Why Your Startup Doesn’t Have to Change the World

Worry too much about being the next Zuckerberg or Jobs and you could miss out on building a profitable business.
June 28, 2012

Over the past decade, as the cost of starting the typical business has plummeted, it’s become fashionable for startup pundits to lure would-be founders with an inspiring call: You can change the world. You should change the world! This further stokes the fires of passion common among entrepreneurs hell-bent on launching the next legendary startup.

While I greatly admire many of these experts and fully believe in the power of a higher purpose, I’ve also found that “changing the world” can be a questionable reason to launch a business.

Here are a few reasons why:

Too Much Pressure

Put a dent in the universe? Are you serious? If you generate enough sales to break even and stay alive for a few years, you've launched yourself into a pretty exclusive club. Focus on accumulating small wins. Nail the task right in front of you. Like a bird flying through a forest, find the next logical perch. From there, you can choose the next landing place, and the next. Save your long-term legacy for later.

First Challenge: Stay Alive

As you work to find a viable opportunity, your earliest job as a founder is to stay alive long enough to get your business safely off the ground. Sometimes this takes years of experimenting, clawing and sacrificing take-home pay. In his book The Illusions of Entrepreneurship, professor Scott Shane cites more than twenty studies showing that the longer you stay in business, the more likely it is that you will continue to operate in the future, and the more profitable your business is likely to become. Just by staying on the field of play, you can significantly multiply your chances of doing something stupendous.

Most World-Changers Start Small

There will always be startup firms formed with huge helpings of hype, hope and capital. These ventures are usually noteworthy for their underperformance (see Segway and Webvan). Meanwhile, a lot of extraordinary businesses had decidedly un-splashy beginnings and years of trial and error before becoming overnight successes. Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run, a 16-year-old social venture that helps girls build confidence and self-esteem, says her idea "marinated" for three years before she attempted a first pilot program for 13 girls. Demand grew steadily, year over year until, in 2011, Girls on the Run worked with 120,000 girls and 47,000 volunteers in 202 cities. So, if you want to change the world, start small and embrace the long and grinding road.

The Path to Greatness Starts with One Customer

If you really want to elevate your odds, focus on solving a painful problem right in front of you. A human need. A problem solved. A paying customer. Wash, rinse, repeat. Satisfied customers are the most essential ingredient for a healthy startup. Worry less about your global scalability and more about whether you are delighting customers. As Paul Graham writes in his classic startup essay, “the reason we tell founders not to worry about the business model initially is that making something people want is so much harder.”

We Are Poor Predictors of the Future

Steve Jobs said that the best way to predict the future is to create it. This means focusing on what is within your control, and accepting that there is a great deal about the future outside of your control. As an entrepreneur, prepare to roll with unexpected punches, including the possibility of discovering that what you thought you wanted isn't all it was cracked up to be. Temper the world-saving goals for now and stay open to learning, adapting and course-correcting over the short term to propel your startup forward.

A caveat: If you have raised $41 million in funding like Color founder Bill Nguyen, forget all of the above. You'll be expected to change the world in a legendary (and highly profitable) way.

What do you think? Is "changing the world" a worthy goal for startups?

John Bradberry is the CEO of ReadyFounder Services and author of 6 Secrets to Startup Success (AMACOM, 2011). He helps entrepreneurs and their ventures improve performance and achieve healthy growth.

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