to be more about work. That lets your brain process more often in the background, and makes your life more mission-centric.

The right environment makes a huge difference

In many ways there’s a strong relation between boredom and obsession.

When I’m not in the mood to work, I just put myself in a place where there’s no other option. Either I work or sit doing nothing.

Right now I’m sitting in an empty commercial building staring at a white wall. The place is horribly designed for fun, but it’s perfect for work. There’s no distractions, no people, nothing. There’s not even WiFi.

Designing your workplace and lifestyle to include large chunks of time without interruptions is a sure-fire way to kickstart healthy obsession and drive real obsession down the line.

Obsession helps you solve problems

When you’re working on a task and you get distracted, it’s tough to get back into it. That’s because your brain has to switch context. Brain’s aren’t a huge fan of switching context.

In many ways obsession is the opposite of distraction. It’s intense focus on your mission. To the point where you don’t really care about anything else. At least at that point in time.

To that end obsession is extremely good for problem solving. Many of the most successful startup founders think about their mission everywhere. At the office, at home, in the shower, walking the dog. Everywhere.

That means their brains aren’t constantly switching context. Avoiding all that switching has huge implications for problem solving. Their brains process work-related problems all day rather than just at work.

All this results in obsessed founders solving problems better and faster than their peers. Which is pretty neat in a fast-paced startup environment.

You can be healthily obsessed, or not

Obviously not all obsessions are healthy. Attention’s a zero-sum game. You need some balance too.

Obsession shouldn’t mean addiction.

In fact, obsession is very different from addiction. Addiction is dependence. You shouldn’t become dependent on work. That sure wouldn’t be healthy. But you should be absorbed when you’re working.

You’ll be working more I guess, but you need some downtime too.

Think about it like this. If you’re in the middle of a family meal and you’re thinking about work to such an extent that you just have to whip your phone out and take some notes, you’re doing it wrong.

Healthy obsession is something you can switch on and off. Something you can control for the benefit of your startup. Not something you can’t avoid.

Find something you’re passionate about

I’ve been writing about obsession, when really this all boils down to passion.

If you’re super passionate about what you’re doing. Your mission. Your purpose. Then the obsession part comes pretty naturally.

You’ll find yourself working more but still being able to maintain that all-important balance.

If work’s a grind it’s not the right thing to be doing. If you’re just doing it for the money, that might be an addiction. Either way you should find something else to fill your time.

Start by finding your passion, then build your startup. That way you’re sure to be on the right track.




Jake Peters Cambridge, UK
Jake runs Product at HelpDocs. When he's not obsessing over customer feedback or hacking code, you'll find him in the nearest artisan coffee shop doing, err, probably more customer support.