The Startup Journey

The Goodwill Flywheel

I've had the itch to start a business for a long time. I've even had a few failed attempts over the last few years. I tried (and utterly failed) to be a freelance writer. I tried (and utterly failed) to launch a subscription box for remote employees. I have a Google Doc called "Business Ideas" that includes absurd ideas like a beef jerky vending machine franchise and BroScouts, a company that would organize outdoor adventures for adults.

None of these ideas ever went anywhere because the why wasn't strong enough. It was fun to brainstorm, but there was no motivation to execute. As it turns out, execution is tedious. It's not difficult—the tasks required are mostly straightforward—but it is really hard. It's just so easy to lose sight of why you're doing it in the first place. This is why Superpath is different and why I think it can be a great business.

When Walter Chen and I sat down to talk about starting a business, he challenged me to think about creating something that I'd enjoy working on for 10 years. I did that and here's what I came up with:

This business should:

  1. Gain leverage from work I really like doing (i.e., creating content)
  2. Create compounding value (i.e., MRR)
  3. Succeed when it empowers others to succeed (i.e., win-win situations are baked in)

The first two have, at least so far, played out much like I expected. I love creating courses, writing blog posts, creating templates, splicing content into multiple formats, etc. And we chose a model—a paid professional development membership—that meets the second requirement. It's the third that has been continually surprising and inspiring.

Creating a Win-Win Business by Aligning Incentives

Is it possible to create a for-profit business designed to help people? You could argue that all businesses "help people" but that's not what I mean.

I'm talking about empowering others to grow, learn, earn more money, find more satisfaction in their work and feel good about the career path they're on. I could do all of this for free (and have in little ways for years), but that would only cover half of the win-win situation I'm looking for.

In order for Superpath to meet all three criteria, our business has to succeed as we help other people succeed. That means we need to charge a fair price for a great product. It means that we need to see a path to financial success and personal satisfaction. I'm convinced that this is the best way to help others because it scales.

As our customer base grows, Superpath can build a team to create more educational resources, grow our community and refine our products/services. If there isn't a financial and entrepreneurial incentive for me to chase, there's no way I can dedicate 8-10 hours/day to this. I'd have to get a "real" job and do this on the side, ensuring that it reaches fewer people.

The incentives at Superpath are perfectly aligned. We want the same thing as our customers, and they want the same thing as us. We help them, they help us. They help us, we help them.

The extreme counterexample is Facebook (or Instagram, Twitter, etc.) who has to create an addicting product, then sell user data to make money. The company's incentives are never aligned with the customer's. I don't have delusions of grandeur—I'm not really comparing Superpath to Facebook—but in studying business models, I found plenty like this. This is the beauty of starting your own company. You can discover your own "why" then build a system to create and capture value.

Feedback Is Fuel

Baking win-win situations directly into the business model was always the plan, but it's been far more powerful than I expected. To illustrate this point, here's the type of feedback we get when we do things that help people advance their careers (these are anonymized summaries of real feedback I've gotten):

  • "Finally, a place to help me develop my content skills."
  • "The job board helped me find a job I love."
  • "The community gave me the support I needed to leave a toxic manager."
  • "The 1:1s helped me find a career mentor."

Helping people grow their careers gets me out of bed in the morning. It feels amazing to build something that provides huge value to individuals, not just companies. The feedback I've gotten so far powers my "why." The execution is still tedious and hard, but I've never questioned why I'm doing this.

This is what I'm calling the Goodwill Flywheel. Superpath helps people, customers are thrilled, which strengthens our resolve to keep going, which allows to empower even more people, which makes it easier to scale.

I realize this isn't the traditional flywheel. The classic example is Amazon, who can offer lower prices as its customer base grows. The more customers, the lower the prices, which attracts more customers, which means they can lower prices more, etc.

This is different. This is a flywheel that feels good, and that drives us to build a sustainable, profitable company on a >10 year time horizon. The more people we help, the more people I want to help.  It means that this never feels like work, it feels like a mission worth enduring hardship to pursue.

This is what I always hoped entrepreneurship would be like. It's harder than expected, but also more fun and more fulfilling than I thought it would be. Running a business on goodwill (and plenty of coffee) isn't for everyone, but it's the kick in the ass I needed to finally pursue my own entrepreneurial ambitions. I have no desire to create a unicorn, only a sustainable business that I love running and that keeps empowering more people.

It's way too early to pat myself on the back. We're just getting started. We have a small but happy customer base. New folks are signing up each day. Time will tell if we can turn this into a real business, but whether it succeeds or blows up in my face, I'll sleep well knowing that I pursued something worth pursuing.