Spies, stretching the Overton window, and impact through startups

- work

“Impact,” “do work that matters,” “do well by doing good,” etc have become ubiquitous in startups marketing to candidates. Maybe candidates care. Maybe companies feel like they have to say this. Either way, these terms throw many way finders off the scent of what they really want, leading to negative outcomes for both candidates and ultimately companies.

Jim Savage outlines the Spy-Marine-Army-Police framework.

Building on this, spies stretch the Overton window and/or are the first to notice that it has stretched. They expand the set of things that people want to pay for.

When people say they want to “have an impact” or “make a difference” I suspect that some of these people really want to be spies and marines. They want to make the difference that no one else is making. But when you join a startup, you are army or police. As the “startup industry” matures and business models get repeated (e.g. venture studios sponsoring Vertical SaaS plays in many industries, marketplace business models for everything from skilled-trade labor to getting your dog walked), even founding a software company becomes an increasingly systematic rather than innovative endeavor.

As soon as something is organized as a company, there’s no more need for spies, and not much need for marines. The end of the company has become an abstraction to manage towards, and the goal now is to build a high-quality, enjoyable, profitable system that moves toward that end. Massive companies get built on just a few key insights (see Toast’s “three radical insights.”) “Impact discourse” obscures the fact that startups are just businesses, too - limited in scope to what’s been proscribed by the Overton window.

Furthermore, startup job candidates may also not realize that spying is not paid reliably. By definition, spies are playing with ideas that do not yet have product-market fit. As soon as they do, that’s when the other characters come in, build the businesses and make the money. There are people that tried to start YouTube, Facebook, etc before the time was right. The Overton window had not yet opened.

A corollary of this is that if you’re making lots of money for your work, you’re not stretching the Overton window - the Overton window has been stretched for you. Spy activity takes place in civic society and social fabric, government, non-profit, and science.

Perhaps the only outlier to this model as Tesla, that used luxury as a Trojan horse to electrify the car industry. Are there other creative ways to get people to pay for things in ways that solve public problems - other Teslas out there?

Unless you know of others…pick, and own it: poke at the Overton window, or build a business. You can only do one at any given time. Free yourself. Anything that you could do that tries to kill the two birds of “money” and “impact” with one stone would be done better if it was only about impact and freed from the need to make money.