Visionaries are Overrated
Before the 2016 US elections, there was a long period when the media constantly put tech founders on a pedestal. They weren't just people with time and money who were great at their jobs; they were visionaries.
That period is mostly over. The caricature of successful tech founders now is either a genius, a hustler, or both. And that may be true sometimes, but the more founding stories I learn about, the more I realize most success stories don't look anything like that either.
Hard work and luck are always involved, but we know that isn't enough since most startups that raise millions of dollars and hire talented people fail.
As for geniuses? Let's look at the founding stories of four different companies worth billions of dollars, companies you probably recognize. You can decide if these sound like people with levels of foresight or intellect outside of your reach.
Before Instagram was Instagram, it was a location-based app called Burbn, similar to the then-popular Foursquare and Gowalla. It wouldn't be too far-fetched to say that Burbn was a clone with a different coat of paint.
After months of work on Burbn and no signs of growth, Systrom and Krieger, the founders, made a list of the top three things the few users they had liked about the app and decided to focus on photos in particular.
Here it's worth mentioning that Systrom was a photographer for years before this.
With a new vision centered around photography, they created another app called Scotch. It was a prototype of what would eventually become Instagram–a social network with a photos feed. After just a few days, they doubted the idea so much that they dropped it and went back to working on Burbn.
They eventually went back to Scotch again. This time, Systrom's girlfriend told him they should add filters. It sounds like a small thing, but at the time, filter apps like Hipstamatic and Camera+ were at the top of the most downloaded apps in the iPhone App Store.
So they added filters, which made Instagram another photo filters app but one with a built-in social network. Users came for the tool, and they stayed for the network.
Slack was initially a game company that made a game called Glitch.
After four years of working on Glitch, with 45 employees and 17.5 million dollars raised, the company was down to 5 million dollars left in the bank.
The founder, Stewart Butterfield, tried 15 different ideas to turn the company around.
So he shut down Glitch and fired most of his employees to extend the company's life while they tried to figure something out. Investors didn't want their money back; they wanted the team to try something new, anything that might turn their investment around instead of taking a 12.5 million dollar loss.
After some brainstorming, the team decided to make a product out of an internal tool they created to communicate back when they were working on Glitch.
That product became Slack. The company Salesforce is currently acquiring for 27.7 billion dollars.
Twitch, the streaming platform that Amazon bought for $970 million in 2014, started in 2006 as a website called Justin.tv. A sort of web show that followed one of the founders 24/7.
When that didn't go anywhere, they changed Justin TV to allow anyone to broadcast video.
Then, in 2011, after five years of failing to build a business, the founders decided to try two more ideas based on what they had learned from Justin TV. Those ideas were Social Cam and Twitch TV.
Ron Shaich started with a cookie store in downtown Boston called The Cookie Jar. The store did okay, but nobody was buying cookies before noon, so he partnered with a local store called Au Bon Pain to start selling french baked goods in addition to cookies.
Things went well, and he acquired Au Bon Pain in 1981.
A few years later, around 1985, Ron noticed that customers were buying his baguettes and asking him to slice them so that they could fill them with meat and cheese from the local supermarket.
He saw the opportunity and opened his first french bakery cafe that same year, bringing the fast-casual restaurant experience to the mainstream.
Au Bon Pain was the company's urban strategy. Panera Bread came years later when they acquired St. Louis Bread Company to target suburban areas.
Here's Ron talking about his process:
"I have never started with a tight goal in mind. What I have always done, and to this day still do, I see an opportunity, I wade out into the water, and I try to see where that opportunity will take me".
Obviously, Panera bread is not a tech company, but this approach sounds exactly like the one Twitch, Instagram and Slack took. With the exception that Ron's approach was intentional.
Most founding stories are like this. They aren't stories of visionaries or geniuses. They're stories of hard-working, intuitive people who found success by continually testing new ways of solving the same problem.
That doesn't mean visionary geniuses don't exist. It just means that, more often than not, change comes from people who don't rely on being one.
People like you.