Recently, a story in the startup world caught my eye: The rapid rise and just as rapid fall of fintech startup Fast. The TL;DR summary is this: Fast described itself as a service that allows e-commerce businesses to offer Amazon-style one-click checkout to their customers. Founded in 2019, it raised over $160m within about 12 months, burned through it in about 18, and is now shutting down. It did this by massively hyping its solution, aggressively investing in sales and marketing to secure major platforms, and going on a hiring tear.
I won't prosecute the specifics of Fast's failure but in reading about its downfall, I do want to comment on one of my biggest gripes with the startup industry: The focus on hype, the big promise of a one-stop-shop solution that changes the world, and the ever-elusive 'unicorn' status. Reading between the lines, it's quite clear even from industry insiders that Fast put the cart before the horse, that they hadn't truly identified what the core problem was, and – for what problems they did identify – their technology didn't solve it well.
Now I want to caveat that my intention in this Ko Lab isn't to dunk on the importance of having or selling a dream, because the right dream at the right time can move nations (for better or worse). My observation is that for every 'why' there are a million 'hows' that fizzle out. This is perhaps why there's a ~90% failure rate among startups, because I'm pretty sure 100% of them had dreams.
I know that part of the allure of dreams and stories is that it taps into relatable emotions, but I want to posit a slightly different take: Dreams also represent 'solutions' and 'answers'. It describes an end-state situation, one where all the problems have been fixed, people are happy, and – for private businesses in particular – a tidy profit to boot.
Taking the time to understand problems is hard. It can take a lot of mental effort, time, and research, notwithstanding the added layer of complexity that comes with well... people being people. Problems exist in a world of greys and uncertainties, with multiple facets that contribute to why a particular problem exists.
Take the topic of hybrid work, which we covered in last week's Ko Lab. There are many contributing factors to the dynamic of hybrid work, from personal lifestyle preferences to workplace culture to access to childcare to gainful employment to social connection. Or imagine "a world where people work to make a life, not just a living" (*cough* WeWork).
Do you see what I mean?
So on the one hand, thinking big can clearly inspire a sequence of poor decisions. On the other hand, I think having a dream that's too big can also result in a lack of action.
This is where I stick my neck out even further and share what might be a controversial hot take that's been bouncing around my head: I wonder if there's any difference between the visions of a trailblazing WeWork and that of social impact organisations who want to change the world? Who want to 'fix climate change' or achieve 'inclusivity for all'? Sure, the dream isn't based on turning 10x profit but the goal is just as big and – importantly – also belies the complexity of the problem at hand.
After all, there have been numerous examples where the focus on 'doing good' resulted in wholly negative outcomes, such as the Playground Playpump that inadvertently 'forced' women and children to play on a merry go round in order to produce drinking water for communities. Or the digging of thousands of potable wells in Bangladesh that resulted in the mass arsenic poisoning of millions of people (which still hasn't been fixed).
On the 'lack of action' side of the spectrum, I posit this is where we get into the realm of performative statements or 'purpose-washing', especially as it's far easier to talk about diversity and inclusion (for example), rather than walk the walk of understanding the complexity of what it means to genuinely embrace diversity of thought.
I really don't mean to be a downer here. Again, I'm not trying to dunk on big dreams and visions. Rather, what I'm hypothesising is whether we're thinking too big, and in doing so, we distract ourselves from the more impactful (yet challenging) task of diagnosing and deeply understanding root causes.
Wicked problems such as climate change or ending poverty are important dreams to have, however they are complex systems of smaller problems that need to be collectively addressed in order to 'move the needle'. Even addressing a localised challenge (such as minimising single-use plastic) is a huge undertaking that needs to consider consumer behaviour, supply chains, and waste management. And if we somehow get that right, this would only play one small part in the broader fight against climate change.
Therefore would our collective impact in this world be more effective if we didn't think so big? Would we be more effective if we reduced our scope of impact, and instead focus more on moving one specific needle really well? Thus from a startup perspective, it's less about trying to 10x to the moon and instead growing sustainably at 2x the growth. Or from a social impact perspective, it's less about changing the world and instead making an improvement one community at a time.
Let me know your thoughts.
In more light-hearted news, I feel compelled to sing the praises of a new movie that's just premiered in cinemas: Everything Everywhere All At Once. Directed by the Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) and starring an incredible cast of Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quen, Stephanie Hsu, and Jamie Lee Curtis, it tells the story of an aging Chinese immigrant who runs a laundromat (with her genteel husband, an overbearing father, and an increasingly estranged daughter) and gets swept up in a multi-versal action, sci-fi, martial arts, comedy.
This movie is an artistic masterpiece that has instantly shot into my top 3 films of all time. It's a movie that effortlessly blends so many genres and themes in such a harmonious and heartfelt way that I'm frankly in disbelief at how they pulled this off (and judging by the reviews, I'm not the only one). However in spite of such complexity, there is a simple truth to the movie: Sometimes a small decision matters.
What struck me even more deeply was how well this movie handles Asian representation. The actions and decisions are accessible to all, but there are some that I felt spoke even more deeply to those raised in Asian households. This is one of the most inspiring, emotional, creative, outrageous, and fun movie-going experiences I've had in decades and I would encourage you to check it out this Easter if you're looking for something to do.
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Have a great week!