One of my favorite quotes is from Mahatma Gandhi, who advised us to “be the change you want to see in the world.” I have often been reminded of it as an early-stage investor in startup companies at SV Angel, where I meet hundreds of founders chasing extraordinary dreams and visions. These people aren’t starting innovative companies because it’s the fashionable thing to do; they’re starting companies because it’s the best way to effect the change they are seeking (see the TR50).
Late last October, I heard Mark Zuckerberg talk at Startup School 2011 about why he started Facebook. His message was that he didn’t set out to start a company for the sake of it. He reminisced about how back in 2004, over pizza, he and his friends dreamed of the next great software platform and how it would inevitably involve social participation. He ultimately created an innovative product and company because it was the fastest way for him to prompt the change he wanted to see in the world. Today Zuckerberg and Facebook have created a software platform for the ages. It is an engineering marvel that serves nearly a billion people, supports thousands of developers, and has created billion-dollar industries giving people new ways to consume, share, and create media.
Three days after I heard Zuckerberg speak, Jack Dorsey, a founder of Twitter and Square, talked about the same topic at an SV Angel summit for founders. Dorsey’s advice on building a company echoed Zuckerberg’s description of starting one. Building a business, Dorsey said, is a way of “thinking about the idea that you want to see in the world.” The company is the structure that lets the idea flourish: you need it in order to hire people to build the product, to get money from investors to hire the people, and ultimately to generate profits so you don’t need money from investors. Money is just oxygen for the idea. The companies Dorsey has started are two of the most interesting of the past decade: Twitter has redefined the way content is distributed and consumed, while Square is on its way to enabling everybody on the planet to accept credit-card payments.
Zuckerberg and Dorsey are clearly outliers. But they are just two examples of founders who “scratched their own itch” or personify the products and companies they have created. Many of the great innovations that we have seen in the software and Internet industries start with similarly modest beginnings—a talented engineer or coder trying to solve a troubling or perplexing problem. Usually these problems are technically complex and challenging—that is part of the appeal. Usually—but not always—they lead to big market opportunities and technical breakthroughs.
David Lee is founding managing partner at SV Angel, which has invested in many companies, including Twitter and Square.