Startup idea: are you building a Cathedral?

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What business idea is your startup working on?

Is it a world changing idea?  Will it have a huge impact on some part of the world?

Startups founders, particularly first time founders, do have this urge,  an urge to change the world. The way their business ideas are analyzed by investors too, at times, puts an emphasis on this aspect of a business idea.

A world changing idea sounds like a big opportunity. It has an added advantage – it gives a great sense of purpose too.  A sense of purpose does play a role in motivating you in an uncertain, at times worrisome environment when you build your startup.

Drive : The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us , a book written by Daniel H. Pink, delves  into the role of  “purpose” in motivation.  Drawing on four decades of scientific research on human motivation, Pink exposes the mismatch between what science knows and what business does – and how that affects every aspect of our lives.  In DRIVE, he reveals the three elements of true motivation: AUTONOMY – the desire to direct our own lives; MASTERY – the urge to get better and better at something that matters; PURPOSE – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

We all have read the story – “I am building a Cathedral”. Bill von Achen, in his blog “I’m Building a Cathedral!”–The Role of Purpose in Motivation illustrates the importance of purpose in motivation using this story.

“A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home.”

”A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that he was doing, answered, “Well, I’m molding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done.”

”A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I…am building a cathedral!”

With startling clarity, this simple story illustrates that purpose has the power to transform not only our attitude about the work that we do but the quality of our work as well.

So, do the startup founders need start building cathedrals?

Well, there are lots of people who say NO.

In The Big Idea Myth, Geoff McDonald asks us, why you need a big idea. Most people talk about a big idea as something that changes the world.  Some ideas are big at their conception because they have profound implications.  And, some ideas are merely big because of their popularity. Instead, of trying to change THE world, start with an idea that simply changes your world. If it doesn’t change your world, then it’s not that significant and you probably won’t do anything with it anyway. This is the starting point.  The Myth of the Big Idea is that it has to change THE entire world.

In The Myth of Good Ideas, Jonathan Courtney, Co-Founder of AJ&Smart, a Digital Product Design agency states that being a creative genius is not the only way to have world-changing ideas.  Ideas can be generated and in huge quantities. Good ideas simply come from having lots of ideas. The famous inventor Thomas Edison said that his “real measure of success” was “the number of experiments” he could crowd into one day.  Rather than focus on coming up with the “perfect idea” or invention, he produced and produced. Failed and iterated. Failure was baked into his process.  Waiting for inspiration can be the death of a projects’ momentum. Start with quantity, then curate.

The Myth of ‘The Visionary Founder’ by  Seyi Fabode doesn’t support the belief that you need a huge world-changing vision before you can start your business.   He gives two examples to support his views. The first one is from Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter,  according to which Twitter came out of the remnants of a podcasting platform called Odeo.  Twitter was not  born from some grand vision about how they could change the world and fuel revolutions.  In another story from Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, he decided to travel the world with his buddy and ended up finding his calling. Phil Knight did not even sell his own shoes for the first few years of running the Blue Ribbon Company, a company that would later become Nike. For the first 10 or so years of Nike, the company was tethering on the edge. Phil Knight was always hopeful but, this was less about a grand vision during the daily grind and more about just his force of will and cunning to keep the company alive.

According to a blog How to uncover a world-changing idea by Dinushi Dias; Sam Altman, from his work as the President of Y Combinator, has an advise for the start-up founders, “You will never uncover a world-changing idea unless you start working on something now.”

Walker & Co’s founder and CEO, Tristan Walker has another take on the world-changing Idea, from his own personal experience. In a video chat about World-Changing Idea, he explains his journey before starting to build a health and beauty products company that makes health and beauty simple for people of color.  After his stint in Andreessen Horowitz as an entrepreneur- in- residence, he says, “I was like, man, I got to make these guys proud. I want to build the most ambitious thing that I can build. First seven months, I spent some time thinking about how I was going to fix childhood obesity in this country.  I spent some time thinking about whether or not I should build a bank. I think I spent four months working on an idea to fix freight and trucking in this country.  Only to think, shit, what do I know about freight and trucking? And I felt like if I was going to dedicate the next 20 plus years of my life to anything, I wanted to fundamentally feel like I was the best person in the world to solve that problem. Fortunately, seven months later, I figured that out. And Walker and Company was born”.

In What makes for a great entrepreneur?,     Andy Rachleff, Founder of Weslthfront, discusses a question about what separates the exceptional entrepreneurs from the rest of the pack. He explains great entrepreneurs’ greatness comes from the quality of their insights – in other words, their ability to recognize how an inflection point in technology can solve an important problem. That insight emerges from as authenticity to a particular problem. The great entrepreneurs have a deep command of the problem they are trying to solve. They achieve that deep command, in turn, by following their passions.

In an article How do you generate innovation?,  Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, says the secret to innovation isn’t to have a great idea. It’s about moving quickly–and trying everything. According to Catherine Clifford,    Mark Zuckerberg’s best advice to young people during the commencement address at Harvard’s 366th commencement exercises in Cambridge, Massachusetts was ‘Finding your purpose isn’t enough’.   He said, “I know, you’re probably thinking: I don’t know how to build a dam or get a million people involved in anything. But let me tell you a secret: no one does when they begin. Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started. If I had to understand everything about connecting people before I began, I never would have started Facebook.”

All these views resonate with lean startup building.

Lean startup building believes, start-up is a stage in the process of turning a business idea into an established real company and a ‘start-up’ is a company that is confused about – what its product is? Who its customers are? How to make money?  We start with assumptions about everything, to begin with. More early you start to get a sense for theories against reality, the safer you are. Unlike in earlier times, today’s founders start small and make smart micro-experiments, besides customer interviews to test the assumptions.

The whole concept that a business idea has to be absolutely unique and world changing is quite irrelevant. And questions like ‘what is your competitive advantage and where will you be in 5 years?’ don’t have any meaning, because, in the early days, there is very little certainty about where a startup is going.

While we shouldn’t focus on the grand vision (or lack of) in the daily existential crises of the early days of a startup, what we need to focus on is what we as founders go ahead and put our hands to the grind towards building their businesses. Time and time again, what is clear is that one does not get anywhere without doing the very next thing in front of you as a founder.

Hopefully, some of us will get an opportunity to build a Cathedral, along the way.

Do share your stories, If you started with a business idea that was not a world-changing one and yet, it led you to an opportunity to build a Cathedral.