Are You Just Grabbing For Cash – Or Are You Denting The Universe?
“We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?” —Steve Jobs
No doubt you’ve heard the above quote from Steve Jobs before. But what exactly is a dent in the universe?
When I was young, I had a bit of an existential crisis in faith. I was raised Greek Orthodox, but when I got into my teens in high school, I decided that that faith wasn’t really doing it for me, so I started asking – “What is the meaning of life” as most teenagers typically do, I suspect. I also wondered why people stop thinking about the meaning of life or why we exist here on this planet; I mean, isn’t everyone curious about that? I wondered why teenagers may go through this questioning, but it seemed to me that once you decided to “grow up” and become an adult, you simply just stopped thinking about it. I couldn’t understand why people stopped thinking about it – I mean, isn’t that the central question of our life?
I read about various religions voraciously, even adopting some of the practices from some religions, such as zazen from Zen Buddhism. I would sit and meditate, attempting to empty my mind or bring myself into a state of mindfulness as I counted breaths or focused on a mantra. After going through a number of different religions, exploring their answer to the question of “What is the meaning of life?” or, as some say it, “Why are we here?”, I came to the conclusion that there is no specific reason why we are here. That the meaning of life is either one of two things:
- To ponder the meaning all of your life, then procreate, so your children can continue to ponder, eventually coming up with the answer, if not in this generation, then maybe in a future generation.
- Make your own meaning. Come up with your own reason for why you are here.
I think that the latter is what Steve Jobs was talking about when the talked about making a dent in the universe. In my mind, making a dent in the universe is a great term because, if you think about it, he never said anything about the type of dent or size of the dent. He was basically saying, “Make a difference.”
While Steve was pretty wealthy at that point, I’m pretty sure that he didn’t mean that we all should make a dent in the universe by amassing huge amounts of money, then putting that money towards denting the universe, as suggested by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (aka, make the money first, no matter how then you get to do good works). No, I think he was very specific in that the dent comes first, and the money will follow.
In my line of work, developing innovative new products, services, and patents, I come across many prospects and current clients who are focused on the money side of innovation. There is not a day that goes by when I hear a definition of “innovation” that does not include the words “billion dollar business”. In fact, many executives will only consider an idea innovative if it can increase revenues by a billion dollars. Everyone loves a unicorn.
So what happens is that we end up with outcome-based innovation. We focus on current (and rarely near future) customer needs and attempt to innovate to those problems because these are “known” problems. These ideas rarely lead to innovation that could be worth a billion dollars, except in some very rare instances where small incremental changes can, over time, add up to a billion dollars.
Outcome-based innovation is great but rarely leads to disruptive, game-changing innovation. It rarely hits that stratospheric valuation. Even worse, it takes resources away from your team, possibly coming up with truly disruptive out-of-the-box thinking, which is supposedly your goal.
If you look at most of today’s most successful startups, they didn’t start with outcome-based innovation. They were shooting for a specific target. They weren’t looking to be unicorns. They had a problem that typically applied to the founders, and then they solved that problem. In most cases, they never even thought about the value of the company, the value of the services, or what or even if their potential customers would even pay for that product or service.
No, they were just thinking, “This is a cool product which will make a difference in my life, and maybe even the lives of many people” They weren’t thinking about the billions of dollars that they would eventually make. All they thought about was denting the universe and improving people’s lives. If they could improve people’s lives, and get traction and users of their product, then maybe they might eventually find a way to pay for it.
Most of the high-flying startups of today came from that simple premise: first dent the universe. Make the lives of many people better. Then, figure out some way of making money from it. But improve lives first.
If you refocus your innovation efforts on that – forget the money that you might charge – forget the billions that you might raise, forget that shareholders who might be overjoyed – and focus on denting the universe, then you just may be able to eventually build that billion-dollar business.