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.com. 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? NameProtect.com 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. Alice.com 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.

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Nextt, Start-Ups | Leave a comment

You can’t quit social networks. Get used to it

This post was first published on PandoDaily.

It seems like every week there’s a new study or article published bemoaning our hyper-networked existence. Social media, and Facebook in particular, makes us lonely, fuels FOMO (fear of missing out), and turns our lives into continuous digital highlight reels.

In many ways, the pendulum of digital connection has swung out too far. We’re realizing just how much time we spend watching the lives of others scroll by and we’re exhausted by the demands of being “always on.”

How bad has it gotten? There’s been a recent push in the medical community to acknowledge Internet addiction as a recognized disease, and this viral video on our dependence on our screens has racked up more than 24 million views in less than a month. Yep, it’s that bad. We let things get out of control, and we’re searching for a solution.

For many, the quick answer to combatting digital exhaustion is to call it quits from social networking before our brains sink too far into the shallows. A long list of people have temporarily left the social sphere, while a handful of trailblazers like Paul Miller and Baritunde Thurston have disconnected completely — and lived to tell about it. I salute these quitters and dream of a world in which I could also drop off the grid and return to a time when my phone didn’t feel like an extra appendage.

But is quitting the digital world a realistic option? No way.

As Paul Miller states after a yearlong Internet hiatus, “the Internet is where people are.” In today’s networked world, shutting yourself off means disconnecting from real people that aren’t willing (or able) to return to pre-networked life with you. In thinking you can leave your digital life behind, you’re placating yourself with a temporary and unsustainable solution to a real problem.

So if quitting isn’t the answer, how do we cure the social media hangover that many of us are feeling today? The solution isn’t to purge social media from our lives because of some negative side effects with current technology. Instead, the next time you feel like calling it quits, I suggest the following.

First, get some f^#&ing self-control

Think of social media like a nice bottle of whiskey. You don’t down the whole bottle alone in your basement. That’s bad. You break it out and have a glass with friends to help fuel conversation and connection. That’s good.

Having trouble moderating your use of social technology? Try these simple tricks:

  • Put your phone down or away (or off) when you’re eating, talking, or spending time in the “real world” with others
  • Avoid continuous partial attention and focus on one thing at a time
  • Instead of treating every experience as an opportunity to add to your digital highlight reel, be present and enjoy the moment
  • Give yourself space everyday — away from the buzzing and bleeping — for face-to-face conversations and private thought

In other words, use social software thoughtfully, both as a consumer and creator of digital content — just because you can live tweet everything that happens to you in real time doesn’t mean that you should. Make your devices work for you instead of being a slave to the constant demands of your device and networks.

Second, demand and seek out better social technology

Instead of continually complaining about how social media is bad in its current form, why don’t more people ask for better or different kinds of social software? I’ve spent my entire career in the tech start-up world, and I truly believe that technology exists to make our lives better. But I also know that our social software and networks need to do a better job of serving our full range of social needs.

Think of modern social networking like television — if every channel played nothing but reality shows, would you give up TV forever, or would you demand and search for better programming? We need more “PBS Frontline” to help balance out the Kardashians. “Amish Mafia” doesn’t make me want to cut the cord; it makes me want to change the channel. But unfortunately (or fortunately if you are an entrepreneur), we are still desperately in need of more options to “change the channel” in the social networking world.

So come on free market– give us some different/better/more social software options that help us to use social media in beneficial ways.

This isn’t to say that innovation isn’t happening now. SnapChat, for example, tackled the permanence of our digital record by creating an ephemeral image-sharing app. Now my daughters can send silly pictures of themselves to their friends without worrying about future employers seeing them. That’s a better option for certain situations. Facebook is offering more advanced filtering systems for hiding content we don’t care about or tuning out friends that over share. More goodness.

But are these the ground breaking innovations we all need to help cure our digital hangover?

One group that seems completely overlooked in today’s social media landscape is our face-to-face friends and family. We have lots of great tools like Facebook to make our digital friends who aren’t nearby a priority. LinkedIn does a fantastic job of making our professional network a priority and focus.

But what about our face-to-face friends and family? Don’t they deserve a dedicated place? As David Roberts wrote in an article on how deep social connections contribute to our happiness:

“We have all sorts of infrastructure and institutions available for people who want to learn how to get a better job or make more money. But we have lamentably little for people who want to know how to foster more and better relationships, how to find meaning and a sense of accomplishment.”

If our social connections are the key to happiness, as Roberts suggests, why don’t we have better tools for strengthening our most important face to face relationships in addition to maintaining hundreds or even thousands of purely digital connections? We need technology that helps us make quality time with friends and family in the real world a priority.

It’s time to stop talking about quitting social media and start demanding social software that encourages us to connect with one another on a deeper level and lead richer lives. My team and I are working hard to make social software do more for us. So come on, free market. Let’s continue to make our new world better.

Who’s with me?

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