The World is Two-Way

One of the trends that began to emerge close to a decade ago was the notion of the mission-driven tech startup.

These startups weren't "boring" enterprise software companies, they were somehow having a social impact, broadly defined. Meaning they were elevating quality of life, unlocking new economic opportunities for those who didn't have it, increasing mobility, connecting people into new communities, etc...

This was a great, potentially inspiring message, but the core challenge was that these were growth strategies not truths.  This social component served three primary functions:

  1. Externally, it was a branding element that would drive their marketing and positioning.
  2. Internally, it was both a recruiting and retention strategy.
  3. For the founders, it was a way of attaining/maintaining differentiated social status amongst elites.

What would happen in most cases is that the founder and company narrative would be altered to retroactively fit the mission, when the reality was much closer to: "we tried 100 other ideas, but this one seems to either 'work' or be promising enough for us to raise a round."

Now, this is all perfectly fine, in that it's pretty much the history of all businesses and people are free to do whatever they like. Also, there's nothing earth shattering or revelatory here, it's just a mundane truth.  But it's in that mundaneness where the problem lies for many entrepreneurs and founders who tacitly pursue this strategy. That is, they tend to overlook the shift in the environment.

Now, for the most part, none of this really matters at the end of the day simply because the vast majority of startups fail. So, it all becomes a moot point.

But, those who are successful at creating a going concern—a sustainable, growing business well on its way to profitability if not past that—have to understand that power dynamics have changed, thanks to a significant shift in the environment.

The very dynamic that enabled Craiglist to undercut newspaper classifieds has also enabled those with less perceived power to not only speak their truth but to be easily amplified. Power is no longer one-way, it's two way, and that's in part what has enabled #metoo and #blacklivesmatter (as well as complaining to customer service accounts on Twitter).

So what does this all mean in practice?

For starters, if you're using "community" as a marketing vehicle, is it just a bolt-on that you hope will take care of itself or have you considered the costs much less the design of the system? Do you expect to be able to exert control indefinitely or have you thought through how to truly align the interests of the constituents with the realities of your business? Do you really even "need" a community or are you just trying to build a large funnel?

If you are "standing" with Black Lives Matter, have you internalized that this moment isn't about simply showing support for Black people but rather (at a minimum) auditing and removing the systems which oppress Black people today—both inside your own company and within your industry? Again, are you simply exerting control or building an aligned system?

If you are a founder and entrepreneur who believes they're "on a mission", in what way does your financing strategy actually constrain or even contradict your ability to serve that mission? Or, are you using this as a hook to get funded in the first place?

Now, to be clear, the message here isn't that we should only have mercenary companies, but simply that we need fewer fakers—attempts at co-opting causes and communities in the service of turning them into high-growth vehicles.

This was expected behavior when we were in the "land grab" phase of internet, but we're thankfully in a much more mature phase where not every action, goal or purpose needs to follow an extractive high-growth startup template and playbook. Hopefully, we'll see more thoughtful approaches that truly re-imagine a different way forward—everything from how we finance such ideas, how we build and manage teams, and how we engage with those who we purport to serve.