Turn your Flame into a Big Fire
Ambition is like a flame burning inside your mind. Your responsibility is to turn it into a big fire. Ambitious entrepreneurs polarize. They’re not here to please everyone. You can learn how to become more ambitious. It starts with your environment, the people you spend your time with and every choice you make.
If anyone ever tries to tell you that ambition only comes from within, and that it’s something you’re born with, don’t believe them. It’s absolutely not true.
Ambition is something you can learn.
Sure, some people may pick it up easier, or in a more natural way, and that makes it seem like it’s just normal for them. But anyone who is motivated can increase their ambition. Ambition is like a muscle: if you exercise it, it will grow stronger. And for an entrepreneur, it’s one of the most important muscles that you can exercise.
Most of the time, your ambition is going to be provoked by your environment. If you are in a group or you’re watching the people around you, and those people are ambitious and pushing for bigger and better things, you’ll do the same. We are chameleons. And of course, if everyone around you just settles for what they have, or doesn’t really care about making things better, then you’re less likely to keep your ambition high as well.
So keep an eye on who you hang around.
That means your friends, your family, your cofounders, and definitely your investors. Regarding your friends, I’m not here to tell you who you should hang out with, but the best founders I’ve met spend most of their time with inspiring people. Ambition is like that crazy flame you’re trying to keep lit as the wind blows. If you’re always having to justify your choices, it means that you’re surrounded by people who could kill that flame, whereas it’s your responsibility to turn it into a big burning fire. Think of all the excitement you can feel when you’re challenged by someone who care about making an impact. That’s who you should spend most of your time with. If your investors are ambitious, then you’ll have a much easier time in growing your company into something important. If you have weak investors who are afraid and pulling you back, then it will be very difficult to turn your company into a star.
Being ambitious doesn’t mean that you’re protected against all the things that are waiting to kill your company. Being ambitious doesn’t mean that you always make the right decisions. You can still die if you’re ambitious, because it really means exposing yourself to risk and never doing things that are just average. But that also means that you don’t waste your time, and when you do succeed, it makes it all worth it.
No one remembers average. All of us have our resumés, our CVs, what we’ve done — and the only thing that people remember are those extraordinary, striking moments.
Go ahead and polarize people with what you’re doing.
If no one reacts to what you’re doing, you aren’t being ambitious enough. When people are completely against what you’re doing, that’s when you’re probably doing something ambitious.
You are an entrepreneur — you aren’t a politician.
You don’t have to please or to try to bring everyone together. You don’t need a large consensus. You need to concentrate on trying to make the right decision and knowing why you believe it’s right. Sometimes that goes wrong, and that risk is on you. But if you accept that risk, and make sure that everyone knows that you’re accepting it, you have the freedom to do something really interesting.
At the beginning of every startup, ambition doesn’t look big.
In fact, at the beginning it looks very, very small. It’s not about the impossible, it’s about doing your best today. For example, if you’re starting a food company, fake ambition would be saying that you’re going to open 10 kitchens that deliver 5,000 meals. That’s just a dream. There’s no real way of achieving it today. Real ambition would be looking at your capabilities, deciding that you can make 50 meals today — yourself — and sell them all, door-to-door — yourself again — until they’re gone. That’s ambitious, for a beginning.
Maintaining your ambition comes down to feelings.
Communicate your enthusiasm to others and also manage your own psychology. One of the first steps in doing that is recognizing that feelings are real and finding a way to communicate about them. Joy, satisfaction, but also anger, fear… Many entrepreneurs fall into the trap of not talking, of not acknowledging their feelings. They’ll lie all the time about how they feel, they start to confuse storytelling with feelings, and that always has a horrible ending.
We sometimes watch this happen at The Family’s dinners. Every good founder will come to dinner and be very open about their struggles, what’s going well, what’s going horribly, and how they’re feeling. Bad founders come to dinner and just plain lie to other founders. Why does that happen? Well, people who are bad entrepreneurs know that they need help, but will never ask for it. No one can help you if they don’t know what you’re feeling and what you’re going through. And getting help starts with a simple statement and a simple question: “I have a problem. How can you help me?”
