How to Start a Business—And What Passion Has to Do With It


Ever since Lily in the movie The Princess Diaries said the words, “I told you, I need an attitude adjustment,” I knew that I’d found my soul mate.

I too have a big, fat attitude problem and I let it get in the way of a lot of things that would otherwise make me really happy. For example, a friend’s girlfriend once used the word “like” too many times in a sentence and I decided I couldn’t hang out with her anymore. An acquaintance forgot to respond to my email and he was shunned from every gathering after that.

What did these prejudices leave me with? A much smaller circle of friends and a lot less to do on the weekends…

See what I mean? I need an attitude adjustment.

So it should come as no surprise that when everyone started talking about how essential it was for me to “find my passion,” I was not having it. I was not about having anyone tell me what I needed.

And yet, one day I found myself at a workshop that The Passion Co. was hosting. And you know what? I’m glad I did. It totally changed my perspective. In fact, I wrote an entire post about discovering that my problem was with the word “passion” and not the actual theory behind it. You can read about that here.

So after this change in perspective, I was interested in hearing a little more about The Passion Co. itself and what inspired its founder Jessica Semaan to build it. I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview and couldn’t wait to learn more.

Here’s what she had to say about discovering your own passion and what it’s like starting a company.

Jessica Semaan: Founder of The Passion Company

Where did the idea for The Passion Co. come from?

It started with Jessica’s own personal story. After graduating from Stanford Graduate School of Business, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. She couldn’t find any job that left her feeling fulfilled and it was making her miserable.

Jessica is not the type of person to let her life control her. She was going to take control of it. Instead of letting herself continue on in this cycle of unhappy work, she decided to try to find a way to remedy it. Jessica was no stranger to jumping out of her comfort zone. Born in Lebanon, she had left her family when she moved to the States and had to face the challenges of living in a brand-new environment alone. She used that same strength and determination in her search for a meaningful life and career.

She started with some simple research. What were other, happy people doing differently? Most of the people she met were introduced to her organically. Someone would say something like, “I know a baker—or a watercolorist—who really loves what she does,” and Jessica would see if she could conduct an informational interview with this person.

After talking with these people who were doing what they really loved, she noticed that there were three commonalities in each of their stories.

  • They never focused on their projects as a career. The people that Jessica talked to had started off with side projects. They never expected to turn them into a career. If it happened, it happened. If not, they were still doing what they loved.
  • They had a strong support system. Each person she spoke to had a strong support system to help them—a significant other who was really championing for them, family, or a community who was there to support their pursuits.
  • They were self-aware; not playing the victim. These people knew both their strengths and weaknesses and didn’t dwell on what they couldn’t do. They weren’t stuck in the cycle of being “the victim.” They were quick to accept responsibility and not blame failures or frustrations on someone or something else.

After discovering this formula, Jessica decided that she was going to take these three learnings and make them into a product. Working out of her apartment, she created a pilot program. Then, as demand increased, she realized that she was really onto something and grew it into The Passion Co. Eventually, she was able to quit her job and focus on The Passion Co. full-time.

So what exactly does The Passion Co. offer?

The main program that The Passion Co. offers is called the “Find Your Passion Program.” This is a series of classes that consist of 1 class leader and around 14 participants. Over the course of seven evenings, you learn to connect with your passion, your meaning, and your fear. You learn the tools that will help you overcome your fear and by the end of the program you launch your very own passion project.

There are also events that The Passion Co. puts on for the community. During these events, people who have succeeded in discovering and doing what brings them meaning will talk in a Q and A type of discussion.

The Passion Co. also conducts three-hour workshops that take place at certain companies and these are mostly educational, helping people learn more about discovering their passions.

What was the best part about starting The Passion Co.?

For Jessica, the best part about starting the company was discovering that she was not alone. There were so many other people out there who were also looking for a career that would fulfill them and bring meaning to their lives. It was also amazing for her to see how many people loved what she was doing and wanted to help.

What was the biggest challenge about starting the company?

The biggest challenge was running the operation itself—putting on the physical events. They had passion talks and dinners and it was a lot of work at first, setting up every event, cooking the food, and personalizing everything. With the limited budget they had, it was difficult to create the spaces and presentations they wanted.

How did Jessica overcome this challenge?

One part of it was developing and streamlining the company a little more. Once she was able to bring more value to her clients, she was able to start charging a little more for their services.

The other part of it was learning to live a different lifestyle.

“I haven’t bought any expensive designer things in a while,” she laughs.

So by learning to live within her means and also improving the product, Jessica was able to get The Passion Co. on the right track financially and product-wise. The other key ingredient to creating a sustainable product was building a strong team.

How did Jessica find and build her team?

For The Passion Co., the team developed pretty organically. People saw what Jessica was doing and wanted to help. Then it was just a matter of finding the people who were right for the work.

“Truthfully, not everyone is going to be the right person for your team. It takes a lot of work to find the right people because they are the engine behind the company. They’re who you’re going to be spending all your time with.”

