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Why We Do Startups

The following is an excerpt of the company manifesto I wrote for my current startup Airtime for Email.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: 

An old fish swims up to a young fish and says, “Boy, the water sure is nice today!” 

“Yea!” says the young fish, “wait…what the hell is water?” 

The point of this story is that “the most important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” To put it bluntly, the point of the story is that most of the stuff that we take for granted as fact, or that we are automatically certain of in our lives, is very often completely and utterly wrong. [1] Let’s call these things that we are automatically certain of our “default settings.” 

Default settings are all around us. Why do we go into work at 9 AM instead of 8 AM? Why do sales people work on commission? Why do we have an 8-hour work day? 

The fact is that very often there are no good answers for why these default settings exist, they just do. And not only does that create a great deal of waste in a business environment, it also leads people to certain misconceptions about what is and isn’t possible that are simply false. 

Given the existence of our default settings, one of the most important questions in our lives then is: Why do we do the things that we do? 

We do the things that we do to be happy. So then how do we become happy? And how does this relate to startups?

In our heads we all have a vision of the person that we want to be. We have certain ideas and principles for how we want to act and how we want to be remembered. However, what we do every day makes up the person that we actually are. So what do we do every day? 

We go to work. 

Thus, the kind of people we are is, in large part, a reflection of the work we do. 

I would like to posit that happiness lies in matching the vision in our heads of the person that we want to be, with the person we actually are. In short, happiness is becoming the person you envision in your head. And if the person we are, is a result of what we do every day, and if what we do every day is our work, then our happiness is tied directly to our work. 

Let’s look, for a second, at our lives as a struggle to match the person we are, a collection of actions, with the person we want to be, a collection of principles. If we look at things this way then it becomes clear that the only way to live up to our collection of principles is to make our work a reflection of those principles. And so if the work that we do every day can be a mirror image of the ideas that we hold most strongly, then we will be happy.   

This brings us to startups. 

Since a startup is the work that we do, it is tied explicitly to our happiness. So the way for us to be happy is to make our startup a reflection of ourselves, and the principles we hold most strongly.

Doing so provides us with a motivation to go to work every day that is not only non-monetary, it provides us a way to be happy every single day of our lives. Because if every day at our startup gives us a chance to live up to our principles, and living up to our principles means being happy, then we will be happy every day.

And that’s the reason we do startups.

If you’ve read this far you should probably follow me on Twitter.

[1] Joke and partial analysis borrowed from a David Foster Wallace commencement address


5 Jan 2012, 3:30pm | 4 comments

  • campedersen

    This is a great essay, eloquent in its simplicity. Well said, man.

  • Dan Shipper

    Thanks I'm glad you liked it! 

  • Adnan

    So you suggest that being “Different” than masses could be helpful? May be setting such time has some history which you and me don’t know at all?

  • Dan Shipper

    Hey Adnan thanks for commenting! I’m not sure exactly what you’re getting at – but I don’t really look at it as trying to be different. It’s more about asking why things are done that way they are. If there’s a good reason, then there’s no reason to change!

 
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