I nerd out a lot about the early days of personal computers, the technological break throughs and incremental advancements of the late 70’s and early 80’s. One of my best friends will give me book after book on the subject, and she can just talk all night about it. When we have our long talks about what people generally recognise as one of the most exciting times in the history of technology, we always look at the fact that these entrepreneurs and grunged-out coders weren’t trying to build hugely scalable platforms or achieve user growth. Their core focus was on building and selling machines or software for a profit. It was, at its heart, that simple.
The idea of founding a company that exists to create products such as software or hardware and then selling them seems almost archaic at times. Particularly when faced with crowdfunding and angel investors and power point pitch decks. It’s a tough business to start, and it’s one that takes a good deal more to get off the ground than an Amazon Web Server. In fact, it’s the original business model. All business models used to be based clearly on selling products or services.
The beauty is, the old tech companies recognised that their survival depended on them operating that business model as effectively as they could. The real winners made money beyond their wildest dreams, yeah. And that money led to some huge successes. It also led to a very different world. 30-40 years later, we’re still talking about some of the companies that had their origins in those early times. Microsoft and Apple are the kings of the tech world, like it or not. And they put computers in classrooms and they put computers in every business and they wrote software that enabled millions of people to conceive and create dreams.
The founders didn’t necessarily set out to change the world. Sure, it might have been a driving force – and the more time we put between ourselves and their founders, the more the narrative changes to show an original, earth shaking vision, even if one didn’t exist at the time. Those founders set out to build businesses. They took products and services, they developed them with and for technology, and they built real businesses. They knew where their money was coming from and where it was going to.
I wonder how those original tech start-ups would feel now, looking at younger businesses that are being built without a clear business model. Looking at founders who aren’t thinking about overheads and costings – focusing instead on scale scale scale. Looking at people who have followed what is now conventional wisdom, by recognising problems and building solutions, without asking where the money is.
There’s an unfortunate focus among a lot of young founders on changing the world as the sole purpose of their start-up. I think this comes as a result of the mainstream romanticisation of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others, where we watch movies and read books about their great manifest destiny and we forget that at their core – these were brilliant businessmen. Not fated geniuses.
Founders who have a big idea about changing the world are great. I love it when I meet people who are so clearly passionate about shaping the planet and guiding humankind towards a bright future, and I would never take their idealism or drive-to-change away from them. Never. It’s inspiring.
It reminds me about what makes start-ups so exciting. It’s not the lifestyle, it’s the chance to have a huge personal impact.
Unfortunately, in reality it’s not that simple. It’s not as simple as having a mission to change the world, and that’s because changing the world comes down to what you have and what you have not. Changing the world does eventually rely on a healthy bottom line, no matter how driven you are. Changing the world costs money. The reason those original tech companies were able to change the world is that they were ready and willing to make money, to build a business and to grow it painfully and to sell products and services. By creating those businesses, they simultaneously created the cash and the products needed to truly transform reality.
If you think that you want to change the world – maybe you will. Maybe you have it in you. But if your chosen path to doing so is through a start-up, then you need to be focusing on something else first. You need to be focusing on building a business and running it and making it successful. That’s on you. Anything else? Your big mission? The legacy people will talk about when your philanthropy machine has led to a restructure of society? That comes later. Because having a mission doesn’t mean you have a business. It means your business has a side project.