Why It’s OK If Your Startup Isn’t Changing the World …. Yet

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Or why those with big ambitions should be proud of modest beginnings (including Thiel Fellows). 

By Shaherose Charania (Co-founder & CEO, Women 2.0)

Everything that goes up must come down and that, apparently, includes Peter Thiels’ 20 Under 20 program. Three years ago the PayPal co-founder launched his fellowship to pay a couple of dozen incredibly gifted young people $100,000 to drop out of school and pursue their entrepreneurial dreams — to much media fanfare.

Now, reality is catching up to the hype, and commentators are discovering that Thiel Fellows have, as of yet, failed to change the world. “Three years later, there don’t seem to be any Thiel startups to be amazed at. The few successes lauded seem to be a mirage—or just plain silly,” Singularity and Stanford academic Vivek Wadwha wrote on LinkedIn. We are huge fans of Vivek here at Women 2.0, but this time, here’s why I think this particular criticism is off the mark.

Vivek and I agree on many underlying assumptions. Young people, for instance, should dream big and aim to change the world, especially those with the privilege to be born into prosperity and opportunity. We have the access, the capacity and  the resources. And, like Vivek, I agree that before you can buy a beer, you’re probably too young to deeply understand which problems are worth tackling and too inexperienced to build successful businesses around them even if you did.

Statistics show that it takes several tries before success sets in, even for adults. One analysis, for instance, suggested that an amazing 93% of startups accepted to Y Combinator will eventually fail — and that’s among the best supported and most carefully chosen companies around. VCs offer similarly grim numbers: three-quarters of venture-backed companies don’t return investors’ money. But where Vivek and I part company is that this is a good reason for young people to put off starting.

No, the time to start trying to improve the world is right now.

Is there a lot to learn? Yes: not only for young people, but for all of us, as rules we took for granted change around us. Take the field of social entrepreneurship. For me, it’s not about an explicit double bottom line. It’s about the intention to change lives and the attempt to do so. As the rules change, entrepreneurs – social and otherwise – are innovating in sectors from global mobile payments to healthcare apps and basic and affordable internet infrastructure. Not all will succeed, not all will scale.

But the process will change the way these entrepreneurs approach problem-solving in all they do going forward. In the next five or ten years, how will this social bent affect innovation, and how will innovation affect social change? We’re still on a journey to discover how technology will drive social change, but we know social change will also drive technology. We may not get it right the first time, but we may blur the lines that separate “social” and tech businesses.

And what’s true for social entrepreneurship as a field is also true for individuals. The best way to learn is to do.

All is not lost if a young entrepreneur starts a company and it isn’t solving climate change or ending poverty, but much is lost if we send young people the message that they should hold off on putting their ideas into practice until they are ready to conquer game-changing issues.

Instead, we should encourage them to build their skills and experience as founders. If their first business is “just plain silly,” don’t worry. This won’t be their last business if they are a true entrepreneur. It will be the first of many, and if we keep the ethos alive around them that “doing well and doing good” is the way of the future, they will, eventually, build a company that has a  real impact in the world.

The same point applies to those who poo-poo female entrepreneurs who start fashion-tech companies. I say, well,  for many women this is their first go at it. Thank God they are being productive and creative and leveraging tech. They will learn the chops to run a business and their next startup will take on a bigger challenge — just as many Thiel Fellows undoubtedly will.

We need to accept that becoming equipped to accomplish big things is an incremental process. It took me awhile to learn this lesson myself. I came to the Valley and all I wanted to do was change the world, but I couldn’t do that on day one. Through my work on various startups, I gained experience first as a product manager, then product director and now, only eight years later, as the CEO of a company working to change the world by empowering and educating female entrepreneurs. While God may have created the world in seven days, the expectation for us mortals to change it in just the three years that the Thiel Fellowship has been running seems a bit ludicrous!

The best way to build the social entrepreneurs of the future isn’t only, as Vivek suggests, to insist kids stay in school (necessarily) and stay humble (though book learning, of course, has value too). It’s to teach them to dream big, help them learn through doing, and to keep the ethos of world-changing startups alive and growing. How do we manage  that?

Are Thiel Fellows ready to start companies? Of, course not. Next to no founder is ever ready before she starts a company (or three). That shouldn’t stop them from starting, and it shouldn’t stop us from applauding their audacity to try.

What’s your take on the accomplishments of the Thiel Fellows thus far?

Thank you to Ellen Leanse for input on drafts of this article.

4e31d586b69b7a63066e5b6ab9d3008fShaherose is currently the President and CEO of Women 2.0. At heart she is a mobile and telephony junkie. She’s led new consumer products at Ribbit (BT). Previously, she was Director of Product Management at Talenthouse and JAJAH (sold to Telefonica/O2). Follow her on Twitter at @shaherose.

Photo credit: Chris Beckett via Flickr