Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the fabled idea of “moonshots”. The crazy ambitious projects which aim to solve the world’s biggest problems once and for all, using breakthrough technologies.
I start to believe that we have the process largely backwards.
What we tend to tell people these days is to “find your passion, come up with a crazy ass idea, tackling a huge problem; find a suitable, equally crazy ass technology, marry the three and aim for the stars”.
What this leads to is, more often than not, solutions which don’t have product/market fit, are years, if not decades away from being truly viable and financially unsustainable. The sad end results are wasted resources, disillusioned founders and problems which are still not solved.
When you look at organizations which have done the impossible — from the tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Apple or Microsoft to highly influential NGOs such as WWF, Greenpeace or Muhammad Yunus’ sprawling empire — none, literally none of them started out with pursuing their moonshot. They all got started in the same way: By tackling a real, existing and contained problem, getting to product/market fit, then scale and eventually grow into the deeply influential and important organizations they are today.
Take Google. Larry and Sergey didn’t start out with the grand ambition to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” They started out in their college dorm solving a vexing problem they experienced first hand — search.
Or Apple. Steve and Steve just wanted to build a computer for themselves and their friends when they started the company. Only in the 80’s Jobs started defining Apple’s mission as “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.”
Facebook famously started out as a university campus network, Bill Gates wrote software code he sold to hobbyists, businesses and later IBM before he came up with his moonshot of “A computer on every desk”, Muhammad Yunus wanted to solve one very specific problem, which was lending… The list goes on and on.
What I believe we ought to do is to not obsess about building moonshots. Instead we should spend all of our time on finding a problem worth solving (this becomes your North Star), deeply understand the problem space, design a solution which fits the need of the customer and bring this solution to scale. Once we have achieved this, we use our North Star (call it moonshot if you will) to guide us, and move on to the next step on your journey of building what matters.