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Founder Insights: What It Takes to Inspire Passion

Three entrepreneurs share their thoughts about keeping your team inspired and engaged in the company mission.
Founder Insights: What It Takes to Inspire Passion
Image credit: Hinterhaus Productions | Getty Images

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Passion typically comes naturally for an entrepreneur. After all, it’s been your dream for years to start this company. It’s your hard word and creativity that have gotten it off the ground.

The tricky part is keeping that spark alive as a company grows and hires people. It’s part of a founder’s job to help make sure that passion and enthusiasm everyone has early on has staying power, even when things don’t always turn out as planned.

We asked the founders of The Town Kitchen, Bitsbox and Leesa Sleep about how they inspire passion at their companies—each of which was named a Startup to Watch last year by Staples and Entrepreneur.

Here are their thoughts on passion and enthusiasm, and how to inspire it within your own company (edited slightly for length and clarity):

As an entrepreneur, how do you describe your passion for what you do?

Sabrina Mutukisna, co-founder of The Town Kitchen: My passion for building The Town Kitchen came from my childhood. My parents immigrated to the U.S. and instilled a strong work ethic and the value of a college degree. At Berkeley, I realized that just wanting a college degree wasn't enough—I needed a stable job to pay my bills, and mentors to help me navigate the system.

There are nearly 5 million young Americans who are unemployed or not in school. My passion in building The Town Kitchen is to provide great jobs for young people and remove some of the barriers to a college degree.

Scott Lininger, co-founder of Bitsbox: Life is short. If you accept that, then it's obvious that we should spend our limited time doing the things we're passionate about, even if they're risky.

Not everyone has the guts to live by that, but entrepreneurs do.

Davide Wolfe, co-founder of Leesa Sleep: I have been bringing new ideas to life for 30 years. It’s like a drug for me. I don’t drink or smoke, I build businesses. I am always excited about what I’m working on. My wife of 33 years used to caution me to not get so excited about my latest business ideas for fear that I would be disappointed if they failed. “On the contrary,” I always said, “if I don’t visualize success, how can I make it happen?” I am passionate about business and about the people who work with me at Leesa Sleep to make the magic happen.

What do you look for in new hires that indicate to you that they will be inspired and engaged in your company's mission?

Mutukisna, The Town Kitchen: As a social impact startup, it's important that new hires are invested in our mission and are passionate about learning. We've found that new hires that want to learn from other employees are the ones who grow within our company and who champion our big vision.

Lininger, Bitsbox: When I'm interviewing potential hires at Bitsbox, I ask a lot of open-ended questions and listen closely for what topics they wander toward. If someone talks about nothing but the job and money and the daily tasks they'll be doing, that's a bad sign for me. I like to hear them talk about our customers, about wanting to help achieve our mission of teaching every kid to code.

I go on a walk with each new hire and explain to them the kind of company we're building—a company that loves our own product, loves our customers, and loves our employees. I make it clear that they are empowered to do ANYTHING it takes to make a customer happy, and I tell stories about the early days and how that philosophy evolved. I figure if they hear that passion from the CEO, they're more likely to buy in.

Wolfe, Leesa Sleep: My biggest fear was always that after a year of working on something, I’d just be a year older. That has rarely happened in my life and I look for people who share this passion for constant change.

We look to hire people who thrive on setting and achieving unrealistic goals. I still meet every new hire before we extend an offer. I tell them that we are an entrepreneurial startup and that there are no guarantees for employees in our world but that we will share the fruits of our success. We hire the passionate ones and we keep the passion alive by never losing sight of what we are trying to achieve and never being satisfied with the status quo.

How do you inspire passion and keep everyone focused on the prize over the long haul?

Mutukisna, The Town Kitchen: When the going gets tough, it may seem like a good idea to limit team meetings and off-sites. I've learned that rallying the troops is especially important during challenging times. When the team is challenged to overcome a hurdle, it triggers creativity, boosts morale and inspires more passion for our company.

Lininger, Bitsbox: Let's face it, in the startup world things never go 100 percent to plan. Founders tend to be problem solvers and optimizers, so even when things are going well, our tendency is to talk endlessly about the small percentage of stuff that's broken. This can be demoralizing to others on the team. It's important to celebrate the wins.

Our team brainstorms "beer moments" at the beginning of each year and puts them up on the wall. These aren't crazy stretch goals that probably won't happen, but markers along the way (reaching X subscribers, closing Y deals, or answering Z support tickets.) When we achieve them we share a beer and celebrate. It gives us time to reflect on where we've come and look forward to the next exciting problem.

Wolfe, Leesa Sleep: It starts by a shared vision and building teams that are working together to deliver the best outcomes. We work our hardest when times are toughest, confident that the good times will come.

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