Ikigai for Startups: Don't just follow your passion

Have you seen an old person who is poor yet happy? How about successful yet feeling empty or without purpose? Does the answer lie in passion? Well, it seems the purpose of life is Ikigai - apply this concept to Startups and we can drive you and your Startup further.

This is useful for people who are thinking of starting a Startup, Founders who are running a Startup, and for the staff of Startups. 

First up, the basics of Ikigai

Ikigai (生き甲斐, pronounced [ikiɡai]) is a Japanese concept that means "a reason for being." It is similar to the French phrase, raison d'être


Everyone, according to Japanese culture, has an Ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self. Such a search is important to the cultural belief that discovering one's Ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life. For some, it might be work, hobbies, or raising children.

There are only four foundations to Ikigai.

What you Love

What you are good at

What you can be paid for

What the world needs

Below is the Ikigai concept in a diagram with the explanations. The empty triangles described on the four corners are the result for what's missing in your life. For example, if you are are not doing something you love, then you will feel comfortable, but empty.

ikigai reason to start a startup
Ikigai explained - the four things you have ideally before starting your Startup

The above shows the ideal conditions for you to have a fulfilled life. Not everyone achieves all four Ikigai foundations. Many leave this world with 2 or 3 Ikigai foundations. I observe millions of people in what people call the rat race. People doing 9-5 jobs or running their small shops for their entire life. Partly from the fear of taking risks, and sadly, sometimes because they cannot afford to take any risks in life. But that should not be what life is about.

This brings me to Startups. Why? Simply because to achieve Ikigai, change is needed in life. Changes that align all four foundations are so rare in regular jobs that you probably need to create your own job - your Startup. Consider the following.

For example, you may have a job doing what you're good at and of course, you are being paid for it. But is it necessarily something you love to do, or what the world needs?

Starting up a business can be the answer to achieving what the world needs. Getting paid for it is the result.

However - fair warning - Startups are incredibly hard to transform into a successful business. Startups require their own fundamentals (explained later). Startups require huge amounts of time and effort - it is as tough or tougher than raising a kid. Make a few Startup mistakes and you're done - out of the game.

Ikigai for Startups

I will break this part into Ikigai for Founders, and then there is Ikigai for the Startup itself (I am often surprised how companies can be analysed as a single person). Let's begin.

Ikigai for Founders

The meaning of life is to find your gift.The purpose of life is to give it away.

Pablo Picaso

Follow your passion is a bad quote.

Still, it is a very appealing one at that - not many people are following their passion, but everyone wants to! The problem is that having passion does not necessarily include what you can be paid for and what the world needs. This is why Ikigai is good - it is a complete framework for a true purpose.

What Ikigai should feel like

Once you find your purpose through your Startup, you should feel the need to work on your purpose constantly. You should be satisfied with what you do most of the time. Your life should be comfortable enough to continue your purpose. You will be energised by the purpose itself. A feeling of being whole and complacent. Can we just say finding your purpose is a means to finding happiness?

In a Startup, what does Ikigai mean for the Founder? From my experience, I suspect it means to sacrifice. To sacrifice your personal life, to sacrifice your time and money - all to achieve your purpose and happiness.

For example - Founders often use friends & family money (in addition to their own) to start their business - often burning it up in no time. Your work hours stretch to the point that you do not have free time for your family. You take the extra initiatives to make everything perfect for your customers. All this comes from what you love and what you're good at (or will be good at).

Starting a Startup is in the pursuit of what the world needs, and, eventually what you can be paid for.

Why is that so? Usually, Entrepreneurs need to find out what customers need - angd get paid for it!

This is what I ask every Startup founder I meet. Are you serving the right target market? Do they really have a pain point for what you are offering? Are they willing to pay for your solution? Is the market big enough for VCs to be interested? This brings us to the next part.

Ikigai for the Startup itself

To fulfil what the world needs, and, eventually what you can be paid for, Startups need to solve what we at NEXEA call Startup Fundamentals

Here is the short version:

You need to solve a problem so painful that an entire market segment wants to pay you to fix it. This ensures a real market need.

Your solution needs to be 10X better than what's in the market. Cheaper too, if possible. This ensures that people will switch to your product.

Your potential revenues need to be huge enough. This ensures you get Venture Capital funding

The business model needs to be able to make a huge profit in the later stages. This ensures your business can be sold eventually.

Ensuring the above Startup Fundamentals will help greatly in achieving the two Ikigai requirements. But what about what you love and what you're good at?

How do we apply these Ikigai concepts to a Startup?

It is very simple - What a Startup loves to do and what a Startup is good at comes down to the team. It is the average thing that the team loves to do and is good at doing. It is simpler to picture for a small Startup of 5, but can get complex for a large company with 1000 employees. However, it should be broken down into teams in departments.

For example, the social media team in the marketing department should love social media. Ideally, they are also very good at marketing the Startups product on social media too. It is what the company needs, rather than what the world needs, but that will do for now. It is also what the staff are being paid for.

If you are a Staff member of a company, you should ensure you have Ikigai where you are. Otherwise, you should let your boss know where else you belong - because logically, that is where you will perform best for what your boss pays you. Return of Investment.

If it is not possible to achieve at least 2 or 3 of the Ikigai for now, then waiting for or creating opportunities for your future is important for you and your company.

If you are a Founder, let me suggest this.

Optimising Ikigai across your company will ensure overall staff happiness, and of course, company performance.

Not only should Founders or Startup have Ikigai - every Staff member should too.

Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.

Richard Branson

What's Next?

I hope you've enjoyed the above and I hope it adds value to your life and Startup (or future Startup).

Now that you understand and see the power of Ikigai, the next step is sharing the knowledge with co-founders, partners and staff!

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Written by Ben Lim

I am the Founder & Managing Partner at NEXEA, a startup investment group in Southeast Asia. We have invested in the idea stage to pre-A Startup investments around the region.

We fund the best Founders and provide them with an edge via mentoring & networks by the best investors.

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