Serial Entrepreneur Jeff Hoffman Urges Startup Festival Crowd to Make a Difference

At International Startup Festival this week Jeff Hoffman walked on stage and spoke about travelling to the Middle East to indoctrinate post-revelatory Egyptians on the benefits of entrepreneurship.

One might have questioned the motives behind such a trip, and how well a balding American man in a suit sent from the White House would resonate with a predominately Muslim population undergoing political upheaval. The thought of protestors in chaotic Tahrir Square eagerly scrambling to construct a mock panel discussion full of US venture capitalists made me grin.

Hoffman couldn’t be more different than your typical one-percenter though. His message of investing in social good rather than outright returns went beyond corporate social responsibility. This method of thinking focuses on the “triple bottom—people, planet and profits.” Hoffman urged the crowd to first focus on people and planet, and the profits will naturally follow. 

Hoffman is a serial entrepreneur, having built several successful businesses including Priceline, Ubid and ColorJar. He currently works for several US government departments to support business and economic growth initiatives all over the world while serving as both a board member and mentor for several foundations and universities. Aside from his work in Egypt he has travelled t several continents promoting entrepreneurship as a path to a better future.

His message to the crowd in Montreal on Friday was to build companies based on a passion and to help others rather than solely making money. His motivation? What people would say about him at his funeral.

“I realized in my case I would like the measure of success to be the number of people’s lives that I made better,” said Hoffman. “I wanted to achieve things that matter to me.”

He asks entrepreneurs what their dreams are rather than what their financial projections are. When people are driven by purpose, according to Hoffman, they far outperform people who are driven by money.

“We’re really good at analyzing spreadsheets and projections but we really don’t spend enough time analyzing lives,” he said. “What were trying to find out is what difference is this human being going to make in the world instead of just saying, will the business you’re working on right now generate profits in the near term.”

Surely some entrepreneurs aren’t building a company that seeks to change the world. Some people just want to build a fun app.

“That’s kind of weak,” he said. “Your company may not change the world but your life can.” People are still free to donate profits from their business or volunteer with various causes on night and weekends.

At times Hoffman’s diction made his keynote seem like televangelism. One could have wondered if the Startup Fest monitors beside him were to suddenly feature a phone number for donations.

But Hoffman showed a genuine passion for giving back to fellow entrepreneurs and urged the crowd to build their businesses around what he called a “higher purpose.” He spoke of friends he met on various missions, like one who heard that more people die from unclean drinking water than wars and violence. That friend built a cost-effective clean drinking water solution and in the first African country where the solution was applied, according to Hoffman’s numbers, “infant mortality went down by 75 percent.”

“When you have a purpose that is bigger than ‘I want to get rich’ you will be an amazing entrepreneur. And guess what? You’ll get rich anyways because the world will reward you for creating value in your passion,” he said.