Can Killer Systems Make Up For Lack of Passion Or Vision?

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It’s the ultimate dream for so many, to create a set-it-and-forget-it business.

Set up the systems, walk away and rake in the cash, while you’re off playing with your kids on the beaches of Punta Cana. Sounds nice, right?. This very business model has been touted for decades by many business and entrepreneurship gurus. And, it’s sold billions of dollars of info-products and trainings online.

But, I wonder if the set-it-and-forget strategy has dirty little secret?

That being…it might not work.

Don’t get me wrong, I too am a big fan of systems, they make my life easier and my businesses run smoother. They allow me to pull-back, to take vacations and do other things, while my business hums along. They let me own the #1-rated yoga center in NYC, while spending less than 10 hours a week working “in” the business.

But, I still know, deep down, that if I ever want to walk away, it’ll be to sell the company as I’ve done with prior ventures, not to become a tourist-CEO or fold it into a portfolio and watch it’s slow demise.

Simple fact—Even systems need need passion at the helm.

Any business that is birthed out of a sense of passion-driven mission is fueled, to a large extent, by the unique qualities, abilities, energy and cult-of personality of it’s founding visionary.

You can set up all the systems in the world, but when you pull the visionary out of the vision, without replacing them with someone who possesses similar qualities and abilities, things begin to slide. For most businesses, shuffling a system-implementor into the role of CEO just doesn’t work as a long term solution. At least, I’ve never seen it done in a way that works long term.

And, while sliding someone else with passion into your role might let you live your set it and forget it life…what about theirs?

“But, what about online businesses?” comes the reply…

You know, where it’s really just about order-processing and largely fungible good. Where it’s about creating a product once, then kicking back and letting it generate millions while you sleep?

Can’t those be purely systematized operations?

I don’t think so, on two levels.

  • One, personality may not drive the product or service, but, as long as you have real live human beings working somewhere in the process, vision, personal energy and leadership still play a role. The moment you have people working for you, they need something to believe in. And, I don’t see systems ever being able to supplant this.
  • Two, the vast majority of online products, especially info products fail. And, even the ones that succeed almost always end up burning out and losing their market. Being a successful online marketer means constantly coming up with new products, ideas, hooks, stories, niches and beyond. So, while a single product may end up being a home run, surviving long-term the the business of online marketing, beyond the life a a single product, takes a lot of vision, passion and hard work.

In fact, this phenomenon is not limited to small business.

Witness the debacles of a Jobs-free Apple, a Michael-free Dell, a Phil-free Nike and a Howard-free Starbucks. Here are giant, public, multinational companies, steeped in systems, analysis and testing. Yet, when their visionary founders either took a walk or were punted, the companies began to falter, leading the visionaries to eventually return in an effort to right their ships.

Are there “other factors” involved?

Of course, I don’t mean to oversimplify, but rather to reveal the fact that having someone at the helm with tremendous vision and ability is really important.

All the systems in the world won’t make up for a leader or leadership team who lack the ability to continue to grow and expand the vision, a CEO who’s driven by systems over innovation or worse, a founding visionary who chooses to walk away without ever officially passing the torch.

So, do systems greatly increase the amount of freedom a founding visionary can have from the day to day operations of the business? Sure.

But, do they enable the creation of a set-it-and-forget-it business? Not convinced.

But, as always, I am open to discussion.

What am I missing here, gang?

Let’s discuss…

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16 responses

16 responses to “Can Killer Systems Make Up For Lack of Passion Or Vision?”

  1. This is so right on the money. In isolation, an information product only survives so long. The laws of e-commerce physic apply: a slow heat-death for a product left unattended.

    New products must be created and the customer base must be kept active and alive through constant contact. I don’t see what’s so passive about that.

    On the other hand, it truly is not as much scrambling, exhaustive, and degrading work such as many have to suffer with, so it is a dream to sell, a hope to offer others looking for something better. Over time, the residuals do accumulate.

  2. Great post, Jonathan. Business owners can’t just “forget it”; they can get to the point where they work almost exclusively on the big picture. That requires systems and more importantly, choosing the right person to run the day-to-day operations. But if someone wants to truly “forget it”, sell the business and invest in a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds. Oops, guess “forget it” doesn’t work there either considering the recent volatility. 🙂

  3. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Michael – one of the interesting things to me about the world of internet marketing is how a lot of people call a single product a business. In my experience, just ain’t the case.

    @ George – we’re on the same page, about being active or selling…and about the market these days, yikers!

  4. @Jonathan – Exactly. People “opportunity hop” which is not a business. Rich Schefren is really pounding this point home in his latest Internet Manifesto report, which was a real eye-opener for me.

    A business has a strategy and goals. Snatching at any opportunity that flies in front of your face is not a strategy.

  5. If you have vision, passion, and a systematic approach enabling your ideal prospects to determine if they want to become your ideal clients–you are ahead of most business owners.

    Set-it and forget-it will never be a winning business model.

    I am the Founder & Managing Director of The Strategic Incubator. Our dedicated focus is to equip small business owners(we have Inc 5000 & Fortune 500 as well)with linking one’s strategic vision with tactical revenue-producing execution.

    Having a system is part of the equation.

    Can you have a successful business without passion, but a great system to enable customers to want, find, order, and receive your products and services? YES! We have former clients to prove it.

