Founder Ikigai 🔴🟡🟢🔵

The Japanese secret to a long and happy startup

I really like the Japanese framework to a long and happy life, “Ikigai.”

You might have heard of it.

Throughout life, we fall into one of 3 buckets:

  • We Search and constantly find our way towards the holistic fulfillment of our Ikigai

  • We Acquiesce to the reality that the effort required to make a significant life change outweighs the cost of missing out on one of the circles

  • We Embrace that as long as we fulfill at least, 1-3 of the circles, we can be completely happy and satisfied, without needing to struggle to fulfill all

This week, some founder friends and I applied the concept to the life of a founder (and, in particular, to a venture-backed founder).

Presenting: Founder Ikigai

The 4 circles of Founder Ikigai

🔴 What you care about

Being a founder is hard, so it’s important that you care enough about the problem or the challenge of the solution or audience that you’re impacting, enough to stay steadfast on executing.

Missing out on this circle creates a good business idea, but a lack of passion or founder-product fit leading to a disadvantage at weathering storms.

🟡 What the world needs

Or in other words, an actual problem, validated through the lens of your users.

Missing out on this circle relinquishes product-market fit, making it really hard to scale & move quickly.

🟢 What’s a good business

This involves answering questions like why now, how big the market is, how the market is growing, and what you need to believe to be a billion dollar business.

It’s easy to plaster hypothetical numbers to your deck to appease an audience and get investors to give you money.

The higher bar is whether you can convince yourself that the variables required ladder up to a billion dollar formula. Finding conviction is easier said than done.

Missing out on this circle creates a good project idea but potentially a non-venture scale or unsustainable business.

🔵 Where you have a unique advantage

Unique advantages can come from deep domain expertise, a distribution network not everyone has access to, a technological breakthrough only you can take advantage of, clout in a space that gives you a head start, a secret not many others know about, etc.

For what it’s worth, I’m a strong believer of manufacturing unique advantages through creating your own opportunities and serendipity. Start a newsletter for your target audience. Live with a select group of your users. Become a thought leader in the space. Surround yourself around experts in the domain. If you have an overflow from the red circle (what you care about), enough that you’re willing to fight tooth and nail to be one with your users and solve problems for that market, you’ll organically fill this circle, too.

Missing out on this circle makes it harder to find an earned secret that will either 1) pull you faster towards product-market fit or; 2) seal your deal as the winner in a competitive market.

Life vs. Founder Ikigai

A couple differences between personal and founder Ikigai:

  1. Constant Journey vs. Upfront Battle

    In life, as above, we’re searching, acquiescing or embracing the Ikigai circles. Some find what they need earlier or later than others, and that’s OK. Even if you think you’ve found your Ikigai and it has a specific form, that shape can always evolve. There are no severe repercussions to shapeshifting — and is in fact encouraged so you continue exploring the wonders of life.

    For founders, it pays dividends to be at the intersection of all the circles at the beginning of your founder journey. Pivots are inevitable but extremely expensive the deeper you’ve committed to an idea.

    Choosing the “right” idea to go all-in on is likely the single most important decision that shapes everything the founder does. Intentionality reaps long-term rewards.

  2. Satisfaction with Few vs. Necessity for All

    In life, as above, you can fulfill one or all of the four circles and still find personal fulfillment, depending on what aligns most with your personal values.

    For founders, fulfilling only a few is less forgiving. For a breakout success, you likely need to fulfill all.

    🔴 Without passion, it’s hard to follow through.

    🟡 Without product-market fit, it’s hard to get any sort of traction.

    🟢 Without a sustainable business it’s hard to produce outsized returns.

    🔵 Without an earned secret, it’s hard to beat competitors.

A major similarity between the two Ikigais is that each of the circles feed into each other.

If you’re passionate about a set of users or a problem, you’ll be motivated to create the serendipity needed to find a unique advantage. If you are solving a real problem, you probably can work your way towards a sustainable business given the amount of demand for your service.

The obvious challenge in all this is in finding the overlap of all the circles. If we had an easy solution to that challenge, for every shape or form a founder comes in, that might be a trillion dollar idea. Call me when that’s been figured out.


Nudges of the week 👀


Back to searching our founder Ikigai,
Mika