Missionary vs Mercenary CEOs

Missionaries build better products and companies than mercenaries do.  This is an idea that both Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, and John Doerr, a legendary investor at Kleiner Perkins both agree upon.

Over the last several years, I’ve started to have a great admiration for certain CEOs; leaders whom have built companies that generally awed me.   I always knew I liked them, but I could never exactly articulate the reasons why.   Finally, after watching Jeff Bezo talk about the difference between Missionary and Mercenary CEOs this weekend, I finally found a clear framework that could explain my feelings better than I could say them myself.  The CEOs who I admired were the Missionary CEOs.

The main difference between the two is that the Missionaries are entrepreneurs who are deeply passionate about their mission; they’ll do whatever possible to achieve that mission.  The mercenaries on the other hand, are primarily interested in making money.   Although making money is not the primary motivator for missionaries,  they still do understand the need to run a profitable business because it’s essential for them to fulfill their mission.

Mark Zuckerberg is a good example of a missionary CEO.   Mark said that his mission was to help people share more, he was not interested in creating a business. But eventually he had to create the business because it was the only vehicle that would allow him to carry out his mission; to make the world more open and connected by helping people share information.

The mercenary is likely to have a specific amount of money they want to make, and they’d feel like a failure if they didn’t make it.  A Mercenary CEO goes into their business wanting to demolish other competitors by acquiring all of the competitors customers, but not necessarily by providing the best products & services possible to those customers.  Their primary objective is to reach their monetary goal and they’ll create a business around it to achieve their financial goals.  They would more likely be in it to flip the company and that’s all they care about.  They want to make money quick and they do not generally care as much about their customers, their customers are only there to provide them with what they want.  Instead of measuring their success by the impact they are making in the world, they are primarily measuring their success by reviewing their financial statements.

You probably know of some mercenaries already; they would be someone whose told you that they want to make X amount of money in a certain amount of years, or Y amount of month per month: not about how much they want to change the world.

A missionary would say something different; they might say something like they want to help X amount of companies in the world or affect Y number of people positively during their lifetimes.  The missionary CEO gauges their success by the value they provide to the world, not just the amount of they make.    They want to provide the absolute best service possible, and don’t take many shortcuts. They would only sell the company if it genuinely helped them to achieve their original mission, and not because it would just be a huge financial windfall.

This is why both John Doerr and Jeff Bezos prefer to work with Missionary CEOs.  The Missionary CEOs build better products, and greater and longer lasting companies.

The irony of it all, says Bezos, is that the Missionaries are the ones who generally make more money than the Mercenaries in the long run anyways.

In the past I was a Mercenary CEO.   While I was in high school, I saw an article about Kevin Rose in BusinessWeek; that this kid made 60 million dollars in 18 months.  The article of course, was misleading, but that  point doesn’t matter.  What was important, was that after reading it, I decided that I would drop out of college later, move to Silicon Valley, start a tech company and sell it.  And that’s exactly what I did, just like a Mercenary would do.  But after all of that, something was missing, it felt a little empty because that’s all that it was.  It was a quick race to get in and out; there was nothing grander than that.

While what we built was admirable at the time, we could have done a lot more if I was more of a Missionary CEO who had a larger vision of where we could be in the next 10 years and be dedicated to getting there.  Instead I came with a Mercenary plan, to build the company and exit it.  I built something a lot less impressive than I could have had I not been so persistent in wanting to sell a company.   I thought that was success.   I should have started a company that I wanted to continue growing and be apart of long term, something that I was genuinely passionate about.  If I had that, it’s possible that I would still be building some great today with huge value, and not starting all over on a new company again.

The companies making the largest impacts in the world are mostly being lead by Missionary CEOs.  Think of CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Phil Libin of EverNote; all of these CEOs have a passionate mission for building something great by doing whatever they do are doing.   Phil Libin has said he wants to build a company that’ll last over 100 years; he is thinking long term and fulfilling a mission to simply help people securely store their notes forever.  He does not care about selling the company, he wants to build something amazing, because he cares.  He is passionate about it and that is why he will build a better product than someone else who simply wants to build a note-sharing app flip within 5 years.  Steve Jobs went back to work for Apple without pay for a period of time, he was genuinely interested in helping Apple fulfill it’s mission to provide the best computers possible.  If he were a mercenary trying to make a profit, the Apple company we know today wouldn’t be the same.

I should say before ending this too, that there is nothing wrong about being a Mercenary.  It’s just a different path.  But it’s good to understand both of them because it can make a profound difference in your entrepreneurial future,  3, 5, or 10+ year’s from now (if you even still continue to build your company).  I know many Mercenaries that are happy with what they do; they are not trying to change the world.  They know that, some of them.  They are in business to provide a lifestyle they want and desire, and that is what they do, and there is nothing wrong with that too.  But now you know the difference.  Do you want to just make money, or do you want to go on a mission to solve a huge problem?  What are you right now, a Missionary or a Mercenary, and what will you be in the future?

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