THE VIRTUOUS STARTUP

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I meant no harm. I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
— The Once-ler, Dr. Seuss
 
 

It STARTS THE SAME WAY …

… a kid in a dorm room who wants to play. He builds an app and decides it must grow. The press applauds, and the venture capitalists crow. The money comes fast. The profits come slow. The kid in the dorm room decides it must grow. Employees are hired, more mouths to feed. Competitors copy, planting their seeds. Investors get angry, the Board is upset. The kid in the dorm room begins to forget.

His app it was fun, his reasons were pure. Now he’s giving some suited replacement a tour. No, no, it won’t be. This business … it’s mine, I founded it you see? And I’ll keep it by doing just the same as he. I’ll cut what I must. I’ll buy what I need. And I’ll keep you all happy with bottomless greed. The kid in the dorm room, one answer he sees ... the answer to mounting responsibilities ... the answer to the barbarians at the door: He must grow it and grow it and grow it some more.

Sound like Zuckerberg? Like Kalanick? Like every tech founder ever?

What starts off ungrounded is swept away by the inexorable need to get biggerer.  Mark Zuckerberg didn’t start off asking himself: “How do you get machines to control humans?” But he had to get big, so he found the answer: Come close to meeting a core human need, without meeting it.

We live at a time where our brightest, our most ambitious people mine for digital gold. They hire hundreds of thousands of people and raise billions of dollars. They put to work an army of computer engineers, behavioral psychologists, and data scientists toward one end: increase time spent in my app. Do what you must, and if you fail, I’ll be fired next quarter, the end of our tale.

And where has that gotten us? We check our phones more than 80 times a day. We spend more than 3 hours a day on apps, but we use only 40 of them a month. The only way to get biggerer is to be one of the 40 and to get more and more of that precious time … to fracture human attention, to distract at scale, to exploit every trick in the product development trade from Bottomless Bowl to the Privacy Control Paradox to the dopamine-surge of Intermittent Rewards.

That’s why so much of it is empty calories … social candy.  We consume it compulsively, it makes us unhappy, and we consume it some more.

Startups today are rich in tactics, but devoid of purpose. They manufacture purposes which are patently fake. Just look at the most “successful” app of all – Facebook. Facebook is a vampire, who doesn't even pretend not to be. It dons a false nose, mustache, and black-framed glasses, smiles awkwardly through its fangs, and flaps its cape. Making the world "more open and connected" is a euphemism for I vant to suck your data. It has no soul, no beating heart, and it never did. It’s a vampire, only more dangerous. It Leans In to feast on the warm-blooded in broad daylight.

Podcoin is different, a virtuous startup. To compete, it must exploit all the same tricks of the product trade, but only in pursuit of a fundamental good. And storytelling is fundamentally good. Study after study shows stories makes us live longer, reduces stress, staves off Alzheimer’s disease, promotes empathy, and makes us less likely to die. We convert the excess time that is today spent on empty social calories and convert it to time spent listening to podcasts, in return for rewards and charitable giving. In doing so, we help storytellers find an audience and perfect their craft.

There’s only one problem: doing good doesn’t scale. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, is no dummy. He only invests in startups that exhibit one of the Seven Deadly Sins, because only those businesses get big. Facebook pursued Lust before it realized the bigger market was Vanity. LinkedIn, by the founder’s own admission, is Greed. Netflix is Sloth, and Twitter, alas, is nothing if not Anger.

To start a business AND do good, you must pair a deadly sin with a heavenly virtue. Podcoin exploits Greed. We reward you with stuff you probably don’t need. We also exploit Vanity. We make it easy to tell the world how smart and charitable you are. But we do more.

Our heavenly virtues are just as clear: We make charity easy. We pay people to improve themselves, to consume stories. Stories make us more human, and that at the end of the day is our only mission, our guiding light, our fundamental good: to make us more human.