Don’t Start a Company—Start a Movement

“The best founders aren’t starting companies, they are starting movements.” -Tony Conrad, Big Omaha Presentation

I doubt that I’ll ever meet Tony Conrad to thank him personally for this quote. He oozes Silicon Valley cool in way that makes me suspect he wouldn’t give an entrepreneur in Madison, Wisconsin fly-over country the time of day. But his “start a movement” concept stopped me in my tracks.

Why? Because “starting a movement” is exactly what I’m trying to do right now as a co-founder of Nextt, but I’ve never been clever enough to encapsulate my team’s efforts into such a perfect phrase. There are many ways to make money in start-up land (Ev Williams recently shared his billion dollar formula), but I think Tony might be on to one of the most rewarding formulas for true success.

For the Love or for the Money?

I’ve been lucky enough to co-found 4 different software companies over the past 14 years. Prior to my current venture Nextt, I’ve had two successful exits and one that recently went into receivership. As I look at these past efforts, I see a strong correlation between the big idea passion behind the company and its overall success.

My biggest success (so far) was Jellyfish grew out of our hatred for interruptive advertising and the strong desire to see digital advertising become less of an unwanted nuisance and more of a tangible benefit to consumers. At Jellyfish, Brian Wiegand and I came up with a way to connect the end consumer directly into the online auction for their attention that takes place every day on ad platforms at Google and Amazon and Facebook. Our company was on a mission to make advertising work for the end consumer. The result was an acquisition by Microsoft in 2007, only 18 months after we started. And I say that Jellyfish was my biggest success both in pure monetary terms, but also in the way it felt. We loved coming to work and we loved supporting and riding the huge “attention economy” movement. Jellyfish was a blast because we had a true core passion for what we were doing and the change we were making; the financial returns just came along for the ride.

The other two start-ups? sold trademark research to lawyers. We started NameProtect because we saw the opportunity make money. It did make a decent return, but it was a grinder. sold household essentials in a unique marketplace model. Did we start Alice because we loved selling toilet paper? Nope. We started it because we saw dollar signs in a huge CPG market that ultimately didn’t pan out. I’m very grateful for both of these companies and the teams I worked with, but neither felt like we were starting a movement, unless it was a movement to gain market share and more margin points.

As to my current start-up, I didn’t consciously set out to co-found Nextt. It just sort of grew out of a deep desire to see social software do more than let us passively follow the lives of others online.  Today’s social networks have turned our social status into a game that can be measured and won.  We focus on the number of likes, and followers, and retweets we get and we spend lots of time broadcasting out our digital highlight reel.  But actual friendships aren’t built by sharing an archive of our life from behind a screen.  True friendships are built by doing things together in person, out there in the real world.  Nextt’s mission is to make your offline friends, and doing things together with them, a priority again.

Will Nextt be more successful because it is trying to spark a bigger movement? I don’t know for sure, but I can tell you this:

Start-ups are hard. Really hard. They take perseverance and a deep internal motivation to get beyond the roller coaster of doubt and temporary set-backs that are inevitable. And the best way I know of to gain that internal motivation is not via fear or greed. The best motivation comes from a deep desire to make a difference in the world in a real tangible way; to be part of something bigger than you and not just to move money from one bank to another.

Don’t get me wrong, making money is obviously important. But there is genuine passion that comes from sparking a movement. And that passion is what will likely see you and your start-up through.

So ask yourself this about your start-up: when you describe your vision does it flow from you easily like a sermon from the pulpit or does it feel more like you’re reading highlights from a quarterly financial statement? If your company’s mission is the core reason you are excited to get up and go to work everyday, congratulations. You are starting a movement. Those are the businesses I want to work for, start and invest in.

I look forward on this blog to continuing to share our efforts to start a movement with Nextt.

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