In his book The Selfish Gene, evolutionist Richard Dawkins describes organisms as “robots” designed and controlled by their genes, whose only goal is propagating themselves. In his view, the motivations of humans and other animals are merely artifacts of the blind algorithms grinding away inside our genome.
Entrepreneurs these days can’t stop talking about a different set of algorithms for optimizing startup survival and success. Build the minimum viable product, test and iterate, work on only what customers actually buy or use, pivot. Today’s entrepreneurial Golden Path can look a lot like the reductionistic mutation and selection process that Dawkins describes.
The above Customer Development/Lean Startup algorithms sure are useful, but on their own they’re no more a recipe for startup success than a healthy diet and a good night’s rest are the path to winning a marathon.
Startups are not like Dawkins’ organisms. At their best they are vehicles for our passions, our desire to remake a world that’s better than how we found it. Whatever the process, it is a startup’s relentless focus on a higher purpose that attracts a great team and transforms markets. But all too often these days I hear entrepreneurs talking about their vision as if it’s a major risk (“it could blind us to what customers really want”) rather than the locus of their real power.
“Whatever you do, don’t be idealistic.” This is what an early venture capitalist told my co-founders and I when we pitched him our idea for a new way for companies and customers to communicate we called Get Satisfaction. In our minds we had glimpsed the future: people collaborating openly with companies on the social web. It was clear to us that the result would be more empowered, happier customers, and more humanistic organizations. This one idea was what got us all out of bed in the morning. It was not only a purpose, it was a design principle for everything we did.
Despite the doubts of some industry insiders, we never considered hedging; instead we embodied our vision, heart and soul. Long before we had a product we spoke at conferences, blogged regularly, and courted the press to tell our big market story. We welcomed a new era of “people-powered customer service,” and within a few months of launching our product we threw our own conference, “The Customer Service is the New Marketing Summit.” There was no turning back.
At a high level, we had asserted what we thought was going to matter to the market rather than waiting for the market to tell us. We had certainly taken a risk being so bold (because that’s what startups DO), yet we gained a palpable advantage that impacted everything: our brand had become synonymous with a point-of-view. Why did this work so well for us?
- We were well positioned as the market caught up with us (the rise of “Social Business,” thanks to Twitter and Facebook). Had we waited until the wave had crested we would have been just another opportunist chasing a trend. Our early commitment translated to trust and leadership, which in turn led to significant customer traction.
- We did pivot the business, developing several lines of service directly informed from what we learned from customers. But those customers had been attracted to our vision in the first place–their feedback was well aligned with our ideals
- Thanks to the design principles that rose from our ideals, we had a means of deciding what to build and how to build it beyond the ad hoc suggestions of users. Where there were conflicts (e.g. how to allow companies to remove user posts without compromising transparency) we innovated.
Like any startup, we’ve struggled with a thousand and one small and large issues along the way. It can feel like “death by paper cuts” at times. Having a higher purpose keeps the whole team focused on what matters without sacrificing adaptability. While intelligent design may have no role in biology, it is invaluable to creating a startup that can lives up to your dreams.