It wasn’t easy to find people who could not only move with the vision of The Passion Co., but who Jessica also loved spending time with. She admits that she definitely made mistakes but that the process became a lot easier once the company defined their core values.

The Passion Co.’s values are connecting honestly, loving yourself and others, flirting with boundaries, taking action, and designing beautiful experiences. Now, when hiring someone, Jessica is able to think about these values and has a better idea about whether a candidate will be a good fit.

“I really keep track of whether they’re going to tell me honestly what they’re thinking when they’re overloaded with work and are feeling overwhelmed. Are they someone who is going to take risks? Flirt with boundaries? Where did they take risks in their previous career? Do they love themselves and are they capable of accepting and loving others?”

With these values in mind, Jessica has been able to build her team and advance the goals of The Passion Co.

So, what are the future goals for The Passion Co.?

Currently, there are two main goals for the company.

The first is to build the world’s largest and most engaged community that believes in living a life of passion and who are actually modeling that.

The second goal is more philosophical. It’s to change the definition of success—the way we talk about it in schools, with each other, at work. Instead of seeing success as who is the richest or who is on top of the pyramid at work, The Passion Co. hopes that it will become more focused on doing something that you care about.

Still, money matters. We can’t live without it. As Jessica found out when conducting her informational interviews, most passion projects weren’t started with the goal of turning them into a career. They were side projects.

What advice does Jessica have for students and recent graduates about balancing a full-time job while working on their side passion project?

Jessica has two lines to share on how to tackle both a day job and a passion side project. The first is that where there’s a will, there’s a way. She knows this is an overused line, but she assures me that that doesn’t make it any less true.

The second line she gives me is a little less “cliché” and a little more R&B (which means it totally resonates with me). She says that everyone should “use as many hours in a day as Beyoncé.”

What does that mean? If you know anything about queen Bey, it’s that she is non-stop getting work done every minute of every day while somehow still having time to cuddle with Blue. It’s insane!

So when Jessica says to “use as many hours in a day as Beyoncé” she’s saying that you can learn to cut down on the time you spend on the not-so-productive parts of your life in order to bring in more meaningful parts. Do you really have to watch ALL ten seasons of Friends this weekend? If you’re really dedicated to starting your passion project, deactivate your Facebook account for a month. Scary thought, I know, but totally worth it.

But it’s not just about limiting your social media time. You also have to learn how to say no to work. Sometimes it’s hard to stop thinking about your job, but it’s essential for keeping yourself sane and creative. Put a limit on the work you do on Saturdays or Sundays and then designate certain times on those days for creative pursuits.

But before you can start a project, you need to figure out what you are passionate about. How can YOU begin your passion discovery?

The Passion Co.

Definitely check out the classes that The Passion Co. offers. Jessica also suggests that you make a couple of lists. Write down what you really, really liked to do when you were young. Write down what you would do if you knew that no one would judge you.

Another good exercise to do is to write your obituary. It sounds a little strange but it really forces you to reflect. If you died tomorrow, who would you want to be remembered as? What do you want to be remembered for?

Then starting thinking about active steps you can take to build that life. What could you do today that aligns with who you want to be at 80 or 90?

And what about those students and recent graduates who have that entrepreneurial spirit? What general advice does Jessica have for those who are interested in starting their own businesses?

Prototype, prototype, prototype. Jessica can’t stress enough the importance of looking deep into your project and generating an idea that is actually logical and useful.

“If you’re building an app, don’t spend your first weeks trying to find an engineer. Really think about the problem that you’re trying to solve with that app.”

Don’t let yourself focus on the fact that you’re going to need to raise money. First and foremost, you need to make sure that what you’re building makes sense and that you have a functioning prototype. She encourages everyone to start with something small and scrappy and keep working on it until it becomes a strong product.

She also hopes that young entrepreneurs keep two things in mind:

  • The Black Swan Effect. Not every company is going to make it big. And that’s probably not going to be your company. But that’s okay. Don’t feel like you’re a failure because you read an article about a $12 billion company that is only five years old. That’s one company.
  • All companies struggle in the beginning. No one really talks about the struggle that came at the start of creating and building a company. Once you’re successful, you don’t really talk about how hard it was at the beginning—how you hired someone and then had to fire them and were hungry and tired all the time.

“That is my biggest wish,” Jessica says, “Talk about your struggles. Make it real for people so that they’re not intimidated and scared and don’t feel like a failure.”

Whether you’re starting a business or finding your passion, you’re definitely going to hit a few bumps along the way. That doesn’t mean you should stop or feel like a failure. Instead, talk about those shortcomings. Tell others about the time you set up an event that was too big for your company or when you got rejected by that big wig at the start-up event.

Homework time! Jessica started out simple. Just asking people about their passion projects and how they got started. Begin conducting some informational interviews of your own. Explore the options that you have both in your career and your life. Don’t be afraid to jump out of your comfort zone.

Tell us about you! Have a cool story about discovering what brings meaning into your life? Please share with us in the comment section below.


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