That doesn’t mean that you need to share your struggles with the press, or your customers, or your mom, or whoever else comes along. But you need to have someone that you can share them with. Otherwise, your ambition will just run away down the drain.
Once you’re taking care of your personal level of ambition, you need to build an army.
Every person that comes onto your team needs to have the same level of ambition as you. Just because someone is highly skilled doesn’t mean that they have the same ambition as you do. And putting them on your team is the perfect way to lower the collective ambition of what you’re doing.
That’s also why you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about your ambition and what you’re trying to do. Whether it’s with your employees, your investors, your customers, you want those people to become part of your army that is helping you. If you aren’t open about where you’re going, you can’t add those people who will be with you no matter what. You don’t just need fans of what you’re doing, you need superfans. And users become superfans when they’re amazed by not only what you’re doing today, but also just how far you’re going to go tomorrow.
Any time you can create a group of superfans, you’ll also create a group of haters.
It’s a necessary part of things. If you can generate true feelings, your startup has a chance. If you’re not destroying anything, if no one complains about you, then you’re having no impact on the world. Just make sure you do really believe that those haters are wrong :)
None of this means that you need to create “buzz.” Too many people think that “buzz” is some magic thing that you just decide on. Let’s say it once and for all: you don’t decide when you go viral, you don’t decide when “buzz” happens. You can’t predict that future.
What you can do is push hard and be crystal clear about what you’re doing as a company. As soon as something in your business isn’t clear, it means that something in the business is weak. And you need to be aware of that, and you need to fix it — fast. Apply a radical mindset. Find the message that everyone who comes in contact with you will understand.
Yes, that means that sometimes you’ll be wrong. That’s ok. Being wrong is the only way to learn fast. It’s better to be wrong fast than to be average. You’ll get answers, and you’ll use them to grow. And growth is the only goal. It’s not always easy, but it’s necessary.
At The Family, we’ve been going through this personally with our expansion and switch to English. Opening offices in London and Barcelona with others coming, switching all content into English… These decisions created short-term headaches. Some of our fans were disappointed — especially in France, where speaking English will get people to look at you strangely. But the positive results of that switch have been much larger, and will continue to exponentially increase, as opposed to if we had stayed in France.
When Netflix switched from being a mail-order DVD company to a streaming company, it was the ambitious choice. But Netflix already had a huge presence based on physical DVDs. The rollout of the change resulted in serious decreases in revenue at Netflix, which was already a publicly listed company, for months. The press was a nightmare. Their customers were angry. It was painful. They did it because it was that kind of ambition that allowed them to now be present in 190 countries worldwide. So keep ambition high despite your opponents.
Being ambitious means that you sometimes drop down on the graph of success.
And when that happens, take a deep breath, and remember what you’re doing. Remember that it’s a blip, not a permanent signal.
Stop worrying about your reputation. When you’re starting out, you don’t have a reputation. Reputation is for companies that everyone’s paying attention to. Attention only comes with success.
So keep on sending out pushy messages to everyone whose email address you can get your hands on. Have fun. Enjoy the ride. Let your soul run free. Be weird. Stay ambitious.
Ambition (noun): strong desire for success, achievement, or distinction.
Muscle yourselfAmbition is not an innate gift. It is like a muscle, you can train it. It means that anyone can become ambitious.
Muscle your environmentAmbition is deeply linked to your environment. Surround yourself with ambitious people, it will raise your expectations. Maybe you’ll fake it first, then you’ll end up being truly ambitious. Your investors are a good indicator: if they are ambitious, they’ll push you to do more, but if they are weak, they’ll drag you down.
Be radicalAmbition is not about making good decisions. Ambition means that sometimes you’ll fail or even die. That’s part of the game. In addition, being remembered should be your secondary goal as an entrepreneur. No one remembers average. Everyone has a CV (in Greek “path of life”), even entrepreneurs: you should build yours. Ambition is like a secondary money that applies to entrepreneurs: you trade it against memory.
Polarize to winIf you want to check if something is ambitious or not, just look at how people react. Ambitious ideas/moves always have hard supporters and hard opponents. You are not a politician: your goal is not to create consensus. Searching for consensus is a total waste of time for entrepreneurs. It is your decision and anyway you’ll be the only one to pay for the consequences. Be clear with your team and investors: you aim at making the right decision, not at pleasing anyone.
