The Dark Truth About Startups
You’re not changing the world, you’re just delusional
This article is aimed at startup entrepreneurs / wannabes / employees, but the points extrapolate to anyone trying to do meaningful work.
When I was graduating ~4 years ago, I was the only student in my university to go straight into building a startup.
Everyone else was finance, law, consulting, etc. 😴
But now…everybody has their own sh*tty little startup.
Running a startup is “cool”.
Running two startups is even cooler.
And if you want to be really cool, stick one of them on stealth mode 😉
(Wouldn’t want someone stealing your unoriginal idea!)
All these sh*tty little startups changing the world. All the innovation and impact and buzzwords.
Except they’re not changing anything…
Here are (some of) the big problems of our time:
Poverty: ending hunger, curing disease, third-world education
Climate change: cutting CO2, finding renewable energies
Mental health: 25% of people suffer from serious mental health challenges
Give or take, if you want to change the world, these are the problems you should be solving.
Now let’s check out a few of the most recent startups to reach £1bn unicorn status:
Gymhsark ($1.4bn) — “helping people reach their full potential” by selling gym clothes with a shark logo on them.
Klarna ($31bn) — “a financial freedom platform” helping consumers buy sh*t they don’t need on credit.
Deliveroo — “transforming the way we eat”, helping the fat get fatter with quick-order junk food.
And then, of course, the dreary B2B companies — helping extremely rich companies, get very slightly richer, and taking a cheeky %.
Our new marketing tool will increase your conversions by 0.0000000001%. But because you’re a massive corporate, that’s £1m extra profit 🙌
Now, I’ll be honest, at this point in the article I was really hoping to balance my argument by highlighting some unicorns that are working on meaningful issues…but I couldn’t find any.
Seriously, here’s the full list of unicorns
Virtually none of them are working on poverty, climate change or mental health.
Some are treating middle-class diseases like diabetes but not a single unicorn is working on AIDS or Malaria…
And then there’s Calm which is doing great things for mental health…but that’s about it :/
Startups are not changing the world.
Outside a few admirable anomalies, they’re solving middle-class problems that pay well.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
At all. Whatsoever.
Except…when you tell people, repeatedly, that you are changing the world.
When you convince investors to hand over trillions of £s that could go to poverty relief and renewable energy.
When you convince smart (but insecure) graduates to work on your social media app instead of poverty in Subsaharan Africa.
When you convince yourself that as a highly intelligent, capable entrepreneur the most meaningful thing you could work on right now is a videogame streaming service.
Startup entrepreneurs — with their bullsh*t marketing hype and hyperbolic mission statements — are misallocating talent and capital on a trillion-dollar global level, away from the most important issues of our time.
Don’t Hate The Player, Hate The Game
But it’s hard to blame us.
We’re just following our market incentives.
Like the lawyers, the bankers, and money whores before us.
Why help 1000 starving refugees when you could sign up one corporate to your B2B SaaS subscription package and make 10x the £…
Don’t hate the player, hate the game 🤷🏽♂️
But players can change the game. And isn’t that what disruptive startup entrepreneurship is all about?
You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing, you could choose to work on an issue that actually matters.
What if instead of helping brands create content to sell more sh*t people don’t need…you could help third-world entrepreneurs create content, monetising it to sponsor new schools and hospitals?
What if instead of helping middle-class white-collar types get cheaper mortgages…you could help entrepreneurs in India get cheaper loans?
Despite the hype, (most) startups are not changing the world.
So if you’re involved in startups, I encourage you to think more deeply about your quest for impact.
You don’t have to shut down your flashcard revision company, but perhaps think about where you could invest the money you make for true impact.
And if you’re thinking about starting/joining a startup, brainwashed by the “we’re changing the world” narrative, ask yourself this:
If this startup didn’t exist, would anyone’s day-to-day happiness actually be affected?
It’s a question I don’t like to ask the founder clients I coach because, more often than not, the answer is no.
But again, that’s completely fine.
If you’re playing the game to make lots of money so you can buy a wife and a sports car, or donate to charity, or because you simply enjoy it…good for you.
PS: if you know any other unicorn startups working on poverty, climate change, mental health — or similarly serious issues — tell me and I’ll update the article to highlight them as examples of what’s possible!