You Don’t Have to Save the World; You Just Have to Be Someone’s Favorite

Vivek Wadhwa wrote an interesting post in TechCrunch about how startups today aren’t solving the world’s problems. Instead, he writes, they are making trivial things like Twitter applications. He directs this criticism specifically at a UC Berkeley 18 hour Hackathon he was asked to judge.

I agree with most of Dr. Wadhwa’s posts on TechCrunch (like this one, this one, and this one), and I think he is saying what needs to be said in Silicon Valley.

However, I take issue with this post. I think he hold startups to unreasonable standards. It’s hard to know how far a “little” idea might go. And these students are just starting their entrepreneurial careers – what you’re seeing is their first project.

It’s hard to solve a big problem. Especially when you’re still in college. Especially when you only have 18 hours.

While Dr. Wadhwa was using the Hackathon as a literary device, it feels a little bit like he’s bagging on Berkeley kids for not changing the world in 18 hours. In my time at Berkeley, both as a student and as a TA, I’ve seen students do a lot of things that changed the world. But most of them took at least a year.

Moreover, technology creates uses cases and value we don’t expect. Jack Dorsey didn’t set out to create a communications tool for Iranian dissidents when he created Twitter. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t set out to create a platform that’s enabled non-profits to raise millions of dollars. Those use cases evolved as the platform got better. And the platform got better because people adopted it, and liked it. Both of their original use cases revolved around sharing with friends, not saving the world. But that’s what happened.

Saving the world is an awesome thing to do and one of the best things entrepreneurship can accomplish. But entrepreneurship is a field just like any other, entrepreneurship is important. Saving the world is generally done in your second company – look at Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network, Shai Agassi’s Better Place, or even Tom Siebel’s new green technology company C3. Give us a young people a chance, Vivek. It’s hard to save the world from day one.

To say you must save the world from day one, to say that you have to be the best, puts an unrealistic burden on all founders, especially student founders especially. As long as someone gets value from your application, you’re doing good work and bringing more value into the world. This includes those people who make Twitter applications.

In the mobile apps class I TA at Berkeley, students would do some research and find that nearly all of their ideas already existed. To this, I respond: Your startup doesn’t have to change the world or be the best. It just has to be someone’s favorite. Build things people want. That’s all you have to do.