The Big Idea

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So what now?

I quit my job, with no replacement income secured. I’ve alluded to the fact that I want to do “more” than what I’ve been doing. I’ve hinted at a “big idea”.

Sure, buddy. Let’s hear what you’ve got.

Okay…you ready? Here’s The Big Idea…

I’m going to build a company.

I’m going to create a private enterprise that provides a service in exchange for financial remuneration. I’m going to have a ‘value proposition’, a ‘satisfaction-guaranteed’ approach to customer service, a business plan, financial statements, recurring meetings to monitor progress and maybe even a holiday party where everyone hopes they don’t end up as That Guy after getting a little too inspired on the dance floor by Rick Astley’s soulful promises of undying love. (With myself as the only employee, early odds of my escaping that distinction are decidedly slim.) I’m going to build the biggest damn company I possibly can, and maximize the everloving shit out of the bottom-line profit.

And then I’m going to give that profit away.

The Big Idea is not so much about the particular business venture I have in mind. As a matter of fact, for now I will deliberately leave out the details of that venture. It’s tangential to my purpose and my point.

The Big Idea is that private enterprise need not have, as its primary focus, the maximization of personal wealth for its proprietors.

The Big Idea is that by eschewing personal financial gain as my main focus in life – and instead aiming to make as big a positive impact on the world as I humanly can – I will reap the reward of greater fulfillment and happiness than any luxury vehicle or MTV Crib could ever provide.

The Big Idea is that “making a change” in the world need not involve foregoing earthly comforts entirely. That it’s possible to both live comfortably (but not extravagantly) and devote your life to something meaningful. (It strikes me as criminal that – to great extent – the people who do the very most good in the world are those who have first been forced to accept that they will forego even basic material comforts. Couldn’t we, as a society, find a way to enable a middle-class lifestyle for the most selfless people out there?)

To be clear, my goal is to build a company that – among other things – pays me a salary. I don’t know yet what that salary will be, but the idea is that it would be enough to put a roof over my head, food on the table and allow for a modest and totally sufficient degree of consumerist entertainment. (I like going to movies, eating at restaurants on occasion, maybe even going on a simple vacation once in a while.) It will not – now or ever – be a salary that enables an extravagant lifestyle. Luxury cars, enormous houses, indiscriminate spending… those are concepts that I feel entirely comfortable pledging to abandon.

What is the number though? I don’t know. Less than I was making at the job I just left. Significantly less. Maybe on the order of what more noble, middle-class livelihoods earn. (I’m thinking teachers, nurses, etc.) I hesitate to specify a number right away, because I don’t want to open the door for a debate on whether the number I arbitrarily choose is, in fact, consistent with the type of lifestyle I described. So let’s focus on the concept, shall we? – I’ll shoot for a lifestyle that affords me what I need and a modest additional amount to allocate to consumerism, but not way more than I need.

I’ll pause for a second to draw attention to my seriousness: this is a pledge. That’s why I’m writing it here, for all to see and hold me accountable to. Today, tomorrow and 20 years from now. I pledge to not waver.

The significance of The Big Idea isn’t that I’m the first person to have aspirations of helping others. (Far from it, obviously.) And it’s also not that I’m the first person to conceive of the notion of founding a charitable organization.

The significance of The Big Idea, as far as I can tell, is that it’s based on a belief that companies – organizations that collect money in exchange for a product – don’t need to exist to maximize wealth for their owners, or even to enable more than a relatively modest living. Sure, there are plenty of companies that donate to charity. That’s awesome. And there are plenty of really wealthy business moguls who give or have pledged to give large portions of their fortune away. We should celebrate those people. But here’s what I’ve observed: most of the people or company leaders that I’ve just described also enjoy a standard of living that would qualify as ‘extravagant’ by even the most forgiving of definitions. In the business world, the propensity to help others does seem to be conditional upon one first providing for his or her own affluence.

Who am I to call out the very people that actually have a charitable presence in the world? (And particularly when I’m someone who has made effectively zero such contributions myself.) Well, I’m nobody. This actually isn’t meant to call anyone out. I hope all of the people in my apparent crosshairs keep doing exactly what they do. I’m just expressing, and pledging to pursue, an idea. A different approach to perhaps – hopefully! – a similar effect.

Because here’s what I think will happen.

I think that by having charity as the central focus of a business enterprise, that business becomes much easier to build.

I believe that, generally, people are good by default. I believe that if you present someone with an accessible opportunity to be an agent of Good, they will jump at it. I believe that if you offer a product or service that people spend money on anyway, and give them a choice between vendors seeking to maximize wealth and Good respectively, they will – all else equal – choose the latter.

The biggest challenge that (I think) the average charity faces is the difficulty in enticing people to part with money that they (the donors) will thereby no longer have available for other things. The Big Idea involves not asking people to make that choice – at least not to the same extent. (Granted, there are costs associated with providing a service and running a business – to say nothing of tax implications – so we may not be talking apples to apples here. But I’d bet you get the general picture.)

The Big Idea is, as you may have noticed, one that can be applied to any type of business venture. And the beauty of it is that it has limitless potential. At the risk of delusional self-aggrandizement (not my goal, I promise), I will point out that if someone wants to take my idea and build a company per the ethos I’ve laid out, then mission accomplished. You can’t steal from me a personal fortune that I don’t seek.

By a similar token, maybe this Idea exists already. Maybe there’s a company out there – or dozens or hundreds of them – that is already doing exactly what I’m talking about. I haven’t done any research because guess what? It doesn’t matter. If my goals are in fact totally copycat in nature, awesome. Let’s all do this. I’ll see you at the annual convention. We can drink boxed wine and eat at whatever restaurant we happen to have coupons for.

There is much to discuss here. I have lots of thoughts as to how I intend to pursue this Big Idea – some of them may even provoke skepticism on the part of the discerning reader, as to whether I’m taking the ethically or practically optimal path to my goal. (Sneak preview: if I am successful in building a company that employs people, I would aim to create the sort of environment that people would love to come to work in. This may have an arguably adverse impact on the bottom line. Or, on the other hand, maybe those employees are happy enough to provide a better customer experience, which leads to more customers and more profit to give away… Guess we’ll see.)

What’s the catch? There isn’t one. I’ll leave The Big Question (“Why???”) for another post, but for now I will simply confirm that my intentions are what I’m painting them to be. I have no hidden agenda.

(Tangential interjection, because I see no better place in which to shoehorn this thought into this post: in talking about everything you see here, and in all of the many conversations and related pursuits that lie ahead for me, I am blatantly drawing attention to myself and what I’m doing. Trust me when I say that this is not for personal validation. There’s just no other way to go about what I’m trying to accomplish. By contrast to the millions of people who quietly devote themselves to charitable work every day, I am a regular asshole who has done essentially nothing to help the world. This is me trying to fix that. Is that fair?)

I may fail miserably, or not make as big an impact as I’d like to. But even if those things happen, at least I will have put The Big Idea into the world, for better or worse. And I will be able to take deep, soul-fulfilling comfort in the fact that I tried. I will have quieted the nagging voice in my head that has always told me I wasn’t expending my energy on the right things. See? This is still kind of a selfish thing. I warned you of as much.

Oh, and I have a deadline. I’m giving myself one year to make a go of this, before – in the event of failure – I have to tuck my tail between my legs and trudge back to white-collar purgatory. (That’s right: let’s not lose sight of the fact that the worst-case scenario for me is that I’m forced to change course and grudgingly accept a position that pays me a six-figure salary. You see what I’m saying here? I can’t not do this.)

Yesterday was Day 0.

Tick, tock.

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