What if entrepreneurship was both altruistic and effective ?

Hundreds of “start-ups” are created each day. You probably know someone who has given up everything to go on an entrepreneurial adventure.

The concern is that most of the time, these companies make no contribution to solving the problems facing humanity. Some of them have a negative social and environmental impact.

Yet entrepreneurship, through its ability to change the real, can be an effective way to act to improve the state of the world. Some start-ups are developing lab-grown meat to fight animal suffering and global warming. Other disruptive companies are working to democratize solar energy.

Thus, the fact that companies of no interest emerge every day is more of a road accident than an inherent feature of entrepreneurship.

But how can we ensure that it actually contributes to the improvement of the world?

I just watched a lecture by Spencer Greenberg on “EA Entrepreneurship”, or altruistic and effective entrepreneurship. This one offers some possible answers that are worth studying.

The idea that he develops is that innovation is not the prerogative of large companies but that it is accessible and desirable for all groups of individuals who aim to meet the challenges of this century.

His contribution is a framework of thought that deconstructs the idea that innovation is above all a matter of genius and extreme opportunity. The reason is simple: focusing on these uncontrollable parameters does not help us to know how to create an altruistic and efficient company.

When you think about the latter concept…. you are tempted to look for the thing that seems as possible, discoverable, intelligent and high impact. According to Spencer Greenberg, this is where the trap lies: if your idea is simultaneously possible, discoverable, smart and big, someone is already working on it. So you shouldn’t invest your time in it.

However, you can do the opposite. Yes, you have understood correctly: working on something impossible, undiscoverable, stupid, and tiny. What ?

1. Impossible until now. Greenberg advises to learn in depth a useful and growing technology in order to discover possibilities unknown until now. It also invites to consider the industries in which this technology has not yet been applied.

2. Undiscovered by others. The idea is to take advantage of your knowledge of several fields of expertise that have nothing to do with each other, in order to perceive the problems and provide a unique response. Basically, he recommends to ask yourself “what are two unrelated topics I know a lot about, and what does combining them make possible?”

3. Stupid on the surface. Some ideas in the world are counter-intuitive. Why developing artificial meat when meat is everywhere and even over-consumed ? I suppose that 95% of the population finds this idea really absurd, in addition to not being “natural”. Yet when you know that more than 1,000 billion sentient beings are killed each year in slaughterhouses, that livestock farming pollutes more than all transport combined and that clean meat could change the situation, it changes the way you see things. The perception of an idea is thus conditioned by the information available to its observers. Even if there are obviously cases where an idea is just stupid, even taken from all its angles, period. To avoid this, it is important to maintain a more or less close link between the idea and the scientific knowledge and evidence involved. The questions to ask yourself: what is the important truth that you know but few know? What seems stupid unless you know this truth?

4. Tiny at first. Yes, Greenberg recommends you to focus on a problem concerning a small group of people. This part of the framework is valuable for many reasons. The most obvious is that starting with a problem encountered by a small group of people:

  • generally requires fewer resources to act effectively
  • makes it possible to integrate into the group to gain an in-depth understanding of people’s needs
  • allows you to test your idea before asking yourself whether you should grow or not

The approach then consists in extending your action to a larger group, once you have completed this first step.

Obviously, this framework does not do everything. There are many other parameters to master before an idea can be realized and contribute to a positive change in the state of the world. The ability to build the product, but also the ability to learn from feedback, are part of this. You can find these concepts in the personal MBA.

Spencer Greenberg’s conference

More resources

All resources on EA entrepreneurship