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Building your first startup? Here are some tips to avoid tunnel vision

After years of unprecedented growth and record profits, the tech industry is experiencing a bit of a wobble. In 2022, US-based tech companies laid off over 140,000 people; this year we are already at 106,000 within the first quarter. Not to mention the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, which sent shockwaves across the tech ecosystem. 

Starting a business in such tough market conditions may seem mad to some, but personally I would not dissuade anyone from following their dreams and passions. It’s our entrepreneurial spirit to want to create and succeed. It would be wrong to try and tame a wild lion. 

However, I do think it is time for tech to take a reality check and investigate where things have gone wrong to build back better. These uncertain times might be an opportunity for a much needed reset of priorities. One area which I have felt for a long time needed addressing in the tech space is the“tunnel vision syndrome”. All of us in tech are desperate to find solutions to problems, however, recent history shows us that tunnel vision all too frequently leads to the creation of new problems and negative externalities. Below are some tips on how to avoid falling into the tunnel vision trap, which is in my view an important ingredient for success for next-generation start-ups: 

Get your business priorities right 

It is time to step away from the business mantra “growth and profits above everything else”. Looking to the future, life will become more challenging as society increasingly battles inequality and climate change and business has to take responsibility for its actions. Following a growth agenda at all costs without thinking of the effect it has on society and the environment is not a sustainable way to do business. 

Step outside of your bubble

Us humans do tend to have a herd mentality and we obviously like hanging out with people that share our views, values and interests. Nothing wrong with that, but as a society we seem to increasingly view any situation as black and white, with nuance being eroded, leaving a lot of room for misunderstanding, alienation and a belief that only one way of thinking is the right way. It’s tough to widen your network whilst spending every waking minute building your business. However, stepping outside of the bubble is important to widen our horizons. Doing an evening class, joining a sports team or volunteering at a local charity will all improve your wellbeing and expose you to different sets of viewpoints and experiences that can have an impact on how you design your products and services.   

Work with a diverse bunch 

This is an obvious point, but one that is often hard to see through in practice. Building a startup means working at breakneck speed. Recruitment in the early days often happens organically through a rank and file of people in your extended network which you know and trust. Personal relationships are important to you, but that invariably means that your inner circle might end up being a bit like carbon copies of yourself. 

Having a broad church of backgrounds and experiences are important to have round the table, however. This might add complexity to the decision-making process, but it means you won’t be navigating your growth agenda while wearing blinkers.  

Think regenerative design 

The age of “move fast and break things” is really and truly over. And good riddance. While there are some examples of disruptive innovation that has enriched our 21st century lives - think the internet and smartphones - there is a cemetery full of technology that caused a lot of environmental and societal destruction. We need to start building technology that is in tune with nature and the community instead of disregarding the environment we live in on the quest for disruptive innovation. Regenerative design principles that take into account areas including impact on the environment, health and wellbeing, resiliency and social equity need to be cornerstones of any new business if we want to build a prosperous future. 

Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture 

When we started our business in earnest, we had a big and lofty goal: to help solve the climate crisis by improving the livelihoods of farmers. For a while we focused entirely on our farm management software and we could have continued on that path and do really well. However, we had our ear to the ground and realized that if we wanted to truly go after our initial goal, we needed to branch out and tackle new challenges. Breaking out of our tunnel opened so many opportunities and possibilities to us that were previously unthinkable for a small Estonian startup. The moral of the story: it’s good to be thinking big when you are small as long as you consider your impact on the world around you. 

What all these points boil down to is that as business owners and startup founders we have to take responsibility for the effects our products and services have on the world around us. We can no longer set ourselves up for reaping the rewards while others have to deal with the externalities we have created. The start-up investor landscape is very challenging at the moment, however, one area that is flourishing is impact investing. The GIIN estimates the size of the worldwide impact investing market to be USD 1.164 trillion in 2022, up from USD 715 billion in 2020 and USD 502 billion in 2019. All the signs are there that we are leaving the era of cheap money and frivolous technology behind us and the market forces are nudging us towards a new way of doing business that fully embraces ESG principles. Now is the time to break free from the tunnel and welcome a more considered and thoughtful way of doing business. 

 

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