Like many entrepreneurs, I’ve been faced with the unsurmountable odds one always bumps into when trying to get a new venture off the ground and, like most startup founders, I’ve presented a rosy picture of of how my company was doing when others might have thought it wasn’t doing well. And like a few successful entrepreneurs, I’ve managed to get through the tough spots and get to the point where things are starting to look up again. And that was just on Monday… between 4pm and 415pm…
The world of startups is one of quick ups and downs. The wins, the loses, all seem to be tremendous at the time and all are handled in a consistent way, along with the consistent belief that there are no barriers, only problems that haven’t been fixed yet.
And the kind of optimism that comes along with this idea that no matter how unsurmountable a problem can seem, it can be figured out is what drives most hackers.
I call the phenomenon optimized optimism, which I would define as the most efficient way to handle a problem being that you hang on to the belief that the problem can be solved. For example, many have often derided Steve Jobs’ ability to will things into reality as being part of a “reality distortion field” but the truth is that the field may exist and may be powered by a willingness to let go of traditional bounds and estimate that whatever is keeping an obstacle in place is the ability to find a solution that will help one move the obstacle.
Having worked in both the large corporate world and the startup one, I’ve noticed a substantial difference between the two in addressing an obstacle. People in large corporation look at obstacles as things that lower the probability of success of an effort. People in startups look at obstacles as opportunities to create barrier to entry for future competitors. Same object, different frame.
The result of such different viewpoints is that a large corporation will worry about protecting itself against any risk and, as thus, avoid exploiting opportunities they could easily exploit.
Big corps vs. startups
That thought first came to me as I was discussing the passage of the recent JOBS act, which could make raising money through crowdsourcing substantially easier, with someone who’s considering building a property in the space. His question was whether he should go to a big bank and build it with them? While I spent the better part of the last decade building innovative technology businesses within big banks, my recommendation was to actually go out and raise money to build things on his own. The reason is that it appears the larger, more fundamental disruption generally happens outside of established players. If you look at most consumer-facing innovation to happen in the financial space, the vast majority happened from startups that did not see limitations in the space and exploited areas banks were afraid to exploit because of the potential risks assumed with such ventures.
The same is true in most spaces: large media companies have seen new entrants disrupt them with lower cost structure around consumer-generated or pro-sumer content. Telephony and video providers (ie. cable and satellite TV) have seen the emergence of the VoIP and online video on demand companies that disrupted their business not from the internal division of their competitors but from new entrants in the markets. Big box stores like Circuit City, Best Buy, Sears, were not undone by their traditional competitors but by players in the online space that offered similar wares delivered to your house.
I suspect that if you look through the history of disruption, you will find that seldom does disruption come from incumbents. So why is that the case? I’d warrant that the main reason is that once it grows big, a large company worries more about protecting the core that allowed it to grow big than displacing it. This is why Microsoft has had a hard time untying itself from windows; why Google has a hard time untying itself from adwords advertising; why Zynga has a hard time untying itself from Facebook; and why Facebook will have a hard time untying itself from social when the next thing comes up.
To hold on to your monopoly means that anything that could possibly loosen it is seen as a threat and not an opportunity. And anyone that hacks around to poke hole into the monopoly is seen as a potential enemy. By comparison, the startup mind says that poking at existing challenges may be the best way to find a better approach. For example, looking at the holes in a dam, a startup person may think of a different way to hold water while a large corporation person may feel that the loss of water is acceptable and thus nothing should be done.
Is it age?
Many people have attributed startup success as being correlated with age: the younger the founder, the higher the chances a startup will succeed. Many attribute the boundary breaking to youthful behavior that leverage its lack of understanding of a field to look at it with different eyes, and thus fail to understand limits that may exist in that business.
But looking at companies large and small, age may have little to do with optimism. Steve Jobs biggest impact was with products he developed after his return at Apple, in his early 40s; one of the most disruptive companies today is Amazon, led by Jeff Bezos, is currently 48. And some of the common traits one might find among them include intellectual curiosity that is satisfied through playing with their own products and an uncompromising optimism that some may see as naive but that ultimately leads to finding new doors to new markets where others have only seen walls.
I am pretty sure that Steve Jobs was aware that limitation existed in the markets he was targeting; and I’m sure Jeff Bezos has been told countless times that certain things he tried to do were just not achievable (eg. Amazon getting into the consumer electronics business by manufacturing its own kindle device; or Amazon getting away from its retail background by offering cloud hosting long before anyone else did; or Amazon getting in the tablet market were it was clear that it would be defeated by Apple).
Where others see the impossible, the optimist sees a new reconfigured world and that has nothing to do with age.
What about death?
Whenever the idea of pushing boundaries is brought up, the counter-argument is that certain things in the world cannot be bent the way I described. The example most often given is that, for example, death, cannot be overcome. But here, once again, it comes down to a matter of problem definition. Death may be the end of life (or depending on your religious beliefs, a phase shift from mortal life to something else) and, as such, represents something final. However, what if the focus stopped being on death but started being on life extension?
How long does someone live? In the west, a couple of centuries ago, reaching into 40 might have been considered old (interestingly, the distribution curve seem to point to people either dying relatively young or living into their 60s or 70s). Today, 40 is considered mid-life, with a large majority of people in developed countries living into their 60s or later. Diseases that were once fatal can now easily be cured, thanks to advance in medicine. So the frame of when death happens has shifted as time as evolved and the idea of someone living into their 50s was replaced by the idea of someone living in their 60s, which is replaced by the idea of people living into their 70s and so on (an interesting side note on this is that retirement age of 60-65 set by most governments were assumed as a benefit that would not cost that much as only a relatively small portion of the population would live to collect, creating the current entitlement crisis for a lot of countries).
So one could argue that life was extended, by almost double, over the last century. And, based on that assumption, one could assume that there may be ways, as yet undiscovered, to double the length of life over the next century. Under such a new model, one where people live to 140, death at 80 could be rare and thus, the concept of death has to evolve. In other words, it becomes a problem that hasn’t been fixed yet.
When and how, not if
Ultimately, I suspect that the reason hackers, and other optimists always succeed is that their worldview is ruled by when, not if. Too many people create conditional statements before making the leap into areas that they are not comfortable with. Their lives are dictated by a world of “if this happens, then I’ll be able to follow that passion” and they end up dying with many regrets, wrapped in “if I had done this thing, then my life would have turned out differently.” The truth is that IF is one of the most destructive word when thinking about one’s future. Try a simple exercise, take something that you want to do if something else happens and change the statement by simply replacing the if with when. All of a sudden, your world stops being about an externally controlled one to an interesting question: How will I make the when happen?
Even something as ridiculous as “if I win the lottery, I will… ” becomes “when I win the lottery, I will…” which then begs the question “how will I win the lottery?” It refocuses one’s energy on bypassing the obstacle instead of leaving it in control of others.
… and a simple recontextualization like that is all one needs to really get moving and changing the world.
So WHEN you decide to change the world, what will you do next?