Entrepreneurial passion: how to keep the fire burning

Theoretical and empirical studies agree that passion is a critical factor influencing entrepreneurial behaviour and performance. Some have suggested that this passion may change over time. However, empirical evidence for this claim is at best ambiguous. Moreover, research has so far given little attention to the factors influencing entrepreneurial passion. A study by a team led by Vlerick professor Veroniek Collewaert and Frederik Anseel, professor at Ghent University, fills several of the gaps and turns a previously held belief on its head: “Prior research has considered an entrepreneur’s passion for founding as a given and as something entrepreneurs have to make the best of. Our findings point to a key role entrepreneurs play in keeping their own fire burning.”

Two dimensions of passion

Entrepreneurs may experience different types of passion related to some of the key activities they engage in throughout the entrepreneurial process: a passion for invention, for founding and for developing. “Our study focused on the founding stage, so we examined an entrepreneur’s passion for founding, i.e. for venture creation,” explains Veroniek. “This is the type of passion that determines how effectively you deal with challenges such as attracting funding, hiring employees and finding customers.”

Using surveys, the team empirically investigated how and why this entrepreneurial passion for founding changes over time. “Research has pointed out that early stage entrepreneurial activities have a significant effect on a venture’s survival, its development and success. Understanding the dynamics of passion in the founding phase helps to understand why some entrepreneurs persist and others don’t.”

Passion, however, means different things to different people. This study defined entrepreneurial passion as an intense positive feeling towards entrepreneurial activities that are central to the entrepreneur’s self-identity. “So, we distinguished two dimensions: intense positive feelings and identity centrality. First, being passionate about founding means you’re excited about your role as a venture founder and second, this founder identity is an important part of who you are. Many practitioners have asked us ‘but can you really quantitatively measure passion?’ – the answer is unequivocally ‘yes’.”

Identity centrality remains stable over time

This result was no surprise. Research on self-identity has demonstrated that the most central self-views that make up our identity are most resistant to change. Veroniek explains why: “From psychology we know that we have several self-verifying strategies that help us support our most central-self views in a changing environment, which provides identity continuity over time. So, if entrepreneurs score high on founder identity centrality, then being the founder of a business and being involved in activities targeted towards getting the business started are central and important aspects of who they are.” The consequence is obvious: “When the venture evolves, rather than changing their identity by taking on a more administrative role in the organisation, they are more likely to leave the venture to build a new one.”

Intense positive feelings decrease over time

Because the early founding stages of a venture are highly dynamic and uncertain, it is fair to assume that intense positive feelings will vary over time. Whether they will increase or decrease depends on the circumstances. The study followed Belgian entrepreneurs over the period of April 2012 to January 2013, a time when entrepreneurs’ confidence in the Belgian economy was at a historic low, due to the continuing economic crisis, a government policy perceived to be anything but conducive to entrepreneurship, and uncertainty about economic policy in general after 511 days without government. “Because economic difficulties and uncertainty jeopardise an entrepreneur’s future, they may feel threatened in their identity as entrepreneur. And identity threats are known to have a negative effect on positive emotions. So, we expected to see positive feelings decrease over time, which they did,” says Veroniek, adding: “Although, this decline in positive feelings may have been particularly pronounced due to the specific circumstances at the time.”

The more you change your venture idea the better

Every entrepreneur interprets, experiences and reacts differently to uncertainty. “Our reasoning was that this could explain the rate of decrease in intense positive feelings. In the early stages, entrepreneurs are faced with uncertainty about the technological and commercial feasibility of their venture. One way to deal with this, is to start experimenting and iteratively adapt their ideas,” Veroniek explains. “As expected, our results indicate that the more changes entrepreneurs had made to their original venture idea, the more they were able to temper the decline in intense positive feelings. We believe this is because these entrepreneurs felt in control. And there’s plenty of psychology research that shows that positive illusions, such as the illusion of control, contribute to positive feelings.”

Feedback-seeking behaviour acts as a buffer

The role of an entrepreneur is not the same as that of an employee and is far less predefined. But just like employees, entrepreneurs may struggle to meet the demands of their growing ventures and their stakeholders. Veroniek: “In the founding stage, entrepreneurs are confronted with what’s called role ambiguity. This puts them under increasing pressure, which obviously affects their positive feelings. They may feel uncertain about what’s expected of them by their co-founders and investors, or worry about how they should divide their time between different tasks. But then again, that’s what being an entrepreneur is all about: you create your own roles as your venture takes shape.”

“We looked at the effect of change in role ambiguity because the perceived absolute level of ambiguity is subjective, how it has changed compared to its initial status is more relevant,” she goes on. “But contrary to what we expected, increasing role ambiguity did not directly affect the rate of change in an entrepreneur’s positive feelings. However, we did find that feedback-seeking behaviour had a moderating effect. So, when entrepreneurs were confronted with surges of role ambiguity, the positive feelings of those not seeking frequent feedback decreased more rapidly. Entrepreneurs who did extensively solicit external feedback were able to offset the negative effects of increasing role ambiguity. As far as we know, our study is the first to have proposed and identified this moderating relationship.”

Up to you

The results of this study indicate that an entrepreneur’s individual actions, i.e. how they react to uncertainty, affect their passion for founding and, ultimately, the success of their ventures. The advice to aspiring and founding entrepreneurs is therefore straightforward:

  • Be prepared: your intense positive feelings for founding will most likely decline after some time, but you have the key to reviving your passion.
  • Be flexible, first ideas hardly ever make it to the market. Don’t be afraid to experiment and to tweak and fine-tune your ideas as often as you need.
  • Go out, get feedback from fellow entrepreneurs, investors, advisors and industry experts. Feedback motivates you and a learning attitude puts you in control.

“And networks and entrepreneurship education can lend a helping hand by organising feedback sessions or by stimulating experimentation and feedback-seeking behaviour in the curriculum,” concludes Veroniek.

112 budding entrepreneurs

The data for this study was collected over a period of 10 months, from April 2012 to January 2013, in three waves of online surveys among members of BRYO (BRight & YOung), a Belgian network for entrepreneurs in the founding stages of their venture. There were 5 months between each survey round. From the 511 entrepreneurs invited, 112 fully completed the three surveys. The respondents were on average 33 years old and predominantly male (83%) with a master’s degree and 9 years working experience at the time of the first survey. They were active in various industries such as retail, wholesale, manufacturing, ICT and design.

Source: The full paper “When Passion Fades: Disentangling the Temporal Dynamics of Entrepreneurial Passion for Founding” by Veroniek Collewaert, Frederik Anseel, Michiel Crommelinck, Alain De Beuckelaer and Jacob Vermeire, was published in Journal of Management Studies, January 2016. A version can be obtained from the authors.

About the authors
Veroniek Collewaert is associate professor of Entrepreneurship at Vlerick and associate professor (part-time) at the Faculty of Economics and Business of KU Leuven. Frederik Anseel is professor of Work Psychology and Behavioural Economics and Chair of the Department of Personnel Management, Work and Organisational Psychology at Ghent University and visiting professor at ESSEC Business School. Michiel Crommelinck was a PhD student at the department of Personnel Management, Work and Organisational Psychology at Ghent University at the time of the study. He now works for Securex. Alain De Beuckelaer is tenured faculty member at Radboud University. Jacob Vermeire is doctoral research associate in Entrepreneurship at Vlerick Business School.

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