Your Problem is Your Business: The Case for the Accidental Entrepreneur
When you think about entrepreneurs, who springs to mind?
I’m guessing a fearless, larger-than-life, risk-taker like Steve Jobs, Oprah, Sir Richard Branson, or Elon Musk. The type of person for whom working for “the man” (or woman) was never an option.
While I’m fascinated by anyone who has the guts to strike out on their own, I have a special place in my heart for entrepreneurs who never imagined they’d have their own business. The kind of person who has no choice but to answer the call of a burning passion or crushing problem.
This entrepreneurial subset is small yet mighty. According to a study by The Recruit Venture Group, a third of business owners never planned on starting their own company. Despite all of the challenges from bootstrapping to early failures and steep learning curves, a mere 1% regretted their decision, and 90% of those surveyed said they were happier than when they were employed.
In these uncertain times, a day job isn’t necessarily something you can rely on. Further, if the pandemic has taught us nothing else, doing something that brings you joy is critical. Helping others in the process is the icing on the cake — and we need to pull together now more than ever.
So, if you’ve never considered entrepreneurship before, maybe it’s time to take a closer look.
The Accidental Entrepreneur
This subject is top of mind for me as I’m reading Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts and Doubters by Kara Goldin, founder of hint water and wellness products. A former AOL executive and mother of four, Goldin spent many years conquering life fueled by diet soda — up to a dozen cans a day. A weight problem and adult acne led her to question what she was consuming.
Goldin took her health into her own hands, deciding to cut out the soda and drink more water. Craving a flavorful alternative to “boring” water, she started experimenting with unsweetened fruit-infused water recipes in her kitchen. Goldin soon realized she had something that others needed.
In an interview, she described it this way:
“I always call myself an accidental entrepreneur because I really didn’t aspire to be an entrepreneur. I just wanted to solve this problem for myself, and I thought if people paid more attention to what they were putting in their bodies, then we wouldn’t be talking about a national healthcare system.”
I can relate to that desire to create positive change for others by striking out on your own. Accidental entrepreneurship is also my story. I started my career literally working for the man — my dad, a proud union man. He knew how obsessed I was with coding and design, so probably to keep me from growing up to become a hacker, he connected me with his friends who need IT services and websites when I was a teenager.
Eventually, I got a “real” job, which I figured was the right path. By 2004–2005, I just knew there had to be a way to design and code a faster, more interconnected and beautiful world with better UX.
Without fully realizing I was choosing an entrepreneurial path, I struck out on my own, working from an unheated office because it was all I could afford. It didn’t bother me so much because the heat from passion and purpose is what fuels entrepreneurs.
The Passion-Problem Intersect
The hallmark of the accidental entrepreneur is discovering a problem that’s worth solving. The power of being pissed off or plagued by something and not being able to find a solution is a potent motivator.
Kat Hantas, founder of 21 Seeds infused tequila and another accidental entrepreneur I recently wrote about, like Goldin, came up with a product that didn’t exist — an unsweetened, fruit-infused beverage. Both women parlayed their health problems into profitable businesses, but neither had any experience in the beverage industry.
For others, the aha moment happens where expertise and serendipity meet. Take, for example, Simon Enever, co-founder of the dental DTC brand Quip. Enever, an industrial designer who moved from the UK to New York for an ill-fated design project (an ultra-thin eReader that was beaten to market by the iPad), stumbled across his inspiration at a dental visit.
Because he brushed his teeth so hard, Enever had gum problems. His dentist ranted about this common problem, telling Enever, “people think they need to brush harder, when actually they need to brush longer and with better technique.” He recommended that Enever buy the cheapest possible vibrating toothbrush with a two-minute timer to do a better job brushing.
After reviewing the expensive, clunky options on the market, Enever and his friend, industrial designer Bill May, put their skills to work and developed the first Quip concept. Described as the “Tesla of toothbrushes,” in addition to a sleek design, the pair solved another problem — the need to frequently change brush heads — with a subscription model that made it convenient for customers to stay on top of their brushing game. This gave them an ongoing revenue stream vs. the single-purchase electric toothbrush.
The trick is to be sure that you’ve got a good problem-solution fit. Like Goldin and Hantas, you can test-drive your recipes with friends and families for proof of concept and follow-up your hunches with market research. Enever and May started by going to experts, who verified it fit a need.
And in my journey as a creative entrepreneur, I realized my passion for design-driven curiosity, which was not a thing when I launched Digital Surgeons, was something all kinds of small businesses needed. My proof was the word-of-mouth that spread like wildfire. (Good thing, because I needed a way to pay for heat so my one employee at the time wouldn’t leave. Necessity really is the mother of invention!)
From Accidental to Intentional
Once you realize you’ve got something with potential, the next steps must strike a balance between enthusiasm and reality. On the one hand, you’ve got to be sure you’ve got the resources necessary, from finances to time, space, ingredients and manufacturing capabilities (if it’s a tangible product). According to Recruit Venture, nearly half of accidental entrepreneurs surveyed kept their day job and waited until the business grew enough to make it a full-time gig.
On the other hand, your passion and focus are equally important. For example, Goldin was connected by a friend with a Coca-Cola executive early on. Overwhelmed by all the things she didn’t know about the beverage industry and the capital she didn’t have, she was willing to sell her fledgling company for almost nothing. However, the exec did her a favor, condescendingly turning her down by saying, “Sweetie, Americans like sweet!”
Today, hint is a multi-million-dollar brand, and Goldin remains undaunted. If you’re an accidental entrepreneur, her advice is invaluable: “If you think you have to know it all before you start something, you’ll never start anything.”
From all the founders I’ve worked with and mentored, and in my career, I can safely say that the best part of being an accidental entrepreneur is that your business is personal. And being able to pay it forward and make a difference to others brings meaning and purpose to your life.
And it’s no accident that’s the ultimate definition of a worthwhile venture.
What’s the problem the world is calling you to solve? I’d love to hear, so hit me up in the comments.