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How Real Movements Start, Then Change the World

Billion-dollar startups are ideas that are turned into movements with passion and hard work. Here’s how to launch a movement.

You can choose to have a normal life or you can choose something totally different. I’m here to say that you might be able to choose to put a dent in the universe. To paraphrase what Steve Jobs previously said in a 1994 interview, the moment you realize the world can be influenced by your actions, everything changes. But how does that change get transferred from you to others?

Usually, the best ideas start as little known ones until a group of really passionate, hardworking believers turn them into a movement, a social movement. Then, one day, seemingly overnight, it’s everywhere. How does it become that way?

I’ve been lucky to see it first hand. I’ve funded hundreds of companies right when they were just a few people starting out. Now, more than a dozen of them are worth more than a billion dollars, and every single one of them started as a movement. It’s a team, a direction and the thing that helps millions, and possibly billions, of people.

How a Movement Emerges

The song “Judy Is a Punk” was one of the first songs played by The Ramones at CBGB in New York City in 1974. A lot of people consider them to be one of the best bands in history. This was a historic moment for punk rock, and the music played in this one music hall in New York City is now a part of our western collective consciousness. Even if you haven’t heard that song, you’ve likely heard the echoes of it in rock songs for decades now.

While a musician might create a new sound that becomes an international phenomenon, startup founders might create a new product that creates new experiences that touch a billion people. It turns out that punk rock has a lot more to share with startups than you might think, but we’ll get back to that.

How to Start a Movement

If you want to start a movement – whether it’s music, startups, social change or any creative endeavor – it’s the same approach. Researcher Jonathan Christiansen says,

“Social movements can be thought of as organized yet informal social entities that are engaged in extra-institutional conflict that is oriented towards a goal.”

But what is extra-institutional conflict? It’s conflict that’s fundamentally born of a particular problem, and the goal is to solve that problem.

Do you ever wonder why we call computers “personal computers”? At the time, in the 1970s, personal computers were a crazy idea. Only large businesses, universities and governments had access to them, and this was the conflict. The powers that be didn’t even think normal people would ever want them. This is what the dawn of the personal computer revolution looked like.

How Apple Was Born

Apple is the perfect example of a social movement, a movement that has turned into computers on every desk, in every home. And yes, now the one in your pocket or the one in your hand that you’re using to read this right now. That’s how it all starts, first as a fringe movement. In Apple’s case, the personal computer movement actually started almost 50 years ago, and now, society has changed completely. That’s the lesson. Sometimes if you really believe in something, you’ve got to do it yourself.

So, the first stage to any movement is this exactly – emergence or social ferment. What do you want that nobody else cares about yet? What problem do you see first? Try to solve it for yourself, then you might find that a lot of other people need it too. If you find that a lot of other people need what you’re creating, that’s when you’ll find people start following you.

How to Attract a Following

In his TED Talk, one of my favorite authors, Derek Sivers, talks about what it takes to create a movement from scratch. Leadership isn’t enough; it’s about the followers too.

You could be the first leader or the first follower. Either way, you’ve got to have intrinsic motivation and really want it from the bottom of your heart, not because someone else told you to. You’re going to need to be able to champion your idea or your company, not someone else. If Steve Jobs looked to Hewlett-Packard for a playbook, he never would’ve started Apple. If Brian Armstrong looked to big finance for approval, he never would’ve started Coinbase. If The Velvet Underground just copied whatever was mainstream at the time, the rock and roll greats like The Ramones and Nirvana would never have emerged. To be first, you have to really want it. You can’t ask for permission.

How to DIY

This is where we return to punk rock. We’ve got to talk about DIY (Do It Yourself). It’s a way of doing things that doesn’t require any permission from anyone else. Some people who don’t like punk like to say, “Eh, it sucks; it’s too simple.” To me, the detractors miss the point. This is real. This is authentic, and most importantly, it’s unapologetic. It’s not trying to be something other than what it already is.

To truly embody DIY, you don’t wait for someone to give you something. You don’t wait for someone to teach you how to play. You don’t wait for a record deal. Nobody has to come and bless you with anything. You just pick up a guitar and you do it. You pick up a keyboard and you start writing code.

The realness about that is really what makes it connect. When you’re early and alone, that’s more important than anything else. If you watched my interview with Coinbase founder Brian Armstrong, that’s exactly what he did when he was building the first versions of that website. He begged, borrowed and stole the skills necessary to get a website up. He didn’t look for a designer. He used the free, open-source Twitter Bootstrap library, and it worked great. You don’t need the absolute best things or need to wait for perfect conditions.

How to DIY Without Perfection

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana talking about DIY bottom-up pragmatism and why it’s actually the best.

You really don’t need perfect stuff. You just need to do it and do it with whatever you have, even if you’re piecing together whatever guitar parts, whatever open source or whatever you’ve got. Many of Nirvana’s songs only had three chords, but they became one of the most influential musical groups in history. Later, they did end up getting all that money and distribution, but when they started, it was just the purity of the music that got them there.

You’ve got everything you need right now. I can’t tell you how often it is that people waiting for perfect conditions is what actually prevents them from starting in the first place. If you’re stuck there, you’ll never get started. You don’t need permission. Do it yourself.

If you remember only one thing from this, it’s this: do it yourself. Humans have a visceral reaction to experiencing authenticity, even at the cost of perfection. Everyone is so focused on being perfect these days and to that I say, “Fuck perfection.” Do it yourself, and if you do it that way, you might be able to create a movement, a movement that touches a billion people.

How to Make Your Mark

I really wanted to take a moment to think about what it would take for you to make a real dent in the universe. Whatever you do, keep in mind a punk rock DIY aesthetic. It  means you don’t try to create perfection or wait for perfect conditions. It’s one of the beginning conditions for starting a true social movement. It’s crazy. It’s hard to do, but if you could get to that second follower, then you can get a hundred, a thousand, a million or a billion. And if you do that, you leave a mark on the world.

Thanks for reading! To watch my full episodes that go into detail about these ideas — and more — head over to my YouTube channel and follow me on Twitter (@garrytan) for real-time updates.