I really struggled last week to express the point I was trying to make. Eventually, because I ran out of time, I had to hit the “Publish” button even though I hadn’t been able to say what I really meant.
In the professional world where I live, founders frequently introduce their approach to business by explaining that they’re not building “lifestyle companies.” The suggestion seems to be that lifestyle companies are content to schlep along with waste and inefficiency but that this company will win by being lean, mean, and agile. I suppose the explanation comes out of the impulse to convince investors that the founders will spend money wisely instead of blowing millions on narcissistic indulgences, and to that extent it’s probably a good thing.
In any event, this perspective about lifestyle companies isn’t uncommon. In my experience, it’s pretty much de rigueur for a startup founder.
So as I spent time thinking last week about not building a lifestyle company, I wondered how framing the concept like that affects the choices that startup founders make. In other words, I wonder whether the determination not to build a lifestyle company is a conclusion founders reach or an assumption that they make.
It’s an important distinction.
My first attempt at writing last week was to resurrect an old draft I had written and then abandoned around this time last year. One of the first people to comment on this blog—maybe the first person to comment about this blog—advised his social circles to “try to ignore some of the politically charged phrasing” in my first few posts. I was simultaneously amused, frustrated, and left in a bit of a pique by his comment because I was deliberately trying not to strike a political tone, partly because I’m writing a blog about otherishness and business, not politics, but also because I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I’ve thought about his comment every time I’ve sat down to write.
I’m a conservative guy. I am a Mormon kid from Idaho after all. A lot of what I write is influenced by my understanding of what my scriptures teach. I’ve spent more time reading and thinking about uber-conservative thinking by guys like Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich Hayek than anyone I personally know. But I also survived law school and I read plenty of excellent writing and thinking by people who are as different from me politically as it’s possible to be. What I’m sharing here is a distillation of a theme that runs through all of their writing.
As I thought about how I would address last week’s post tonight, I realized that worrying about how some readers might pigeonhole me is silly. Mostly it’s silly because there are like 12 of you and most of you already know me well enough that pigeonholing is the least of my problems. But it’s also silly because worrying about what you’ll think (or whether you’ll agree) makes it harder to say what I’m here to say. In the end, I realized I’m here to share the insights I’ve had that I’ve never seen anyone else express. No surprise that they might not be appreciated by everyone.
So my worry about being pigeonholed was an assumption I made, not a conclusion I reached.
A few days ago I was listening to the radio on the way to work. I typically flip between ’90s alt-rock, conservative talk radio, NPR, and classical music because I can only take any one of them for a few minutes at a time.
As one of the local talk shows started up, the host ran a quote from some guy I didn’t recognize. The speaker said, “We win when our message is hopeful and optimistic; when we apply conservative principles to help everybody rise up, not just those that have already made it.”
Now to tie it all together:
The assumptions that we make about life, about business, about our economy, our politics, and pretty much everything else we do, shape the way we construct our world. They do this because they are intimately connected with, and ultimately give definition to, the way we perceive the world around us.
Because our assumptions are so powerful, they have two consequences. First, they’re a useful, rational sort of shorthand for understanding the world. We’re bombarded with information and we need a way to sort through it quickly. Our assumptions give us an effective tool to do that.
The second consequence is related. Because assumptions sort in a binary sort of way—think square peg in a round hole—they also often lead us to discard ideas that aren’t familiar before we’ve had a chance to think about them carefully. We don’t have time to file down the edges or try another hole because we’ve already discarded the idea that wasn’t what we expected. This rapid process of comparing and discarding reinforces our assumptions because it feels like progress; we can look around and say “I considered 1,472 different ideas, discarded 1,471 and kept one that worked.”
That’s the same sort of shorthand founders use when they explain they’re not building a lifestyle business. They’re trying to persuade their investors to invest by giving them something that fits the assumption that the opposite of a lean, efficient organization is “just” a lifestyle business.
But using the shorthand also determines how the founders will interact with their business. Every time they face a decision, part of the calculus will be “Is this what lifestyle businesses do?” If the answer to that question is yes, that option will usually join the 1,470 other discarded ideas on the floor without further question.
But if you do that, do you know what your alternatives actually are? Do you really need to become the next unicorn? Are you sure you can’t build a lean, efficient business that will reach your goals and be a lifestyle business at the same time?
Making such a decision without considering these and other alternatives will prevent founders from ever becoming truly otherish in business, to the detriment of those founders and the system.
I’m writing this blog to explain (and explore) how to apply free-market principles in a way that will help everybody rise up, not just those who’ve already made it. That has implications for my politics, for my economic outlook, and simply for the way I view the world. The beauty of the free market is that if I’m right (and if I’m good enough at explaining it to you) maybe I’ll convince a few of you along the way.