Do You Want To Sell Sugar Water Or Do You Want To Change The World?

“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?” – Steve Jobs

I sometimes wish that instead of working on internet and software projects, I worked on cleantech or biotech projects. That way, when I came home at night, I’d know that I had literally spent my day trying to cure cancer or prevent global warming.  But information technology is what I know, and it’s probably too late for me to learn a new field from scratch.

That doesn’t mean information technology can’t improve people’s lives. Google’s search engine helps people find information, which, for example, makes cancer and cleantech researchers more productive. Skype allows companies to collaborate remotely, and connects people with friends and family around the world. In the area of information technology, we create infrastructure and hope that people use it for more good than bad.

That said, the best entrepreneurs seem to follow a path of increasing gravitas. Scott Heiferman started out selling online ads and is now creating new communities. Jack Dorsey created Twitter and is now democratizing payments so sole proprietors can compete on a level playing field with large companies. Elon Musk started with online payments and is now developing electric cars and space programs.

Founders of large companies sometimes also follow the path of increasing gravitas. Google is developing new energy technologies, self-driving cars and other world-changing technologies. Bill Gates devotes almost all of his time and money to charity.

The tech press is preoccupied with investments, trends, exits, and other “inside baseball” topics. But these are all means to an end. Investments provide fuel for entrepreneurs to convert ideas into products. Trends shape the terrain that entrepreneurs navigate. Exits provide financial incentives for investors and entrepreneurs.

Tim O’Reilly says that entrepreneurs should try to create more value than they capture. You can make money selling people obscure financial products, entertaining them with mind-numbing TV shows, or selling them sugar water decorated in elegant designs.

Alternatively, you can make something that matters and — if you are lucky and smart — change the world.

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