Earlier today, I caught up with an old friend and we were talking about the current state global affairs, and all the political change sweeping through different parts of the world. Driving into work, my mind started to wander about all of these movements, and then I started to think about companies — specifically, startups — that were in fact bigger than just a company, but were actually movements. So, I blasted out a few tweets about startups that, to me, seemed like they were movements. As I learned quickly, the word “movements” means different things to different people, and passionately so. (Scroll to the bottom for a custom timeline of my tweets and some select replies.)
While I have my own opinion of what constitutes a startup movement, upon reflection, I don’t think it’s my place to define what one is for everyone else. That’s because movements exist in the mind of the beholder. Some movements are outside of technology companies and startups. Some people truly believe their fledgling idea is creating a movement, and I am certainly not the one to say “No, it is not.” Who knows? What’s clear, though, is that a movement — as a word — describes something we don’t discuss often enough as it relates to startups. For example, it’s one thing to say that Coinbase is growing — it’s entirely another thing to assert that Coinbase is helping lead a movement, a movement that’s bigger than its own company, a movement that is creating other companies with real revenues and drawing in the curiosity and time of some of the most creative computer scientists in the world. What’s nice about a movement is that it doesn’t need much to grow. It doesn’t need to be hacked that much, because it has its own mass, its own density, its own vector, all of which create a kinetic energy that attracts the right people to its mission and makes things better for a greater number of people.
Coinbase (and other companies) are part of a movement because they enable transactions that were once not easily executed and because the helps provide financial services to the once-underbanked. Kickstarter is a movement because it created a platform that allowed everyday people to transform into investors of other peoples’ projects to help make ideas turn into reality. Etsy is a movement because it created a platform for people who make things to earn a living in a vibrant marketplace and reach more customers. Airbnb and Couchsurfing are movements because people need extra income, people want to travel differently and make new friends, and consumers want more choice in their styles of travel. Facebook is a movement that started by connecting people 1:1; then Twitter became a movement connecting 1:many; and then Snapchat became a movement by people rejection the notion of having their images appear on Facebook and Twitter and other parts of the web. Oculus Rift is a movement, attracting some of the best talent in gaming and computer vision to bring the next level of virtual reality not just to gaming, but potentially other applications. Shapeways and MakerBot are movements that draw in mechanical engineers and designers to create hardware, software, and materials for people — like those on Etsy and Kickstarter — to create their own things. Companies like Tesla and SpaceX are movements because they’re ushering in new modes of transport never seen before, modes that could only occur through private innovation, and ones that will attract scientists and engineers and designers who may have been stuck in universities and other government agencies. Wealthfront feels like it could be a movement as the next generation of middle to high net worth individuals choose to trust their personal finances to an algorithm over humans. AngelList has already kickstarted a movement toward the democratization of investing in startups, and many “crowd” based companies have leveraged the power of groups to finance projects in nontraditional ways. There are also movements within enterprise or developer environments, such as Heroku, Docker, Vagrant, and GitHub, among others.
I could go on and on. Startup movements are rare. We all recognize the names above today. But, perhaps we didn’t in the early days. Yet now, very little can stop them. They have their own momentum. ‘What will be the next great movements in the startup world”? It’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer.