Beyond the money, the value of a far reaching vision for startups

It is not far-fetched to say that at the heart of our current economic system (aka capitalism) entrepreneurship is still the energy connecting the collective economic effort to the humble individual starting from the scratch. Like a soul to a body, without entrepreneurs the system will grow old of ideas and renewal, vegetating into and stand still until it probably stops and collapse. The entrepreneur is still the representative of a heroic human endeavor on a system too complex, and machine like, to understand in its totality. They reduce the complexity to just a small business starting up; with the hopes, dreams and conviction of one day make it so big that the need, the problem, the user, that inspired the venture in the first place, is transformed by its solution via products or services.

And yes, this may sound like a romantic quest compared to business books, courses, and MBA’s; all teaching about competitive advantage, and reducing the motive to being able to make more money than your competitors can. However, in regards to teaching about following a dream, a passion, a crazy ideal, these “ivy league schools” have been notoriously lacking anything to bring into the curriculum. This is how the “uneducated” entrepreneurs can push further beyond losing money, beyond a market not ready for their inventions, or even media that ridicule what they predict as being the future. The direction of the priority for some people starting up a business (MBA graduates or not) seems to be: principle or ideal first -> let’s try to make to make a business of it -> see how to make it bigger, so to make the world better. Probably, the entire opposite of what an investment bank will ask you to structure a business plan: pick up a big market -> propose a venture that can have success in it -> fit the ethics to whatever you’ve created, so you can be labeled as socially responsible. Even gaming, alcohol, tobacco, mining, and similar industries, usually in the eye of the blame from the public, can turn around their views around using this formula. It seems that for the business establishment the new business motive is really irrelevant, as long as it can sustain itself economically, and doesn’t break any laws. The rest is just fluffy humanist stuff that you cannot label, package and put a price on — a key to get funded.

Nevertheless, and using some of AC/DC popular song wisdom “it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll”, this gruesome entrepreneurship journey might propelled only by greed for some, but more often than not, the ones reaching the top were guided more by the crazy ideal of the world they want to make better, than for the price of the IPO they could float their startup shares on. It is so hard to get “to the top” that principle, ethics and virtue needs to go first unless you want to be just like any of the guys putting a business plan together in an MBA class, with slim chances of creating anything revolutionary or “insanely great” as usually described by the late Steve Jobs. The ones reopening the Pandora’s jar and showing a human way to use an invention, the ones combining principle with cold hard science, and the ones fuelling hope that the world might indeed be better in the future, know how to connect and draw a human emotion, instead of hiding in their suits at the top floor corner office, or behind a geeky way of living only capable to relate with machines.

Once I read in a manifesto put together by Daniel Pink (his main area of writing is human motivation), how it was strange that for so many important things in life there was always the search for a grandeur purpose behind them, while for work in the average company, or the average annual strategic plan, the “why” question is not addressed. He writes about how it would make sense to rally troops towards a more engaged and humanly connected objective, to have a: “Department of Why”. An organizational entity that clearly articulates and remind people what is the real purpose of the venture they dedicate most of their lives to, and obviously that has to be beyond “return of investment to shareholders”, if one wants to move and draw from what he describes as “intrinsic motivation”. The Department of Why will be the one dealing on how, if the venture succeeds, it can change the world for the better (or not), and how that is important for everyone related to it. A job is only that, if it means only providing money to fulfill your passion outside the job: a hobby, a craft, a sport, even a side business; something that really connects with your inner self and draws from that energy of things that seem impossible but are worth trying. The department of why would have the task to transform “the job” from the usual to the passionate — makes sense if that the most you do on a day — providing much more than just money to get people fired up towards things, critically giving them a quest, a purpose, a cause bigger than them, challenging but attainable enough, so they can connect their inner drive to the collective effort of a venture. Not a recipe, for the latest business craze in regards to managing human resources: Is not about making them feel they have a purpose, and keep doing things as always, is about being completely committed to having a company that will really have a purpose and a consequence in the world in the event of making it big. Something, that is clearly worth trying from the executive to the janitor.

So it seems, that from the entrepreneur to the employee, we are all looking to dedicate our efforts towards companies formed with a clear and honest intention to address an aspect that is worth trying to be changed. Something that bothers everybody, but looks so big, hairy and complex that no one dares to propose an alternative. A company with the right sequence of events, that starts from the issue to be changed at the individual level, and how to solve at a scale that can affect the whole world for the better. The money issue will always be there as a catalyst for movement, but more a means towards an objective, than the objective itself — how much this is missing from the current business school teaching where our human motives are reduced to being only financial. And, for every agent in the chain of innovation, financiers (funds, angels), scientists (researchers, hobbyists), and particularly the guys making it happen the entrepreneurs: “Why”, should not be only just an important department in their future dealings, is probably the only true filter to determine if its worth to stick for the long-term with a venture, or to seek better alternatives. True, is not a black and white question, it will certainly depend on the values of the people involved and what they see as worth changing for the future. But yet, even in the diversity of what these views might be, the benefit of having to argue about values, virtue and ethics is that we get to define what is important for us, rather than carry forward (in terms of companies, products, and practices) in a system that perpetuates the aimless same problems we are trying to address. Markets still use money as a comparison mechanism, so businesses operational success can be reduced to a number, but the public, the consumer, the human, will never be. We seem to want be taken into a journey of something that strives to be better, something that connects, and gives us a little bit of color in a rather gray and machine like environment; something that brings the unpredictability in us, and gives a chance for the impossible to happen. As a collective the tough question to ask is whether we can put the long-term filter of asking for a better purpose in anything new we create, rather than the short-term view of filtering through how much money it will make for a few individuals. Certainly, a change in itself worth striving for.

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