    However, for most people-I can’t imagine how empty it must be to not

  6. …continued from my earlier rant.

    However, for most people-I can’t imagine how empty it must be to not combine our unique gifts, talents, purpose, & vision with a systematic approach to serving those we were meant to serve in business.

  7. Passion is so powerful that it permeates everything. When a business, any business, is the manifestation of someone’s passion it shows. As customers we get caught up in that passion, even if we don’t know who’s behind it. It’s like a giant magnet attracting us.

    As business owners, passion makes work exciting. It makes us want to share instead of sell. Passion makes us care deeply about our customers because they share our passion. It’s a reason to focus on people instead of money.

    Sure, we can exist in a world of business drones. But as humans we will always be drawn to that wonderful living energy that is passion. How can you automate that ?

  8. Martin says:

    If there was such a thing as a “set and forget” business model I would image the market in that area would become flooded very quickly become unprofitable.
    This is just an opinion, don’t have any evidence to back it up.
    Plus I imagine someone setting up a business that they don’t want to have anything to do with, must be a very boring business. Hard to imagine how a boring business can be successful.
    On the other hand how many hours are required to maintain a business?
    Is “set and forget” just a low maintenance business that requires minimal input?

  9. Even the set it and forget it system needs a human who cares to make sure that everything is working as planned and expected.

    Any system can be improved. But, the only one who can improve it is the human who is trying to remove himself from process. Only the human, with passion and insight will care enough, see enough and know enough to create the next level of innovation.

  10. carolsaha says:

    Network marketing. The model works. Most people that join don’t work it at all, out of the ones who do work it most quit before it becomes self-sustaining. However, there are a few persistent ones who have retired and live off the residual income.

  11. Looks like I’ll be late to the comments party. I have a good excuse, though – I downloaded this to Google Reader in the Qatar airport, and am typing up this note on the way to Colombo, Sri Lanka. 🙂

    This is a great post/essay. I’m actually writing something fairly similar for an upcoming ebook.
    Here’s my take:

    1) In general, I agree — passive income is certainly not what it is often presented to be. Several times I’ve sat in seminar rooms listening to speakers preach the virtues of passivity while working pretty damn hard from the stage. Ironic.

    2) However, there are certain exceptions to this rule that are hard to ignore. Here’s one personal example, and one from a well-known marketer.


    Back in 2001 I created a lead-generation site that I never ended up doing much with. However, I set up a Postmaster Direct (they’re called something else now) form to acquire email addresses from interested prospects. In return, PD sent them approved commercial messages and split the revenue for this with me 50/50. I ended up getting about $300-500 a month on average, which is obviously not a full-time income, but it’s great when you do nothing for it.

    I went to Africa in 2002, and for the next couple of years, those $300+ checks came in almost every month. Eventually, they died out for the same reasons explained in the post — no maintenance or growth from the guy who started the business. BUT, while they were coming in for years, I was pretty thrilled about it, and since I did absolutely nothing for the project except pay $10 to renew the domain every year, I consider that passive income.


    To take it up a level, I look at someone like Yanik Silver, who often gives the example of his site Yanik set up that site years ago, and claims that he still earns “six figures a year” from it with virtually little maintenance. Since I know how Yanik does his other stuff, I tend to believe him.

    That’s passive income, right? Or at least as close as you can get. I’d be curious how anyone could say that it is not an awesome success or something worth shooting for.

    So in summary –

    *Passive income is tough. It’s oversold and under-realized. Don’t believe the hype.

    *But it’s still a goal worth setting, because as Michael said in the first comment, residuals do accumulate. And you never know – maybe you’ll end up with a site that earns $300 a month for years without any work, or even a larger success like Yanik has made.

    That’s my $0.02; others will have their own perspective, of course.

    OK, I have to end this – I’m in Row 35 of this Qatar Airways flight, and it’s a bit cramped. Jonathan, thank you for the thoughtful writing.

  12. […] Entrepreneurial Spirit          Self-Employment- One Selfish Way to Financial Independence Can Killer Systems Make Up For Lack of Passion Or Vision? […]

  13. I agree. I think it’s rare to find a truly autopilot business, although don’t get me wrong, they do exist. But to be truly successful, passion needs to play a part somewhere in the equation.

  14. Ed says:

    To the extent that there is such a thing as passive income, it can be grown by a huge factor if it is actively managed (intelligently). This applies as much to portfolio management, as much as internet sales & any business investment that will ever exist.
    So that treating something passively, means throwing away a large amount of money in lost opportunities.

    And anyone arguing that ‘this other guy is apparently doing it’ is missing the point entirely I think. On the other hand, your own personal stories of success (that don’t involved the income eventually drying up) are more than welcome.

    Personally, I’m re-taking control of my business that was being run by staff for a period of unprecedented decline.

  15. Pete says:

    Why do you never give credit for the photos on your blog? You’re using the pictures for free. The least you could do is have a small link or even just a name at the bottom of the post.

  16. Alan Bonjour says:

    As a business owner that has “lived on coast” for many years (20?) will attest, if you don’t keep your nose stuck in the door, the biz will decline as competition approaches like hungry wolves nearer and nearer your door.

    You can count on if there is a buck out there to be had, others will see it and go for it also.

    BTW, I really like your style. keep it up, and thanks for bringing some real great stuff on my platter.