Choose your campThe lack of ambition can be much more damaging than the excess of it. The safe and secure path can be hell, even if your decisions seem rational. Do not try to avoid bad things, it will get worse anyway ;), and you’ll end up doing nothing. So be 100% optimistic. Things will always go wrong but you’ll always find a path: jump, swim and keep moving.
Do not fall into a caricature of ambitionAmbition is about acting, not just selling yourself. Ambition often looks small: it is hard, it is slow, it is a step-by-step journey.
Manage your own psychologyEmotions are real, deal with it. The most important thing is to talk and to share your feelings. Find a partner who will be your rock. Do not confuse storytelling and sharing your feelings: do not lie, do not fear being transparent about your struggles with trustworthy people that surround you.
Build an armyYou’ll never build ambition alone. Each and every hire must share the same level of ambition as yours. Any teammate that is not in the right mindset is a threat for the others. Personal behavior and courage are as important as skills when recruiting. Build an army: not a team, an army.
Go viralAmbition is also key in your communication: it creates a bond with your clients. Showing ambition will allow you to create a tribe that will become viral if the message is strong enough: people will find it crazy and share it. Be careful: It’s not about making buzz. Buzz is not a goal nor something you can decide or plan. Work hard and do not expect it, since that’s the best way to achieve it.
You need superfansAt the beginning, when your product is not yet fancy, the only way to gather superfans is to spend a lot of time with your users. Make friends with your first users, organize parties, take that relationship to the next level. Be ambitious about the bond you build with your users.
You also need hatersEach and every time you increase the level of ambition, you’ll be hated. Celebrate it. Your haters’ level of intensity is an incredible indicator of success. Gustave Flaubert said: “You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies”. Same applies to startups.
Be crystal clearIf you are confused about anything in your business, if your communication is not clear, you have a problem: it means your product / offer is not radical enough, which means you failed to make a decision.
Be wrongBeing wrong is the only way to get answers and learn fast.
Don’t worry about your reputationDo not be afraid to ruin your reputation: you do not have one. And by the way, nobody is waiting for you and you are not the center of the universe. Do not be childish. However, there are some things you can do as a very young company that you won’t be able to do as a more mature firm: being spammy for instance. So don’t hesitate ;)
Have funBeing an entrepreneur is a luck. You are outstandingly free. Do not forget to enjoy.
Let your soul outBe honest and true to yourself.
Articles to go deeper
Ben Casselman, “The Next Amazon (Or Apple, Or GE) Is Probably Failing Right Now”
FiveThirtyEight, March 2016
Edmund Phelps, “What is Wrong With The West’s Economies”
The New York Review of Books, August 2015
Tim Sullivan, “Entrepreneurs, Economic Growth, and the Enlightenment”
Harvard Business Review, August 2015
Aimee Groth, “Entrepreneurs don’t have a special gene for risk—they come from families with money”
Quartz, July 2015
Paul Hudson, “15 Things That Emotionally Strong People Don\'t Do”
Elite Daily, February 2014
Ashlee Vance, “Netflix, Reed Hastings Survive Missteps to Join Silicon Valley’s Elite”
Business Week, May 2013
Paul Graham, “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas”
Essays, March 2012
Ben Horowitz, “The Right Kind of Ambition”
Ben’s Blog, August 2010
Nicolas Colin, “Polarizing: How startups can learn from politicians, draw a line in the sand, and mobilize superfans”
The Family, April 2010
Scott Stossel, “You and Your Friend’s Friend’s Friends”
The New York Times, October 2009
Paul Graham, “Cities and Ambition”
Essays, May 2008
We told you, they lived it!
Damien Morin, CEO @ Save.co
Damien Morin started Save.co while he was still a student, opening a store to repair phones. He met Cyril, his co-founder who came in to repair his wife’s phone. In less than two years, Damien turned his store into a scalable business model. He has hired more than 600 people, opened more than 100 corners in 10 countries across Europe, and raised $17m with Save.co.