“The Valley’s brightest minds once invented things of immense significance like the first PC. But then came the internet and the pursuit of big ideas was eclipsed by a scramble for quick profits. The money pumped into hard technological problems plunged while interest in iPhone apps soared. The result? Instead of cures for cancer we got Angry Birds”.
So concluded a recent article in the Sunday Times. “Does it really matter”, “you could working things that could save lives, why worry about dry cleaning?”. Casual observers love to glance through the office windows of entrepreneurs and wonder “if there’s so much money to be made in entrepreneurship, why don’t these folks do something that really matters”.
I can perhaps understand where they’re coming from. One of my brightest friends is looking to start a new idea in advertising or property. I know that he’ll do very well in whatever he choses but it makes my heart sink to think of his talents being used to optimise advertising. I don’t expect him to stop the spread of malaria but he’s a source of creative energy in the world and it would be nice to see him use it for something that I might at least use.
Asking him or any other entrepreneur why they solved one problem and not another is like asking a river why it doesn’t splash out and irrigate the fields above it. “Since you’ve got so much water, why not wet my crops rather than just deepening the plunge pool under the waterfall?”. The question is moot. Water flows downhill: down a potential gradient. Like water, entrepreneurship also follows a potential gradient. Water depends on a height gradient, entrepreneurship on a value gradient. The greater the gradient, the faster they move and asking why things might be different is as pointless as arguing with water.
Entrepreneurs follow those gradients for good reasons too. While the Sunday Times may photograph Brian Chesky hanging out in AirBnB-central they don’t photograph the entrepreneur who had to give up his company and leave penniless to look after his dying sister’s family. They don’t photograph the hundreds of young hackers holed up for years in Palo Alto with nothing to show for it. They don’t photograph the founders who watched their company fall apart as they stood locked in a legal Mexican standoff. If they did their question might change from “why do you not cure cancer” to: “why do you do this stuff at all?”. Entrepreneurs follow potential gradients because their business is a risky business.
I think the “does it really matter” philosophy comes from two misapprehensions. The first is the assumption that markets are fungible and the second is a lack of ability to distinguish small probabilities.
When you assume markets are fungible - that one can be tackled as easily as the next - you inevitably ask whether “disrupting the dry-cleaning market” really matters when the alternative is “feeding Africa”. These aren’t adjacent problems though, they’re literally and figuratively continents apart. There are already entrepreneurs tackling both problems but they are entrepreneurs with very different knowledge sets. Getting frustrated with software entrepreneurs failing to feed Africa is like getting cross with Norman Borlaug for not doing a dwarf wheat iPhone app. These are different entrepreneurs with different skills and different available markets.
When you have no way to distinguish small probabilities then all long-shots look the same. Two “seemingly impossible” ideas may still be magnitudes apart in probability. As incredibly small as it is, the chance of successfully building a new car manufacturer is still millions of times higher than that of curing cancer. To the average person both ideas may seem vanishingly small but good entrepreneurs work with a microscope. They can magnify their field up so large that they know every nook of it. What looked like two small specks to the untrained eye looks completely different to the entrepreneur. They see one as a cell with all of its mitochondrial energy-producing goodness while the other, a million times smaller still, remains as mysterious as it was without the microscope.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that entrepreneurship isn’t a salaried job-rotation or an credit-option on an MBA. You don’t chose the option you fancy most and then roll on to a different one three months later. Being an entrepreneur is a nail-biting, ration-sapping, wind-bitten, many-year, unsupported journey into the unknown. Asking an entrepreneur why they took one route and not another is like tweeting to a climber on K2 to ask them why they didn’t take the harder route. Ask away but if you think it should be climbed then you should buckle up and climb it.