The software world has a strange fascination with not making money. Ideals or “passion” are often substituted as good reasons to start a business even when there isn’t actually any money to make, ever. While having passion or big ideas is not a bad thing, if you make them a business requirement you’re ignoring a whole swath of interesting, profitable business ideas that can make you a stable, happy living.
For much of the world, starting a business means providing a product or service in exchange for money. Naturally, “there’s money in $some_industry” is a good indication that a business is worth pursuing. Many excellent businesses – large and small – have been built on the hunch that there is money to be made doing something useful. There’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking more money, and you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t have “passion” for a business idea.
“Smells like money to me”
A plumber friend told me a story about his business: A new home was being built, and the project was nearing completion. Most of the interior was finished, and to the untrained eye the house looked “move-in ready”. So “move-in ready”, in fact, that the owners decided to move in early.
Work continued until 2-3 days after the owners moved in, at which point they complained: The toilets were backing up! My friend was called in to diagnose the problem, and it didn’t take too long: The sewer line hadn’t actually been hooked up yet. There was 10-20 yards of pipe running under the house, capped (thankfully) at the end, awaiting my plumbing friend to make the final connection. Nobody told him that folks were moving in early.
The solution? That raw sewage needed to go somewhere, right? And so my friend did the transport, one 5-gallon bucket at a time – for a hefty fee. As they were transporting the buckets of raw sewage, his son (also a plumber) was on the verge of vomiting. My friend offered his son this encouraging word: “Smells like money to me!”
The universe is dented enough
In the tech world, you’ll hear a lot of “follow your dreams”-speak. I’ll never forget a video I saw of Paul Graham answering a question: “Should you stay in college, or drop out and start a company?”. Paul thoughtfully answered: No, not everyone should drop out of college. Good answer, right?
But the person asking the question kept emphatically saying (yelling?) that “PEOPLE WHO GO TO COLLEGE WORK FOR PEOPLE WHO DROP OUT”. There was no room for nuance in his mind: Work on your passion, or you’re just a cog in the machine.
Passion (according to those propagating this myth) comes from working on an idea that is so important that it drives you crazy that it isn’t solved. Jeff Atwood sparked some fires when he tweeted this:
Can you imagine a plumber chasing their passion?
Families and hobbies need stability
Many programmers have families and interests outside of work – passions that are far more valuable to us than any piece of software we could write.
But hey: I started a business. And you know what? I’m following the money, dang it, because I pretty much don’t want to spend time on things that don’t make money. That time can be spent on my interests outside of work!
I don’t mind asking my kids to sacrifice, but I won’t ask them to sacrifice so daddy can chase his passion. I’m going to make decent money for my work, and making money is my primary concern.
You can still enjoy programming!
Don’t get me wrong – I love technology, and I am actually a human with hopes and dreams and feelings beyond capitali$m. Maybe someday, I will pursue my pure technical interests for their own sake.
But for now, there’s nothing wrong with building a business on what pays well. Sometimes I’ll do programming scutwork. Most of the time I’ll work with stable technologies building websites and simple apps because that’s what delivers business value for my customers. WordPress sites and CRUD aren’t eating me alive inside, but they’re:
- Valuable to my clients
- Paying the bills for my little family
You can build a business, so long as you…make money
Freelance developers often get hung up on technology choices – they want to do super-interesting work using the latest languages and frameworks. But when I talk to new freelancers, I encourage them to “chase the money” to start. Don’t get hung up on what technology you’re using or how “passionate” you are about such-and-such projects. Instead, I tell them:
- Learn how to deliver business value
- Charge enough to make it worth your while
- Do a good job
Notice: “Passion” does not appear in that list. You can save your passion for later: If you make enough money on the boring projects, you’ll be able to buy time to work on the fun stuff!
As an alternative to chasing your passion: Chase the money for a little bit, earn a good living, build a solid business, and you can spend your extra money & time on things you’re passionate about.
Lots of stable, happy businesses can be built by identifying places where people will pay money for a solution, and executing that solution (however boring that may be) for a decent price. Don’t let money scare you away from a good business idea!