21 Build What You Know

An old maxim for wannabe novelists is “write what you know.” That advice is more inspirational than it first appears to be. Nobody’s suggesting that authors should populate their novels with their friends, families and neighbourhoods. Rather, they should write what they know to be true. It’s a call for artists to address their beliefs about the world and write from the heart.

It’s also great advice for entrepreneurs. Whether you’re building a technology business, opening a restaurant or providing a new kind of service, it’s not enough to simply identify a gap in the market and address it. Finding a problem is easy; the key is to find a solution that you’re passionate about, and then create what you know is needed. The best startups aren’t just new companies – they’re manifestos by people who seek to change the world.

The web isn’t just a platform; nor is it a market. It’s a movement. Think of the success stories of the past five years: Twitter, Facebook, Google, GroupOn. Twitter and Facebook changed the way people communicate and made social networking mainstream (Mark Zuckerberg was even just named Time’s Person of the Year for 2010). Google makes it its mission to make the world’s information accessible to all. GroupOn, meanwhile, gives the power of mass brand advertising, hitherto available only to larger chains, to independent shops and services. Each of these businesses is run by a passionate team who care deeply about not just their product, but the effect of their product on society.

Gatekeepers – people or organizations who control access to a particular resource based on value judgments or legacy hierarchies – are a thing of the past. (The quintessential gatekeepers are the record labels and movie distributors, who are – thanks to Internet startups – having to radically rethink their businesses or face extinction.) It’s not a coincidence that Silicon Valley is in the same geographic location as the epicentre of the social radicalism of the late sixties and early seventies. The values that caused a seismic shift in society then have transplanted themselves into software today, often backed and funded by the same people.

Pragmatically, building a business is a strenuous, long-term proposition. You’ll work long, hard days and burn the candle at both ends, seemingly for no reward. What seem like overnight successes are often borne of heavy lifting over five years or more, and it’s therefore imperative to a startup’s survival that its founders are capable of going the distance. This is much more likely if you’re doing something you love. In turn, you’re much more likely to love what you’re doing if it’s something you believe in.

Furthermore, if you believe in your mission, you stand a much greater chance of convincing other people. Startups are both time and cash poor, making marketing a challenge. Ideally, you want other people to help you spread your message. By establishing aims that transcend business and appeal to people on an emotional level, you can create something that other people can be evangelical about. This is hard to fake: this Christmas, the British restaurant chain Nando’s is attempting to draw an emotional reaction with an asinine “campaign for no turkey”, to a fanfare of silence and tumbleweeds. It’s best if your mission is inspirational from the start.

Famously, the podcasting startup Odeo came a cropper because its founders weren’t that interested in making podcasts. As they floundered, wondering what their business model was going to be, Jack Dorsey took a couple of weeks to build a tool that had been burning at him; something he knew he wanted to see out there. The result was Twitter, which he built and supported inside Odeo as part of a two-person team. Eventually, Evan Williams bought back their investors’ shares and sold off the podcasting entity to a company more interested in enterprise broadcasting.

Odeo has since become an enterprise video management tool. Meanwhile, the original team either moved on – creating products they knew had to exist, like Tony Stubblebine’s social events platform Crowdvine – or stayed to concentrate on Twitter. The rest is history: the Odeo team was talented, smart and had the makings of greatness, but they just didn’t care enough about podcasting. A simple way for people to share what they were doing, breaking down barriers, treating its users as equals and listening carefully to their needs? That, they could get behind. Users were soon also inspired.

If you’ve been following 24 Ways To Start since the beginning, you’ve read a lot of great advice about starting a company. I’d like to add a small piece of my own:

Just do it; disrupt the incumbents and have a great time doing it. Do what you need to do in order to make it work, whether it’s attracting investment or finding people to fill in the gaps in your skills. But don’t forget to change the world.

About Ben Werdmuller ()

Ben Werdmuller is CTO of Latakoo, an Internet company providing new kinds of services around video content, and also acts as Geek in Residence at the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab.

By the time he was 16, his software projects had already been featured in the technology and financial press. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh, he co-founded Elgg, the leading open source social networking platform, and was CTO of Curverider, the company founded to support it. As part of a two-person team with no budget, he brought the software from a standing start to a point where users included the World Bank, and turned Curverider into one of the few British open source companies to attract investment.

He also works as an independent web strategist, helping companies and institutions develop social web applications, as well as evangelising about the future of the web.

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  • Rob

    Nice inspirational article. So many ideas that fail do so because there is no passion behind it. I watched a video by Gary Vaynerchuck a while back that had the same message: “Do what you are passionate about, and then monetize that, not the other way around”
    Keep up the great articles!

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