Cover photo for Philip I. Thomas

Hacking Dopamine for Entrepreneurial Success: Lessons from Neuroscience

Philip I. Thomas
Entrepreneurship can be an exhilarating journey, but it's not without its moments of despair, particularly during the "trough of sorrow." In the aftermath of a product launch, startup founders often experience a significant dip in motivation as the initial spike in usage fades. To address this challenge, I experimented with increasing visibility into my app's activity, hoping it would boost my motivation. It was only this week that I listened to Andrew Huberman's latest podcast Leverage Dopamine to Overcome Procrastination & Optimize Effort, which explained the science behind why my experiment worked.

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with motivation, plays a critical role in driving our actions. Huberman breaks down the process into three steps: 1) desiring something and experiencing an anticipatory spike of dopamine; 2) the dopamine receding, leaving us craving more; and 3) achieving the desired outcome and receiving another spike of dopamine. The key to sustained motivation, however, lies in the cues our brain uses to determine progress between steps 1 and 3. If we feel like we are progressing toward our goals, then we feel motivated.
When I launched my product Postcard in November tens of thousands of people visited the homepage - and I received occasional "New paying customer" push notifications from Stripe. But, as signup numbers slowed, I hit the trough of sorrow in December, and "New Customer" push notifications felt like they had stopped. I felt dissuaded and discussed the situation with my business coach Justin. We decided to conduct an experiment to create more signals of traction before somebody paid. I set up email notifications for everything - new signups, posts, logins, and even visits to the signup page. The hypothesis was that creating more frequent signals of traction would help me internalize that people were still using the product.

Not long after setting up the emails, I received the first notification - "Signup page visit." Then the second - "New user signup". Then, the third - "New paying customer." Somebody had gone from visitor to paid customer within a few minutes. My brain connected that "Signup page visit" could lead to "New paying customer." As I received more "Signup page visit" emails over the following days, I felt like my work was contributing to growth, and that motivated me.

At a fundamental level, these notifications follow a user conversion funnel. Although I need more data for conversion rate analysis, the notifications offer valuable qualitative insights into where efforts should be focused. Whether you need to improve your landing page or encourage users to pay, understanding where in the funnel users stop can help you decide where to focus efforts. These types of notifications about user actions because they arrive seemingly randomly. They are intermittent rewards that reinforce our behavior.  As soon as cues start to feel consistent - it's crucial to turn them off (or rethink them) because they no longer create a feeling of scarcity that drives our actions.

Over time, the experiment of adding notifications has proven successful – for the first time since my launch, revenue is up 50% month over month. In absolute terms, the numbers are still small, but growth is happening without the help of Product Hunt. I see glimmers of emerging from the trough of sorrow - and those glimmers, in the form of email cues, keep me motivated.

Does sending yourself a ton of notifications to cue a behavior sound familiar? That's because it's the mechanism social media sites use to keep you coming back. However, dopamine isn't inherently bad; it's a natural part of our neurochemistry. A mouse without dopamine won't walk over to its food.  In a world where others can manipulate our dopamine circuits, it's only fair to use the same science to achieve our goals.

For founders grappling with similar obstacles, implementing notifications for user-driven activities, such as registrations, logins, or transactions, can be an effective method to maintain motivation. As Cal Newport emphasizes, "Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity." By understanding the neurobiology underlying motivation, we can adopt measures to keep us showing up and enable us to focus more when we work, leading to more accomplishment of our goals.