Startup Life/Opinion/

Is founding a startup the best way to change the world?

Startups are changing the way we work, shop and live — but is founding a company really the best way to have an impact?

James Routledge
James Routledge

By James Routledge

Is founding a startup the best way to change the world? That’s what I’ve always believed.

These rapidly growing organisations have the power to disrupt an industry, change cultures and lives and fundamentally shift human behaviour. Airbnb has changed how we travel. Meta has changed how we connect online. Google has changed knowledge. Amazon, how we buy things. 

It feels like right now the startup ecosystem has a monopoly on change. If you want to change the world, you start a company. And you aim to follow in the footsteps of the modern-day demigods: Zuckerberg, Bezos, Larry Page and so many more.

This is only a recent phenomenon, however. Historically if someone wanted to change the world, they did something else. They wrote books, ran for political office, created art, worked on scientific breakthroughs or maybe even became a religious leader. 

The internet has blown the doors wide open for anyone with a connection to share their views with the world. Add in a laptop and the ability to code and you can build a product that could be used by millions overnight. The ability to change the world has never been open to more people than today. 

Are more founders turning to social impact businesses because the government is failing to do its job?”

People today see the impact that companies like Meta have had — and it inspires them to build a company to turn their dreams of what our society should look like into reality.

More and more though, we are seeing a new generation of entrepreneurs who want to go beyond simply changing the world. They want to create “social impact” — in other words, they want to solve the some of huge problems facing our societies. There are now even investment funds created to invest in these kinds of businesses. 

The question becomes political. Are more founders turning to social impact businesses because the government is failing to do its job? Would we need a whole ecosystem of healthtech businesses if the NHS was well-functioning? If financial education was taught in schools, would there be as many personal finance startups? 

A true entrepreneur would rightly say: “Well, the government are not doing anything on financial literacy, so I’m solving that problem.” Brilliant. That’s what’s happening right now across a wave of verticals.

Is entrepreneurship the best place for social missionaries who want to change the world? Are startups the right vehicle to solve social problems like homelessness, food poverty and the climate crisis? And how much are startups branding themselves with abstract and philosophical social missions when the goal is really just to amplify their business model and product? 

I know the answer isn’t black and white, but these are important questions that spill over into philosophy and political ideology. 

I wonder how many of today’s entrepreneurs would be trying to change the world if born in another century”

I fear that capitalism will do as capitalism does and stretch to monopolise social issues by turning them into profitable and scalable businesses. That may work, it may not. The jury is very much still out on the effectiveness of social impact startups. What I am certain of is that startups alone can’t answer society’s biggest challenges, nor are startups suited to solve the plethora of complex issues in each vertical.

I wonder how many of today’s entrepreneurs would be trying to change the world if born in another century. Would they be politicians, artists or philosophers? How many founders have ever asked themselves that question?

How else, founder, could you change the world? I love startups, I love the industry, the ingenuity, the desire to change and to create. Yet, I’m not going to kid myself that startups are the answer to everything. They’re not. Because commercialising a problem is not the answer to everything. How else can we change our world?

James Routledge is the founder of Sanctus and author of Mental Health at Work

Join the conversation

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of