Are you an entrepreneurial missionary or mercenary

On the face of it, private sector enterprises exist primarily for reasons of financial profit. But does that mean the entrepreneurs behind these ventures have to be as narrow in their intentions?

By definition, an entrepreneur sets up a business on the basis of taking on financial risks in the hope of profit. However, not all entrepreneurs are driven by the same motivations, and motivation is what defines the culture of a company, determining the kind of success it might have. Randy Komisar, partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, made an observation about what he sees as the two predominant strains of companies, both of which are able to survive and thrive very differently. He labelled them the Mercenary and the Missionary.

The Mercenary

According to Komisar, in a mercenary business culture there is ‘drive’. This represents an aggressive approach to leading a business, focusing largely on the bottom-line of financial statements, agonising over click-rates and user-numbers without much anxiety concerning the meaning beyond those figures. Mercenary company builders are characterised as opportunists with their calculations tending to be made with a short-term outlook. With their ‘sprint’ mentality, the leaders of these companies evaluate results by obsessive comparison to the competition. They tend to be the people with the original, clear business objectives, and maintain their vision and seats of power by operating under a form of aristocracy, or even autocracy. Komisar suggested that these leaders lack a genuine purpose, and sustain themselves through a pure ambition to clinch the next deal. In his experience, mercenaries often seem to be working toward their post-work lives having hastily earned enough money to abdicate their executive throne.

The Missionary

By contrast, Komisar’s account of the typical missionary business leader implies a more expansive attitude to the building of a company. For these people, there is ‘passion’ rather than drive, and they tend to concern themselves less about what they do than how they do it. There is no sprint for short-term gain; they are most often in it for the marathon and their company is their life’s work. One apt example of this would be Nike, and their attempts to 'bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world'. Rather than solely looking for what they can get out of their business, their aim has been to somehow contribute with their business. Komisar’s view is that missionary-culture companies tend to prioritise lasting, successful strategic partnerships rather than simply looking for the next lucrative handshake, and are generally more open to other ideas from within their organisation, functioning as more of a meritocracy. Without disregarding the financial requirements of being successful, they often have a more benevolent and motivating purpose, with the overarching objective to achieve and elevate that purpose.

Value versus values

It comes down to the objective of the business. Hard-nosed ambition is a valuable quality in any business leader and it can produce quick successes in achieving short-term gains. A mercenary that is upfront about their objectives can reasonably consider the success of their company on the basis of those rudimentary terms, by placing the ultimate emphasis on value. A no-nonsense, buy low, sell high arrangement might be the perfect way to operate in their industry. However, as we have seen, having particular financial expectations isn’t the only way to run and evaluate a business. The missionary entrepreneur will have a definition of success that goes beyond the balance sheet, keeping in mind the values they wish to preserve.

There is no absolutely correct manner. It is a matter of priorities and perhaps in reality it is not so opposed. Prospering missionary-types might cultivate a benevolent image but they too require a high level of ambition and zeal, whilst successful mercenaries survive because making money is a rational motive for starting a business. Besides, history is littered with examples of short-term avarice that have left a legacy of progress. Many lasting developments such as the automobile and aerospace industries came about because of speculative mania and the scent of quick-money.

Of course, there is nothing to say that an entrepreneur who is driven to make a quick buck can’t go on to invest in a company with a passionate spirit. At the end of the day, anyone who starts and maintains a successful business has the right to assess their own success as they see fit.

What approach to entrepreneurship might work best for you? Move towards a greater understanding of what it takes to successfully run a business with a Global MBA (Entrepreneurship).

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