Can start-ups really change the World?

10:11 AM

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In start-up land it seems that the "advice de jour" is that you must be "changing the world" or you are likely to bore the heck out of people or catch the wrath of the many bloggers that inhabit start-up land.

This past week the blog World was ripe with posts and comments from Techcrunch50 with a fairly heavy leaning or lamenting that the current round of participants were not "trying to change the world" You are supposed to be changing the world.

This idea of changing the world has long been echoed by venture capitalists, who along with the standard "we invest in teams, profitable business models" often say you must be changing the world. Guy Kawasaki, a well known advisor and speaker has even named his Blog - How to Change the World.

So can start-ups really change the World and what is the World?
  • If you are a desk jockey working for the man, then your world is that constrained space you are dying to get out of so you might start that first business to escape one World and create a new World for you and your family, which for a lot of people is a pretty important World
  • If your World is a particular passion like social service than you might create a business that makes a huge difference to those that you are passionate towards. Take for example Kiva, these founders had a passion for helping people rise from poverty and they significantly advanced the process for micro-lending, which has made a huge difference in the World of those people. Kiva has lent millions of dollars, which is really only a fraction of the billions that have gone into fighting poverty globally, but does that mean they have not met the game changing threshold because they are not the number 1 or 2 lender on the Planet fighting poverty?, of course not.
  • If your World is the Planet Earth than you might create Facebook but of even with 300 million users it's not really the whole World it's just a subsection of the 6 billion people on this planet who happen to socialize in a certain way, so is it really changing the World?, well given that it is the number one social network for people who socialize that way, then I guess so at least for them.
The challenge with using the term "World" is that it is generally used to mean all encompassing and huge and that is, as with many things, a bit of a distortion. I think what people really should be saying is "don't be incremental" best articulated by Tim O'Reilly So, here is my advice:
  • Don't leave that desk jockey job in an IT services company and start another IT services company that is cheaper or more responsive because you have less overhead and you are excited to work for yourself on the weekends
  • Don't copy Kiva's micro-lending model and make a few improvements to the Web interface
  • Don't just make Facebook applications so that you can gain access to their vast user base
Think about what you can do to make some really significant change to a particular World however big or small that World is and don't confuse your World with someone else's World.

And finally, always remember, as a start-up your World changing business may not be big enough to intrigue a venture capitalist or escape the wrath or boredom of the esteemed judges, advisers and angel investors that like to hang around the start-up world and that is fine.

Just make sure that you understand the World that you are in and your place in it and act accordingly.

Ed Loessi

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2 Responses to "Can start-ups really change the World?"

Anonymous said :
September 22, 2009 at 10:33 AM
Good post. The only thing I would disagree with is your last bullet point. Writing something like a Facebook application _can_ be a "world" changing thing, especially since it can be done by 1 person, or a small team, on a small budget. It can also lead to something much bigger (perhaps envisioned in advance, where the app was the hook.
Ed Loessi said :
September 27, 2009 at 6:19 PM

Thanks for the comment and a good point on how you can build on an idea by first trialing it with something that has a large amount of traction such as Facebook. As part of a larger strategy that makes a lot of sense.

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