Meme entrepreneurship.

November 3rd, 2007

In my day job as a business writer, I read lots about entrepreneurship and the leadership challenges that go along with it. It’s very interesting to think about, but my own work experiences have told me that I don’t particularly enjoy organizational minutiae, and in general don’t get motivated by the kinds of challenges that motivate successful business entrepreneurs. In other words, my wiring or my predelictions don’t suit me for commercial entrepreneurship, best I can tell. And if you don’t have the passion to be a business entrepreneur, you should not do it, because success in that field absolutely requires you to put your guts into the work.

So this tends to leave me at mental loose ends when I read great advice about building a company, for example this from Michael Bloomberg:

We made mistakes, of course. Most of them were omissions we didn’t think of when we initially wrote the software. We fixed them by doing it over and over, again and again. We do the same today. While our competitors are still sucking their thumbs trying to make the design perfect, we’re already on prototype version #5. By the time our rivals are ready with wires and screws, we are on version #10. It gets back to planning versus acting: We act from day one; others plan how to plan—for months.

He’s absolutely right about this advice, which I’ve encountered in different form from Paul Graham, who used the approach of “implement it now” in building the online business that he eventually sold to Yahoo for a bundle of money. You have an idea, you go ahead and implement it to test in the real world, and you reap the benefits — in terms of happier customers, better products, and more lessons learned — that will escape you for as long as you leave your ideas bottled up behind the walls of your enterprise.

But note that Bloomberg and Graham are both talking about putting your ideas into action. That’s what entrepreneurship is about, whether it’s business entrepreneurship or some other form. For me, ideas themselves — ideas as such — are what I’m best at. I don’t naturally throw myself into tackling business problems, but I do naturally throw myself into the creation, testing, and refinement of ideas themselves.

This suggests that I should be an entrepreneur of ideas-as-such rather than ideas-for-business. And if you’re going to change the world — which, I mean, why not? — it’s not enough simply to have ideas, you have to put them out into the world where they can live, breathe, mutate, and influence the larger surroundings.

Folks who work in academic political science and related institutions like think tanks have a name for this: policy entrepreneurship. I’ll shy away from that term, because it feels too limited for what I’m trying to do. (To say that another way, it bores me to tears to think of only pursuing my ideas in the corridors of Washington, the UN, et cetera.) Instead I’m going with the broader term from my subject line: meme entrepreneurship.

We need better memes in the world to counter all the stupid ones that drive so much of our behavior. I would say “that drive so much of our thinking,” but in fact the purpose of many of these memes is to relieve us from thinking, so that we reflexively reach for the products we’ve had marketed to us, or reflexively reach for the attitudes that favor certain special interests within the society. (Note that these special interests can be political, commercial, religious, or what have you. I take the broad view here.) But those of us who are awake to these tendencies can work to shape them in other, better directions.

Jim Collins has written the mega-influential business bestsellers Built to Last and Good to Great. He went to see the uber-guru of management, the late Peter Drucker, when Collins was on the verge of starting his own business consultancy. Drucker convinced him not to. Read the whole account of that conversation here, but focus on this part:

“The huge thing he said to me was, ‘Do you want to build ideas to last, or do you want to build an organization to last?'” I said I wanted to build ideas to last.

“He said, ‘Then you must not build an organization.’

“His point was, the moment you have an organization, you have a beast to feed–this army of people. If you ever start developing ideas to feed the beast rather than having ideas that the beast feeds, your influence will go down, even if your commercial success goes up. Because there’s a huge difference between teaching an idea and selling an idea. In the end, what are you in a battle for? You’re battling to influence the thinking of powerful, discerning people. If you ever abuse that trust, you can lose them. So the moment that arrow changes direction, you’re dead.

That’s me in a nutshell. I would rather teach people better ideas — my own or others’ — than I would try to build up an organization, in no small part because I know I can’t be great at building and running an organization. Maybe I won’t be great at meme entrepreneurship, either, but at least there’s a chance for greatness.

My hope is that this post will help kick-start a conversation about meme entrepreneurship. To ground it something concrete, I’ll give you an example of what I think is a *bad* example of meme entrepreneurship — something about which a lot of people have strong ideas.

Here’s the bad meme: “Bush is stupid.”

Set aside for the moment whether it’s true that President Bush is unintelligent. The facts of that have been beaten to death on one side and the other, but almost always, I think, with a partisan lean in some direction. Focus instead on the fact — the observed fact — that the meme has been unfruitful, whether its goal was to unseat Bush or to erode support for his policies. The assertion that he is stupid appeals viscerally to Bush’s opponents (especially the unapologetic Bush haters), and it has an element of undeniable truth to it, if the assertion means that Bush tends to be intellectually incurious.

But the assertion is necessarily and automatically offensive to many Republicans who voted for Bush, and when you get someone’s hackles up that way, you’ve usually lost them — made them deaf to your arguments. Mind you, there’s a hard core of the G.O.P. that would never abandon Bush, but these are the folks I’m talking about, since they couldn’t be won over, anyway. The important constituency I’m talking about are the more moderate Republicans (or swing voters trending Republican) who could be brought around to compromise positions if they were led to see Bush in a less-favorable but not-automatically-offensive light.

The “Bush is stupid” meme, I think, drove many of these people further into his camp, and reinforced the ultra-partisanship that infects the current political climate. All of this has tended to dig our political trenches deeper, as though were were fighting the party-politics version of World War I, where many salvos were made, and many died, with virtually no tangible effects on the battlefield.

What would be a better meme? How about this: “Bush pursues dangerous ideas — expensive dangerous ideas.” Why is this better? Several reasons:

  • It puts the visceral reaction on the anti-Bush side. “His policies are dangerous!” raises the possibility that people will ask you, “What the hell do you mean, his policies are dangerous?”
  • It lets you cut the man some personal slack, so that your argument can’t be dismissed automatically as a personal attack. In other words, you can say “He may be a nice man, and I respect his persistence,” before you go on to explain why his policies cost too much and do too little of the right things (e.g. going after Mr. Bad Guy in the fight against terrorism), while doing far too much of the wrong things (e.g. threatening the civil liberties of Americans). And again, you have the chance to do this with raising the emotional hackles of his supporters.
  • It tends to co-opt the debate in your favor, because it doesn’t dig trenches. It reaches across to the many Republicans who tend to pay close attention to government policies that are “needlessly expensive” and to policies that raise questions about Americans’ liberty.

But once you’ve shouted “Bush is a moron!” a few times . . . you’ve more or less permanently given up any of these advantages. And then it takes years of failure-in-real-life to bring around those non-party-soldier Republicans and related swing voters to the view that, “Wow, these Bush policies just aren’t working. That means years of incredible expense, wasted efforts, and wasted lives.

Possibly that’s not the world’s best example — it’s just the one that I came up with this morning. Since I’m in the Bloomberg/Graham mode of “implement it now”, I thought I’d roll it out there to get reactions from the audience.

What say you? Is my example any good? And does meme entrepreneurship seem like a good idea to pursue?

One Response to “Meme entrepreneurship.”

  1. mark larson | Making Memes Says:

    […] Tim Walker writes about meme entrepreneurship. I love it. Go read it. Unless I misunderstand the point, it seems like a lot of folks are already working in that vein—writers. Just glancing at my bookshelf, there’s Florida and his Creative Class, Friedman and his Flat World, Weinberger’s Miscellany, Anderson’s Long Tail. […]

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