3 Ways Philosophy Matters in Startups

Posted on Posted in Startup Philosophy

I majored in Philosophy in college and have long been used to the encouraging, yet patronizing reaction of people who worry about my ability to pay the rent.  For myself, I still cannot think or a more exciting and practical study.   As a startup founder and product management junkie, I saw three key takeaways from this wonderful NYT article by Simon Critchley:

There Is No Theory of Everything

1) Philosopher Kings of Tech should be measured by stories.

The culture of innovation is held up by stories, not cults of personality.  As I renter the startup world, I struck by the many breathless, hero worshiping books and articles credit ineffable personal characteristics to success.  I much prefer stories and teachers to PR about same.

Critchley points out that “It is very often the case that the center of a vivid philosophical culture is held by figures who don’t write but who exist only through the stories that are told about them”

Also this;

“These anecdotes seem incidental, but they are very important. They become a way of both revering the teacher and humanizing them, both building them up and belittling them, giving us a feeling of intimacy with them, keeping them within human reach. Often the litmus test of an interesting philosopher is how many stories circulate about them.”

2) Great Startups are the product of science and humanities; just as great art is the product of discipline and inspiration.

There is a lot of focus on now on Lean Startups that create products focused on killing customer pain.  This is a reaction to the troublesome issue of technology zealots taking over a product, or narcissistic CEOs firmly believing their lived experience is entirely representative, or Founders who want everyone to change their behavior in order to appreciate their product.

There is a notion that startups and product management can be boiled into a list of actions or tasks. That it can be made into a science.

I mostly agree with the focused premise of the lean startup.  However, I do want to leave room for the magic and mystery of design and innovation.  Not all great ideas are iterated from a nugget.  Some come fully formed.  To me the analogy is, while there is grace and elegance to the 150 word story, it is may not the basis for a visionary novel. Further, it may not be the best way to create a literary convention.

Critchley’s comment “What is needed is a clearer overview of the occasions when a scientific remark is appropriate and when we need something else, the kind of elucidation we find in stories, poetry or indeed when we watch a movie or good TV (Frank watched a lot of TV).

3)  Gotta Scratch the Itch. Innovation is a human need, not a business plan.

The reason I love startups and product management is because it is an essential human and philosophical activity, designed to be freighted with problems and the unknowable.

Critchley’s article says “Philosophy is not Neosporin. It is not some healing balm. It is an irritant, which is why Socrates described himself as a gadfly.”