Michael Ellsberg: Four Reasons Why Passive Income Is a Destructive Fantasy

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, skmurphy

I make a distinction between wanting to move beyond running a services business where you bill by the hour to either selling results or selling a product and entrepreneurs attracted to the passive income fantasies of the “Four Hour Work Week.” When an entrepreneur tells me that the “Four Hour Work Week” has been a strong influence on their thinking I worry that they are unfamiliar with what’s required to build a successful business.

You Can’t Stay Ahead of Competition Passively

I found Michael Ellsberg‘s critique “Four Reasons Why Passive Income is a Dangerous Fantasy” to be on point.

1. You Can’t Stay Ahead of Competition Passively: If your research really does determine that there is some amazing market niche that until now has miraculously gone unnoticed and unserved—dog owners who wish to help their dogs lose weight naturally, for example—sooner or later, word is going to get out that there’s money to be made there, and someone is going to create a better ebook or info course or product that serves that market’s needs better than yours does, and who markets it better to them than you do. You can’t manage this competition while sipping margaritas all day from your paradise restaurant on Fiji. You’ll soon see your market share go down the drain—just like all those Açai cleanses…

I had a conversation with an entrepreneur who had been bootstrapping for three years successfully who said, “I keep waiting for it to get easier. When in your experience does it get easier?” I said that I don’t think it ever does. We brainstormed two lists:

  • Why it stays hard
  • Why it gets easier  (at least in some ways)

Why It Stays Hard

  • Established technical expertise has to be renewed, this takes time away from sales/marketing, product development,
  • Competitors react to your success, either copying it or acting to nullify it if you have been winning business from them.
  • Customer needs change over time, in response to changes in environment and earlier success in satisfying them.
  • Growth requires you to place larger bets; not growing or staying small for the sake of staying small risks stagnation in other ways.
  • The business environment can change rapidly and unpredictably
    • New technologies can obsolete existing products and services, and put categories of expertise at risk
    • New competitors and new business models emerge
    • Markets you operate in become commoditized, sometimes without warning.

Why It Gets Easier (At Least In Some Ways)

  • Soft skills accumulate
  • Paying customers come back and buy again — assuming you have happy customers
    • There is also an opportunity or referrals from happy customers.
  • Partner relationships that are well established allow you take action more quickly
  • Reputation accumulates (this can also work against you).

You Cannot Maintain Customer Relationships Passively

2. You Can’t Maintain a Loyal Tribe of Customers Passively: As soon as your customers realize that you don’t care about them (which you don’t, if you’re trying to get away from them as fast as possible), they will eventually go elsewhere, to someone else who actually does care about them and their needs.

If you don’t engage with your customers, if you want to little to no contact with them, then it’s unlikely you are gong to be able to detect and anticipate emerging requirements, rectify shortcomings with your current offering, or respond to what competitors are telling them.

You Cannot Lead a Great Team Passively

3. You Can’t Lead Great Teams Passively: If you’re going to be building a large, scalable business, sooner or later you’re going to need employees and/or freelancers. You’re not going to attract great talent for the long run by indicating to them that you have no interest in being involved in the business whatsoever. Some people obsessed with “passive income” say, in response, “No problem, I’ll just hire a leader to do all that managing, motivating, and creating stuff!” What you’re essentially saying, then, is that you’re adding zero value to the equation. You’re not coming up with the ideas, you’re not implementing/executing the ideas, and your not leading anyone to implement or execute them.

Buying stock in a company is a great way to create passive income, but that cannot be confused with entrepreneurship.  If you are not going to be able to contribute to one or more of technical insights, product leadership, customer intimacy, operational excellence,  or revenue generation then you are not really adding value to the business. You should be a passive investor.

You Cannot Discover or Pursue Your Life Purpose Passively

4. You Can’t Create Meaning, Passion, or Purpose in Your Life Passively: I’ve had several conversations recently with people in their twenties who have built up some semblance of moderate passive income.  These people are (for now) living the dream–they get to travel to Fiji or some other exotic location on a shoestring and hang out on the beach, funded by their little niche ebook or whatever.  Yet none of these people I’ve talked to who have this temporarily successful lifestyle seem very happy. They actually seem kind of restless and lost. I’ve had conversations with several of them to help them determine “what the purpose of their life is” now that they have some amount of money coming in from some little passive venture they don’t even care about that much. It all feels empty to them.

This lines up with Arthur Brooks’ “A Formula for Happiness” where he recounts research that identifies the key drivers for happiness

  1. Genetics
  2. Big life events
  3. Choices

The bad news is that first two account for about 88% of baseline happiness and are not under your control. So, what choices can you make that influence the remaining 12%? Brooks suggests:

  • Faith: thinking about the transcendental, the things that are not of this world, and incorporating them into your life.
  • Family: having solid family relationships; the things that cannot and should not go away.
  • Community: cultivating important friendships and being charitable toward others in your community.
  • Work: marrying our passions to our skills, empowering us to create value in our lives and in the lives of others.

Rewarding Work is Essential

Brooks’ key take-away is that rewarding work is essential:

“I learned that rewarding work is unbelievably important, and this is emphatically not about money. That’s what research suggests as well. Economists find that money makes truly poor people happier insofar as it relieves pressure from everyday life — getting enough to eat, having a place to live, taking your kid to the doctor. But scholars like the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman have found that once people reach a little beyond the average middle-class income level, even big financial gains don’t yield much, if any, increases in happiness.

So relieving poverty brings big happiness, but income, per se, does not. Even after accounting for government transfers that support personal finances, unemployment proves catastrophic for happiness. Abstracted from money, joblessness seems to increase the rates of divorce and suicide, and the severity of disease.”
Arthur Brooks in  “A Formula for Happiness

Ellsberg concludes with an interview with Bryan Franklin who recommends a focus on leverage in a business you care about:

“Every time I’ve seen someone create a business, with the ultimate intention of getting away from that business and its customers as quickly as possible, instead of moving towards that business and its customers, it fails.”

“What makes business work is creating value. If you’re going into the business with the intention of not creating value, but of having it magically provide money for you, then you often make really bad choices. The business that you’re investing in or creating doesn’t tend to be creating value for its customers or for anyone. So it doesn’t tend to spit off the cash you’re hoping it will.

“If you make your choices based on, not ‘how can I get money for free?’ but on, ‘What challenge can I put in front of my face that’s going to have me step up to be the kind of person I’d rather be?’ you’re going to start to forget about wanting passive income, and you’re going to start to focus on what purpose you truly want to create the world.”
Bryan Franklin

See also


Update Aug 2-2-14: When I selected my “Ten Quotes for Bootstrappers from July 2014” I added this postscript to the Bryan Franklin quote that I thought I would append here as well:

I think the Four Hour Work Week has offered a mirage that has lured more bootstrappers onto the rocks than “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” The belief that you don’t need to care about your customers and manage your business to succeed is at least as productive as “my product is so good I don’t need to learn how to market and sell it.”

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