This post comes from my newsletter, Startup Strategies.
Startups, at their core, are hypothesis testing machines. You have an idea—Fitbit for dogs—and you build a prototype. It flops and you pivot, maybe creating a health monitor for pooches. Pivot. Then you settle on dog food that contains food that you’d eat. It gets traction, you start mass-producing it, and you’re happy.
Unfortunately, not every idea can be that simple and founders with complex problems to solve—world hunger, inequality, energy shortages, or even healthcare and biotech—can’t pivot in the same way something far simpler can. That’s why you take flyers. You invest all your time and energy into an idea and hope it isn’t bad.
Which leads us to Worldcoin. This is a project by Sam Altman and a Ph.D. in Berlin. The entire project, which I saw in its earlier iterations, is at once fascinating and ridiculous. The idea is sound: everyone needs crypto and this Orb rewards you just for existing. It’s as pure an implementation of a universal basic income as is possible with current technology and the incentives are in place to attract mass adoption. If you’re pro-cryptocurrency or even pro-equality, it seems like a genius move. But also:
That’s right: it’s simultaneously lame. This project will be lambasted by the press and users and once world governments hear about it in a few months, they’ll further destroy the project. Lapdogs have been kind so far but not for long.
See, here’s the problem: Altman is attempting to solve a massive problem. But for myriad reasons (not limited to the fact that the founders look like they’re in a worship band) the road will be rocky. First, the startup is too ambitious. When the Orbs Holders or whatever fail to sign up a million people in the first month (there’s $25 million backing this thing, after all) the entire project will splutter and fail. Further, the press around it should have been carefully managed. This is not a crypto project. Instead, it is a global solution to inequality. That said, everyone who covered it focused primarily on the crypto angle. To expand the analogy to something less esoteric, a biotech company shouldn’t tell the press about all the mouse eye-bleeds it specializes in. Instead, they should focus on their goal of curing cancer. Altman’s PR team told a story to which no one can relate. The Orb, the $1 billion, the investors, the eyeballs: they came out with Axis and Allies when the average person can barely understand Chess.
I like this project. It’s noble and cool and very futuristic. But I’m also a realist. The story is everything and a story like this doesn’t get to pivot. These guys are building something important. You never get a second chance when world Orb-ization is on the line. And the same goes for your startup. Do you want to change the world? Then get your first product launch right above and beyond all and avoid anything that will draw attention away from your primary mission. The Orb isn’t the story here, but now it will be.