March 22, 2013
Startups and the American Dream
Do we dare even speak of the American Dream anymore? Do the lofty ideals of our founding fathers give way in the face of the harsh realities of these modern times? These times when disillusionment and alienation from our society seemingly run rampant amongst young and old alike? The answers to these questions, like the ideals, are self evident.
I would argue that in times like these the American Dream compels our Nation the most. The very term “The American Dream” was coined in a book written during the depths of The Great Depression. The author, James Truslow Adams was also an idealist. His thoughts on the American Dream echoed those of our founding fathers. But The Great Depression was an economic and social calamity so epic and powerful that it fundamentally altered the character and ethos of our nation. The abstracts of freedom and opportunity were amended with a more pragmatic belief that hard work deserved to result in economic and social upward mobility no matter where you came from or what you had at the start… anyone who worked hard should be rewarded. This new ethos or set of ideals served us well for about 50 years.
Embedded in the aforementioned “reward” is the feeling of accomplishment that correlates directly with the notion of having a “career”. Each person, to some extent, defines who they are by what they do for a living and how well they do it. Unfortunately, at an ever accelerating pace, even if you work harder than most, are a model company employee and over deliver successful results in your field and function, you can easily find yourself unemployed with a career that is no longer viable. Thus you are denied the ability to identify yourself with your work and associated accomplishments. With the push of a button or the stroke of a pen, your American Dream vanishes. This is really tough – we all know a bunch of great people who fit this description.
It’s the machines. The Great Depression changed the entire socio-economic system in the 1930’s – now, since the 1980’s new technology is effecting changes that are perhaps even more profound. Hard work and dedication are still necessary, but in our time, guarantee almost nothing.
So what to do? I believe there are two options. One is to stick with the old formula: work hard, work smart, show up every day and depend on “dumb ass luck”. It can work. The second is a word I don’t know but here is what it means: an ability to be like Wayne Gretzky. Relax – I am clarifying; what I mean is this: Wayne Gretsky did not go to the puck, he went to where he somehow knew the puck would be… (BTW this man’s nickname is “The Great One” so pay attention).
Here’s an anecdote. My Father was a salesman and he loved it. He worked for a trading company so they didn’t make anything. He told me that the only true assets the firm had were the people who rode up and down in the elevator every day. This was who he was (actually still is). He worked hard to be good at it and it was his career. He lived the American Dream. He has retired comfortably.
It’s easy to see where this goes. Please welcome our new information technology application named Salesforce.com – a cloud based software program that keeps track of every detail of every customer or prospect bringing total transparency and instant information to the sales process. This IT based innovation means that the individual salesman, who had power based on individual relationships and the information proprietary to them about their customers, is now virtually powerless and in fact, almost fungible. Certainly, sales people can now be paid less, covering the cost of Salesforce.com plus a lot more. As of 3.23.13, the investors who supported the startup Salesforce.com put in $21M according to Crunchbase and the company is currently valued on the NYSE at over $25B.
Uh Oh – this type of disruptive technology is being created continuously by individuals who are constantly innovating. The results of this single example are now the rule – not the exception. So lots of “careers” and American Dreams are now swirling the bowl. These people were where the puck was, not moving to where the puck would be (Gladwell used hockey in Outliers too!).
So let me bring this around. Disruptive technology and innovation are not slowing down. Opportunities are growing, not receding. In the last few years business schools have begun to focus on, teach, compete and be ranked specifically on the quality of curriculum pertaining to entrepreneurship, or the term I prefer – startups. The infrastructure for learning about and being involved in and being good at startups continues to evolve and expand. Legislation has passed encouraging their proliferation. It’s possible I should put my hand up when they announce the “dumb ass luck” category, but I raised my first IT startup based angel round in June, 1996.
The American Dream is still there. It may be however, that fulfilling it requires a bit of courage. Moving to where you think the puck is going can feel a lot riskier than being where the puck already is.