The following was written by Matt Wigham, one of the co-founders of the company I work for, Big Cartel. It was initially written for a book—which was never published—on the topic of entrepreneurship. After speaking with Matt about it, I’d love to share it with you.
Let’s talk about movies for a moment. According to a recent article in GQ magazine, here’s what Hollywood has on tap for us this summer:
“Four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children’s book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.” (source)
Why does Hollywood continue to rehash the same formulaic ideas over and over again? Because that’s the safer bet. More people are likely to go see Transformers 19 than sit through an Oscar-winning dramatic film. Sure, a couple of these blockbuster movies are bound to be pretty good, but the bottom line is that it’s never been more difficult for filmmakers to get an original story made. It’s too risky. It doesn’t test well in focus groups. It’s not made for everyone.
Luckily there’s a talented group of independent filmmakers that will fight endlessly to get their films made, in the face of a system built against them. Of course, these films have small budgets, don’t have huge grosses or opening days, don’t always feature big names, and might not be suitable for all audiences, but without them we would be without some of the most important art of our lifetime.
Why do I bring this up? Because it’s happening in my industry too.
In the internet startup world, we have our own version of Hollywood – Silicon Valley. Just like Hollywood, Silicon Valley is investing heavily in finding the next big blockbuster. Unfortunately they also suffer from the mentality of repeatedly rehashing the same recycled ideas.
Every day on the tech blogs you read about the new social networking site that promises to be the next MyFace, and received 80 bazillion dollars of Series A funding, or the hot new iPhone app that is a mix of Twitter and Flickr that will change the way people eat and breathe. Entrepreneurs around the world are clamoring to come up with that next big sequel, and they’re racing to find venture capitalists and angel investors to back their blockbuster idea.
Unfortunately, just like Hollywood, this system is broken. Sure, a couple of these companies will be pretty good, but the majority will be as unoriginal, short-lived, and forgettable as Transformers 19. Is that what you want for your company? I hope not.
I’m here to invite you to join an independent movement.
I run a company called Big Cartel that helps bands, designers, crafters, and other artists sell their stuff online. I founded the company with a friend back in 2005 because I needed a way to sell my band’s merch online, and since I’d been making band websites for years, I figured I could build something better for my needs than the complicated e-commerce software that was available at the time.
We worked on the site on top of our day jobs, spending countless hours obsessing over design details, improving features and functionality, and helping our customers use our product. We did no marketing, and instead relied on the product being good enough for people to tell their friends about. Finally, after two years, the business was making enough money for the two of us to quit our jobs and work on Big Cartel full-time. It was a great feeling.
Over the last six years we’ve grown from just my band’s store to over 200,000 stores, and we’re doubling that every year. We’ve slowly built the company itself from the two founders to a twelve person company, using only the profits generated by the business. We’ve also been able to help our customers make a living doing what they love. Last year our stores generated over 100 million dollars of revenue, and we’ve seen a staggering amount of new brands and entrepreneurs bootstrap and hustle their way to success using our service.
Of course, we’re not talking about Facebook type of money, we’ll never get Twitter type of press, and we may seem boring compared to the glitz and glamour of the Silicon Valley celebrities, but what we have is even more valuable – freedom. Now, just like the independent filmmakers, we can build something with a heart and soul, that cares more about the art and culture of our craft than just doing what is most profitable.
The ironic part is, we never really set out to build a business, we just started doing something we loved and the money part took care of itself. In fact, since we have no investors or shareholders beyond my partner and I, we rarely even talk about money. Instead we’re able to focus all of our attention on whatever we want to do next. It’s incredibly liberating.
Now you may think we’re a fluke, or perhaps we just got lucky, but I don’t. Money is a natural byproduct of doing something valuable – so why not focus on doing something you love, that is valuable to you, and I think you’ll be surprised to see how valuable it is to others. Luckily we have it a lot easier than our filmmaking counterparts. We don’t need millions of dollars for sets, cameras, actors, editors, costumes, and the rest. All we need is an idea, some hard work, and a cheap server to get started.
I want to challenge you to forget about the Hollywood dream of huge rounds of funding and giant acquisitions, and instead focus on building something you’re proud of. I think you’ll find that the joy of doing something you love, and the freedom to control the vision to be uniquely yours, is worth much more.