FounderFuel: Keeping your motivation topped up as a founder

If you were to plot your sense of motivation over the weeks and months, what would your chart look like?

For most founders, it is unlikely to be linear. 

Yet there is a tendency to assume (for others looking in) that a founder’s motivation is unwavering – fuelled by the mission, the purpose and that drive to achieve. This is one of those unhelpful media-hyped fallacies though. If anything, we feel the lows harder and these factors, along with a healthy dose of resilience, help us push through the moments of low motivation.

What’s critical is our motivation resources are kept topped up for those low spots and there is more of a recipe for motivation than at first we might think. So let’s look at it through the lens of founderhood…

The motivation recipe

In the book Drive, Daniel Pink consolidates four decades of scientific research looking into motivation. He considers two different types:

Internal: Motivation that comes from within

External: Motivation that comes from others

External motivation is the carrot and stick approach – driven by rewards and punishments – labelled by Pink as Motivation 2.0. Designed for a world of factories, it encourages motivation when the job includes a set of instructions and routines. Rarely something we find on a founders’ job description!

Internal motivation is what is proven to work in jobs that involve creativity and experimentation, like being a founder. This kind of motivation – what Pink defines as Motivation 3.0 – is driven by a combination of three important factors:

  • Purpose: the yearning to work on something bigger than ourselves.
  • Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery: the urge to get better at something that matters.

And Connectedness has since been added as the fourth ingredient to the recipe too.

The question is, how can you use the recipe to keep yourself topped up?

Find daily Purpose as a founder

At first glance this is the one we’d all assume… “yeah, thanks – I’ve got that one sorted”: Most startups and scaleups have a strong sense of purpose, with a clear mission and vision of the future we’re trying to create, but how much are you bringing this into the day-to-day?

It’s common for us to get stuck in the grind of day-to-day tasks, focusing on ticking things off the list, but this can have us lose sight of the bigger picture (and the bigger tasks). If you’re anything like me, this might also lead to ‘list anxiety’ where you’re worried about getting stuff done on the list (or not doing enough of it) too.

At these moments, ask yourself Why. Why does this task matter for your bigger purpose? Is it helping your customers? Is it having impact? Is it getting you one step closer to an important milestone? And if it doesn’t align to the mission, maybe question if it actually needs doing?

By linking our day-to-day actions (and thoughts) to a Why it builds a sense of motivating purpose and you can add some credit to your motivation bank account – keeping it topped up for when you need it.

Sense check Autonomy as a founder

Pink’s Motivation 3.0 is rooted in Maslow’s self-determination theory (SDT): humans have an innate drive to be autonomous and self-determined. At times as a founder, it can feel like we have too much autonomy (the weight of responsibility being one of the top pressures for 91% of founders), but at the same time this autonomy and freedom is usually a big driver to us becoming founders.

As our startups grow though, it is interesting to reflect on how this freedom and autonomy gets nibbled away at. Your diary gets filled with team meetings and one-to-ones; your time is needed to feed into or sign off on other people’s projects; you’re constantly managing investor questions and updates… All of a sudden other people’s agendas are driving your agenda.

If this sounds familiar, use it as a trigger to review your time and question what you do or don’t actually need to be involved in and how you can empower others effectively to support that. It can also be a positive experience to get clear on your Big Rock priorities too, and rather than just responding to others – take a moment to question if their agenda actually is more important than your Big Rocks.

Keep your Mastery topped up as a founder

Somewhat infamously, most founders can turn their hand to most things – driven by the early days when you did do everything, wearing all the hats to get stuff done. We tend to be brilliant generalists, but alas rarely the master of anything, and through the lens of Motivation 3.0 that can leave us somewhat depleted.

The Mastery ingredient is all about knowledge and learning – it’s about striving to grow and be excellent at something. The good news for founders is that as generalists we have plenty of things we can choose from – it might be a leadership development area, an industry expertise or a specialism that particularly piques your interest. The bad news is such learning and development usually gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list as a busy founder.

It doesn’t need to be a big qualification or life-long learning ambition though! What would help you, or inspire you right now? How can you do it in bite-sized chunks? What could be the Mastery ingredient to feed your motivation bank-account right now?

And what of Connectedness… well hopefully we’re all making a difference on that one by connecting and supporting each other as founders in FounderCircles (if not, find out about joining one here), but at a team level – it’s easy to disengage when you’re super busy, so instead take a moment to have those water-cooler chats, go for lunch with people once in a while and it will feed your team-level connectedness too.


This is all part of a series of articles on keeping it together during tough times:

How to survive downsizing as a founder

Keeping it together when you’re feeling the pinch – a founders’ guide to emotion-regulation

How to drive a sense of URGENCY in your team


Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.

About the FounderFuel Series: Actionable tools and bite-sized insights to empower entrepreneurs and founders to get the best from themselves and those around them as startup and scaleup leaders. Get the fuel direct to your inbox by signing up here.

At weare3Sixty we believe in supporting the humans behind the world’s ambitious startups and our mission is to make sure that every founder and startup leader in the ecosystem has the support and skills to reach their full potential as resilient, high-performing leaders.

Here you’ll find 1:1 founder coaching, team coaching and team training all dedicated to the unique ride that is starting up and scaling up. Not only that, with our group-coaching FounderCircles® you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of other talented founders on the journey too – all committed to fuelling themselves, their teams and each other for the ride.

Calling all accelerators and investment partners: We work in partnership with investors, accelerators and incubators to complement programmes of support and learning with the human side of startup performance. Find out more here.

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