If Your Startup Isn't Improving the Entire Human Condition, Fuck It

If you're part of the elite Y Combinator startup cabal, you recently received this list—"57 startup lessons"—in your inbox. There are a few bits of decent, generic advice. It's also a tidy explanation of why startup creators are making terrible mistakes over, and over again.

The list, an exercise in faux-motivation and truisms, offers "lessons" such as these:

Product comes first. If people love your product, the tiniest announcements will get attention. If people don’t love your product, no amount of marketing effort will help.

Sales fix everything. You can screw up everything else and get through it if your product sells well.

Sort of Sun Tzu for the LinkedIn set. The post was quickly co-signed by Y-Combinator chief and venture capital deity Paul Graham, as well as Marc Andreessen:

Wow is this list good. It has the kind of resonance you only get when you're writing from a lot of hard experience.

So what among these 57 bullet points truly resonates? Mostly the things that are arrogant, self-contradictory, or just silly:

Work on a problem that has an immediately useful solution, but has enormous potential for growth. If it doesn’t augment the human condition for a huge number of people in a meaningful way, it’s not worth doing. For example, Google touches billions of lives by filling a very concrete space in people’s daily routine. It changes the way people behave and perceive their immediate physical surroundings. Shoot for building a product of this magnitude.

Emphasis added. That improving the very existence of humankind, the enterprise of medicine, philosophy, and civil rights leaders can be straight-face lumped in with making an iPhone app tells it all. In our modern bog of disruptors, to have your startup be even noticed by people beyond your closest friends and mother is an accomplishment—but that's small potatoes. Your next "Pandora for dairy" startup shouldn't just be an amusement or convenience: it should fundamentally improve the experience of being alive.

This on its own, is lunacy. And it's plain bad business advice: Tumblr, Instagram, PayPal, Seamless—all nice things we can be glad are around, but none of them have "augmented the human condition." It's a fantasy goal.

Particularly when paired with some of the other "lessons."

If you can’t get to ramen profitability with a team of 2 – 4 within six months to a year, something’s wrong.

If your startup can't both uplift humanity and become profitable in under a year, something's wrong.

Get on the train as early as possible, but make sure the technology is there to make the product be enough better that it matters.

Augment the human condition, but "get on the train" of someone else's idea—make another way to share videos from your phone, for example. Humanity's greatest leaps forward have been on the proverbial train, such as actual trains.

And yet:

Don’t build something that already exists.

It goes on and on like this, to no end. But at least one person discussing the list on Hacker News seems to have one foot outside of the bubble:

this is the kind of arrogance i find disheartening about these kinds of lists. really - things aren't worth doing unless they clear this impossibly ambitious bar? should i tell the owner of the corner cafe i stop into after work every other day, and that gives me a huge amount of joy nearly every time, that she should give it up because her business doesn't "augment the human condition for a huge number of people"? how about the guy who wrote the $5 clipboard app that makes my life much easier? i'm sure he has lots of customers but "a huge number" that have "augmented" their humanity because of his clipboards.... the problem with these kinds of statements is they can be rationalized by smart people into all sorts of justifications for doing and/or not doing a huge number of things.

The augmentation to our condition we need most is for more people to recognize arrogance instead of letting venture capitalists feed them platitudes via gavage. In the meantime, Paul Graham will continue to heed this advice and invest in more companies like these, part of the Y Combinator fleet:

FLIGHTCAR: AIRPORT CAR SHARING

ZARANGA: VACATION RENTAL MARKETPLACE

BUILDZOOM: YELP FOR CONTRACTORS

TEESPRING: KICKSTARTER FOR T-SHIRTS

When he has ordered a customized tee with an ease never known before, Man shall be free.