One of the more pervasive themes in startup-land is the “founder as world changer”. There’s a strong idea (exemplified by posts like these) that those who start companies do so for a shot at changing the world – a shot at doing something transformative and in the process becoming important and influential.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately – not only the mentally short time horizons we give ourselves (which is something I plan to write about later), but also about whether or not starting a company really maximizes your chance to make an impact.
Spending a few months at home with my family was fantastic, and also opened my eyes to something I had forgotten about – the average family watches a lot of TV. People consume content all the time – books, movies, TV shows, music, blogs, social media, etc. In a way, you could view some of the most successful startups (Google, Apple, Facebook) as so transformative because they changed the way we accessed content. Google made content searchable and accessible from a central point, Apple connected us all to a constant stream of content in our pocket, and Facebook allowed us to create and digest social content that was previously offline.
If you’re focusing heavily on making an impact, my thesis is that you may be better served creating a media or content property than doing a tech startup.
Here’s why. Major hit TV shows (think The Office, Jersey Shore, etc.) have a larger impact on how culture thinks about topics than just about anything. Other forms of content (blogs, podcasts, videos) also have more of an impact on the way people think than do most startups. With so much content available, much of it for free, it’s easier than ever for individuals to pick and choose what types of media they want to engage with. Over 4 billion videos are watched each day on YouTube, each view representing a decision made by a viewer.
This is even more true for creatives, like artists and authors. Because content can spread so rapidly, and because there’s an incredible demand for more and more of it, we’re seeing ideas spread faster than a company ever could. Tim Ferriss has had a bigger impact through his books than he could have by starting almost any company. In another example, it will take a company like Knewton some time to catch on and change the education system. In the meantime, Peter Thiel, a prominent media figure and venture capitalist, has added his thoughts on the college bubble to the conversation, can spark discussion and change the conversation around the value of college with his comments about the “education bubble” and funding of the 20 under 20 program. Seth Godin is a far more successful author and thought leader than he ever was an entrepreneur.
Media is pervasive because it (intentionally or unintentionally) frames the way people think about issues. When a show like Teen Mom can force teenage pregnancy into the national conscience, they have the opportunity to frame it. The question shifts from “why is this a consistent feature of lower-income communities?” to “is MTV right to exploit these young girls for entertainment?”. Books like the 4 Hour Workweek frame the way you think about wealth and your job. It doesn’t allow you to ask if you actually need to escape a job you like. Or if the purpose of life is to work 4 hours per week. It starts with an assumed premise (nobody wants to work 40 hours, no matter the job) and builds on that assumption, creating a false sense of what the populace wants that infiltrates the culture.
Startups can change what you do. Media can change how you think.