Happy Fourth of July!
In case you were wondering, this isn’t just another Independence Day blog post talking about the Sunshower platform and how it will bring you freedom, blah blah blah. Rather, this is a blog post emphasizing that the ideals that led to the American Revolution, both within Great Britain and the colonies itself, are alive and well in the American startup culture.
A brief history review
From the 1650s to the 1770s, in a period called the Enlightenment, Great Britain was the hub of intellectual activity. Go into any neighborhood coffee shop, and for the first time in modern history, people mingled across social boundaries as they discussed the latest political theories and scientific advancements.
While France was also experiencing an intellectual revolution, bringing forth writers like Voltaire and philosophers like Montesquieu, discussions there were held in private homes rather than in public thanks to an absolute monarch and an equally absolute Catholic church.
Great Britain, on the other hand, had experienced enough religious upheaval and political turmoil that it had minimal fear of new ideas…even when an influential group of merchants, lawyers, and planters from the American colonies cried foul on taxation without representation and tariffs on foreign goods.
Startup Similarity #1: Dissolution of social boundaries
Lest you accuse me of romanticizing the 1600s and 1700s, I will admit that many of those who left their mark on science, politics, and economics tended to be well educated. However, dark horses George Washington and Nathanael Greene (also a general during the Revolutionary War) both lacked a formal education, and Sir Isaac Newton in Great Britain persevered through the most broken of broken families to make his contributions to science.
Is tech today any different?
Some contemporary software engineers hail from affluent families, while others bootstrapped themselves to join the profession. In most companies, you will find a mix of coding bootcamp graduates and self-taught programmers, alongside those with computer science and software engineering degrees.
Startup Similarity #2: Open discussion of new ideas
During the Enlightenment, thinkers brought new ideas to the table and sought to find solutions to problems. This is the period of time that gave us steam engines, calculus, dictionaries, and topographical maps.
Compare this to modern-day tech land. Whether you are building a computer program for the medical field, military contractors, church groups, or your everyday average person, no idea is too trivial, no pipe dream too innovative, and no hurdle is too high. Startup culture is a culture where any idea is possible if you know how to build the program that makes it happen. (Marketing helps too, but that is a different story altogether…)
Startup Similarity #3: The big guy is not necessarily the bad guy, although its power and motives are often questioned.*
The news these days abounds with concerns about the social and economic pull of giants such as Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook. In early June the FTC and Department of Justice invoked century-old antitrust laws, which hold in violation any corporations that stifle fair competition.
In addition to echoing the railroad and oil monopolies of the late 19th and early 20th century, this also mirrors eighteenth century Great Britain’s economic control over its American colonies. Its system of mercantilism prevented American colonists from importing and selling Dutch goods, which were often cheaper than those sold by the East India Tea Company and other British enterprises.
While we as a people tend to distrust the “big guy” as automatically corrupt, whether we are talking about huge tech corporations or colonial powers, we also have to question our own tendencies to criticize organizations solely for their unprecedented successes: Great Britain gained control over much of the world due to its military might and economic power, and modern tech corporations have become powerful due to having excellent products and providing innovative services.
The question remains: Should we punish corporations for being too successful?
The truth is that I trust modern tech corporations far more than either other contemporary corporations OR the colonialist powers of yore. Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google are NOT powers contributing to deforestation, pollution, or barbarous working conditions overseas. Furthermore, last I knew, WalMart was far more notorious for putting “little guys” out of business than any of these tech superpowers.
Additionally, the advantage that contemporary American tech startups have that American colonists did not is technology itself. Taxation without representation was a valid concern for American colonists in the eighteenth century: they had no representation in Parliament and no way to communicate with political powers overseas that did not take months.
However, today, untold numbers of startups use the internet to find niches within and around superpower tech corporations; these startups’ founders are determined to use their creativity and resourcefulness to make their economic and cultural mark.
As long as the internet remains an accessible resource for building and sharing, the spirit of the Enlightenment is alive and well in the American tech startup.
*Sources for “Similarity #3” are listed below:
”Explainer: Should Big Tech fear U.S. antitrust enforcers?” Wolfe, Jan. Reuters. 5 June 2019.
”Antitrust Troubles Snowball for Tech Giants as Lawmakers Join In.” Kang, Cecilia, Streitfield, David, and Karnie, Anne. The New York Times. 3 June 2019.