Billion-Dollar Journeys: Missionary vs. Mercenary

I’ve recently read books about two founders who founded massive publicly traded companies, but in different ways: Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, and Willis Johnson, founder of Copart. Both companies offer online auctions. As of this writing, eBay has a market capitalization of roughly $27 billion, while the Copart valuation is roughly $53 billion.

Omidyar worked in Silicon Valley and was financially comfortable after a previous employer was acquired. He thought the world was unnecessarily unfair economically. He envisioned an efficient market that empowered people financially so they could control their own lives. His mission was to create an online auction with a strong community. His vision- and mission-first approach led to his nailing product–market fit straight out of the gate. The company went from zero to $41.7 million in revenue and was publicly traded on the stock market in three short years.

Johnson didn’t want to work for anyone but needed to support his family. He knew the salvage industry and started a salvage yard because he knew he could make money. As more problems presented themselves and money-making opportunities arose, he took them on too. After twenty years of opportunistically solving various problems, the rapid success of his online auction market in 2003 caused him to question his “job.” He shifted his mission from solving various salvage problems for profit to “streamline and simplify the auction process.” Johnson’s twenty-year transition from mercenary to missionary led to unprecedented growth at Copart. It’s now a global online auction market.

I, too, began as a mercenary when I started my company. I wanted more control over my life and needed to replace the salary from the job I’d had. I went from problem to problem with a focus on profitability. Years later, after I had financial breathing room, I started to focus on the painful problems. I became something of a missionary. This led to $10 million in annual revenue, but that could have been $300 million if I’d gone full missionary. I should have been laser-focused on our customers’ most painful problem.  

As I thought about my founder friends and myself, I realized that Johnson’s journey is most common among my peers. Most of them picked a market and focused on making money to support themselves. They often attempted to solve various problems. But my friends who had outsize success didn’t stick with that approach. When their companies began to grow rapidly, it was because they were laser-focused on a single problem and mission. Their outsize success was the result of converting to being missionary founders, often after they had financial breathing room.

Entrepreneurs wanting financial independence and control of their lives can accomplish these goals as mercenaries, but if they aspire to have a bigger impact or build something significant, crystallizing a vision and mission is likely the key.

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