This is a guest post from Tim Clark, who writes about money and meaning at Soul Shelter.

Looking across the living room of his expansive flat in Hong Kong’s tony Victoria Peak neighborhood, Peter Hamilton spoke in the calm, slightly world-weary voice of a man who will never again worry about earning a living.

“The ones who made it,” he said softly, “are the ones who weren’t in it for the money. The fortune-seekers couldn’t sustain their passion through the hard times — and there were hard times.”

A transplanted Brit who launched a Web production company in Hong Kong in 1995, Hamilton was one of a handful of Internet entrepreneurs in the island colony who enjoyed a multimillion dollar payday after his firm was acquired by a company that later went public on NASDAQ.

What entrepreneurship is not
Peter Hamilton is not alone. In interview after interview throughout Japan, Asia, and North America, successful entrepreneurs told me the same thing, in different words and in different languages: “It’s not about the money.”

What, then, is entrepreneurship about? Exploiting a market opportunity? Fame? Fortune? Proving yourself?

First, some tips as to what entrepreneurship’s not about:

  • Entrepreneurship is not about you.
  • It’s not about you getting rich.
  • It’s not about you proving something to the world.
  • It’s not about you struggling to overcome the odds.

Rather, entrepreneurship is about you helping other people to achieve their goals.

This is obvious when you think about it. Business is all about satisfying customers, right? Well, to satisfy customers, you need to help them save money, solve annoying problems, experience more satisfaction or pleasure, or earn a better living.

Put simply, in order to succeed as an entrepreneur, you must help other people.

What entrepreneurship is
Entrepreneurship, therefore, is about helping other people achieve their goals. It’s not about you. Successful entrepreneurs focus on others. Take Derek Sivers, for example. As the leader of a successful touring band, he needed a way to make his CDs available to fans everywhere, all the time — not just at concerts.

But Derek and his group were unattached to a major label, and big sellers like CDNow and Amazon required bands to have in-place agreements with large distributors. What was a hard-working, independent musician to do?

Derek decided to set up his own modest online sales channel, and soon friends from other bands were asking for help selling their music. Within a couple of years, the store, renamed CD Baby, was distributing the work of more than 90,000 artists. To date, it’s paid out more than $70 million to the 200,000 independent artists it now represents. Derek focused on helping others.

Successful entrepreneurs like Derek undertake ventures that benefit many people. My personal theory (completely lacking empirical evidence) is that ventures are successful to the degree that they generate social benefits. I’m no fan of Microsoft’s products or business practices, but who can deny that the company enabled personal computing for a billion citizens? (Too bad Apple missed its chance to make that contribution — we’d probably all be a much mellower bunch.)

Success as an entrepreneur isn’t about you — it’s about helping others achieve goals you care about.

Photo by skyseeker.

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