If TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacy is to be believed, Silicon Valley has lost
its way. There was once a golden era of innovation in which every
startup sought to change the world (and make billions of dollars in the

So to get Silicon Valley back on track, Lacy is sending a message to
startups: “you’re supposed to be changing the world, remember?

In a blog post yesterday, she reflected on the recent TechCrunch50 conference and laments that there was “not enough passion, not enough swinging for the fences, not enough trying to change the world“. In her opinion, far too many startups are playing it safe, looking to evolve instead of revolutionize, and hoping to settle for $170m acquisitions (shame on you Mint.com!).

Having listened to many of the startups presenting at TechCrunch50 thanks to TechCrunch’s generous free live streaming of the event, I’ll agree with Lacy: there wasn’t a whole lot of jump-out-of-your-seat excitement. That’s not to say, however, that there weren’t a few startups there with real potential to build decent businesses.

But building a decent businesses is apparently a sad fate for Lacy, as she writes, “The people who extol the virtues of ‘sensibility’ are never the people at the core of the next great companies“. Her thesis: startups should be chasing after big, crazy ideas. Things that will change lives. Startups are the only companies with the freedom to do this. Anything less is an insult to Silicon Valley.

Unfortunately, I have to disagree and I can sum up why in one sentence: the people who end up changing the world usually aren’t the people who set out to change the world.

Alexander Graham Bell, for instance, like many prolific inventors whose inventions went on to change the world, was a natural tinkerer. At the age of 12, he invented a device for dehusking at a mill to help a friend whose family operated a flour mill. His goal was simple: make the dehusking process more efficient for his friend’s family.

Alexander Graham Bell isn’t alone. Take Galileo Galilei, Nikola Tesla, the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison. Most of the creative minds we associate with world-changing ideas were not motivated by some narcissistic drive to change the world but by an innate desire to understand the world around them and to solve real problems faced by those who live in it. To make certain tasks things easier, better, faster. While I’m sure many of them realized that their ideas were unique and bold, I’ve seen no mention of a desire to change the world in credible accounts of their motivations. Ironically, some of Galileo’s first ‘successful‘ inventions were designed for a modest purpose: make some money — fast.

In the tech world, when Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore co-founded Intel, it was to develop memory chips. When Bill Gates started Microsoft, it was to sell BASIC interpreters. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page set out to build a better search engine. Obviously these individuals saw potential in what they were doing, but had their journeys started with a search for business ideas that they knew would change the world, there can be little doubt that the world would not know Intel, Microsoft or Google.

After all, when Intel was founded in 1968, Noyce and Moore had no idea that the age of the personal computer was on its way and Intel hadn’t yet even invented the microprocessor that would serve as its foundation. When Microsoft was founded in 1975, Gates wasn’t thinking about an operating system. And when Brin and Page founded Google in 1998, there were plenty of other search engines and the cash cow (AdWords) that gave Google the ability to really grow was still nearly two years away.

In short, the entrepreneurs behind three of the most prominent technology companies could never have predicted that the outcome of their focus on relatively narrow ideas would lead to opportunities that, when seized, would impact people and businesses around the globe in profound ways. Which is natural. Some, like Lacy however, apparently believe that entrepreneurs and investors have some sort of innate ability to predict which ideas will blossom into world-changing innovations and which won’t, even though everything we see in the history of science and business tells us that breakthrough innovations generally come expectedly from the most unlikely of sources under the most unpredictable of circumstances.

Which gets to the heart of another problem with setting out to change the world: the ideas that do change the world typically don’t start out as clear-cut world-changing ideas. They grow over time. Henry Ford is widely credited with being the ‘inventor‘ of the assembly line. But as the Wikipedia entry for ‘assembly linehighlights, it was a long time in coming. Ford’s motivation when he started Ford Motor Company: to build “a motor car for the great multitude“. Translation: to give the average person access to the liberating mobility of the automobile. His great contribution to the world — the blueprint for the modern-day assembly line — was merely the means necessary to achieve his desired end.

It’s counter-intuitive to suggest that today’s technology entrepreneurs need embrace a self-aggrandizing world view in which every business that is started should be designed to reshape history and that anything less is somehow a waste of effort. Good entrepreneurs are problem-solvers, not megalomaniacs. The most successful observe first-hand a significant but well-defined problem, focus on understanding it and dedicate themselves to solving it. In the process, some touch millions or billions of lives and change the world in the process. Others simply contribute to society by helping individuals and businesses in their target markets, creating jobs and operating productive, profitable businesses.

The entrepreneurs who instead focus on abstract ideas and saving the world are generally so focused on outcomes and the size of their ideas that they miss out on actually identifying real problems that, once solved, might make some difference somewhere and could conceivably lead to yet more opportunities that aren’t immediately visible. In most cases, their desire to do something that helps everybody leads to an outcome in which they help nobody.

In conclusion, I think a short story is in order.

A great man died recently. His name was Norman Borlaug. You may not be familiar with him, but by some estimates his work saved one billion lives. That’s right — one billion. His journey in changing the world started in Mexico, where for he spent more than a decade working to develop high-yielding, disease-resistant strains of wheat. Despite initial internal questions over whether he made the right career decision, years of painstaking, dedicated work led to discoveries that would help spark the Green Revolution and feed hundreds of millions of people in the developing world at a time when doomsayers claimed that the world couldn’t physically produce any more food. Borlaug certainly didn’t start out trying to change the world. He was trying to find a solution to well-defined problems affecting a single staple crop. When he finally did, what he needed to do next was obvious. The world is a better place because a man named Norman Borlaug solved a problem, not because he tried to make the world a better place.

Although Borlaug was a scientist, teacher and humanitarian, and not an internet entrepreneur, his story is one that should inspire entrepreneurs. Focus on solving a problem. Relieve someone’s pain. Earn an honest living (don’t let anyone tell you that $170m isn’t enough). And if you happen to change the world in the process, consider yourself blessed.

Photo credit: foxspain via Flickr.