Passion as a Competitive Advantage

My roof is leaking. In five places. Whoever thought it was a good idea to build a house with a flat roof should be forced to duplicate Google’s PageRank algorithm in assembler.

So I called a roofer, Fred, to give me a quote to fix this mess. His skin is like leather and his voice sounds like a cheese grater…signs of a good roofer in my book. And damn does this guy knows what he’s talking about.

Expertise is fascinating. On the web we marvel at the forward-thinking genius of Paul Graham or the design expertise of 37 Signals. But a lot of industries don’t have this.

People who put hot tar on roofs do not tend to talk about the passion they have for their trade.

But the first thing Fred did when he saw my roof was to get downright upset at the shoddy work. They hadn’t sealed a roof jack correctly, and had left the flange outside of the [insert technical sounding word here] so they had to seal it with [hot something or other] and it was a complete kludge. There were at least six other comments along this line.

To me it looked like a normal roof. To him it was an insult to his craft.

Fred gave me a few options for fixing the leaks – a cheap one ($400) that would fix a few things but may leak as soon as next year, a more expensive one ($2400) that would fix everything and last 2-5 years, and a brand new roof ($6300) that would fix everything for 20 years.

And the look on Fred’s face when he was giving me the options was like something you see when you hand a developer a legacy website that’s suddenly started crashing under the weight of its own processing. He opens the code and sees calls that don’t close database connections, no database column indexes, and a snarl of spaghetti he knows will take a few months to untangle.

Sure, he can throw some hours at it and patch a few holes. But in the end the site will never scale and most of it will have to be re-written if anyone ever plans to take it big.

Passion translates into something incredible. It motivates co-workers, bosses, partners, investors and customers. People know when they’re in the presence of someone who really cares about their code/product/startup. Passion is impossible to hide.

If you don’t have passion for your code/product/startup everyone will know. It’s obvious you aren’t that into it, and people will not take you seriously. Without passion it’s impossible to convince people to believe in your vision.

Passion translates into being insulted when people don’t care about things as much as you do and are willing to hack a crappy solution together. It’s an insult to you, your product and your craft.

Whether you’re trying to get hired, promoted, funded or close a sale…passion wins. Ask Gary Vaynerchuk or Seth Godin.

I encourage you to show your passion for the one thing you care about most in your work. If doing so causes problems you’re in the wrong place. There is a home for people who are passionate about pretty much anything, you just need to find the partner/company/customer who is passionate about the same thing you are.

Fred shows up tomorrow to install my new roof. I have a feeling it won’t be shoddy when he’s done with it.

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#1 Kalpesh on 11.19.09 at 11:39 am


Even if Fred is not passionate (in a developer view of word), he seems professional.

#2 Giancarlo Corzo on 11.19.09 at 1:49 pm

I think passion about your craft it’s a great sales tool only if the market is willing to pay more for a great work otherwise passion will matters only to yourself.

So choose a market that cares and will pay for a great service or product.

#3 David Lowe on 11.19.09 at 2:44 pm

Agreed. To add an anecdote of my own: the painter I have hired repeatedly earned my loyalty when, his first hour here to paint a bedroom, he begged for permission to fix some unrelated places in the living room: “I won’t be able to sleep tonight unless I can fix those edges,” he said.

#4 Kathy Rees on 11.19.09 at 6:59 pm

If you want the cliff notes for Gary’s new book Crush It you can get them here

#5 Jason Cohen on 11.20.09 at 2:51 pm

Agreed, but with a caveat: You also must have COMPETENCE.

What you’re describing is deep competence, not (just) passion.

I know lots of people who care a lot and work hard but just aren’t good at their job. Passion is NOT enough by itself.

#6 Weekend miscellany — The Endeavour on 11.21.09 at 8:01 am

[…] Passion as a competitive advantage […]

#7 Dave Rau on 11.21.09 at 10:00 pm

I have a few “flat roof” web sites on my plate right now, doing design and front-end clean-up on expensive, but shite backend code. Passion always gets the best of me and I put in lots of extra hours I don’t charge the client, because I want to do things the proper way and leave it better than I found it.

“People who put hot tar on roofs do not tend to talk about the passion they have for their trade.”

Rob this is so true. As a web designer I struggle to pull this passion out of people and turn that into writing/content for their site. Passionate people have strong reactions like your new roofer; poor work gets us down, but opportunities come along too and it’s easy to get excited about possibilities.

This article is a good challenge for me to bring more passion to my work and help support other people’s passions.

#8 Anonymous on 11.22.09 at 11:13 am

I sure wish I knew how to distinguish passion (plus competence) from the salestalk replica… I’ve had a lot of trouble finding good contractors for my house…

#9 Sue VanHattum on 11.22.09 at 11:13 am

(oops. I didn’t mean to be anonymous…

#10 Rob on 11.23.09 at 12:15 am

@Sue – There aren’t many passionate contractors; this is why it seems so hard to tell the difference. The truth is that 98 out of 100 are not passionate, thus it will seem like you can’t tell them apart. When in fact, you will be able to spot a passionate contractor quite easily when you see them.

BTW – I’ve heard about all of the best contractors I know through referrals – either from a small, local hardware store or from other contractors.

#11 Sue VanHattum on 11.23.09 at 10:10 am

I try to go through referrals, but even those don’t always pan out.

I hope that’s wrong about being able to recognize them easily, because I think I’ve found a good plumber, and I’d like to have him replace all my bad old plumbing. But I’ll double-check, see if the Berkeley Parents Network recommends him…

#12 Paul on 08.20.10 at 4:59 pm

Yes. Go Fred! Good comparison to coding. How’s the roof doing so far?

#13 Rob on 08.20.10 at 5:43 pm

It’s only been 9 months, but it’s tight as a drum. No problems.

#14 Companies | The View from Office 227 on 10.30.10 at 12:17 pm

[…] build.  The secret has been and always will be working with passionate leaders and coworkers. Rob Walling wrote a short essay on this awhile back that I think about occasionally – his title was dead-on correct – Passion is a Competitive […]

#15 Ahmed on 12.05.10 at 1:32 am

Excellent post Rob.
Passion is number one reason for every success.