Why Startups Need to Break Stuff

It’s not so much about ethics as it is about innovation

Joe Procopio

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Imagine this conversation happening some time in the early 2000s.

“Hey Steve, what if we took one of those flip phones you see everywhere these days, fashioned it into a brick, and treated it like a little tiny computer?”

I’m pretty sure that’s not exactly how the iPhone was born, but I believe in my heart that the spirit of the invention behind it went something like that. In my version, the person speaking to Steve may have been his own internal monologue, but it also might have been Woz.

My point is, some of the best and most successful startups began by breaking something and reconfiguring it for another purpose. In other words, they used a thing for something other than for what it was intended.

When we hear “go fast and break things,” we think of Zuckerberg, and we think of Facebook, and we think of a social “hellscape” selling rage as a product to advertisers. That’s a bad rap on the quote. I love the concept of breaking stuff because to me it’s about repurposing product, reinventing process and bucking tradition.

In that sense, there’s never been a better time to build a successful startup out of broken stuff.

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Sometimes, the thing being broken may not even be the thing that becomes the actual product. We’re in a golden age of technical tools and platforms that allow even those with a modicum of technical experience to build their own products on world-class infrastructures.

Take, for example, one of my previous startups, Automated Insights, which used algorithms and tech to automate the creation of narratives from raw data. We had a nice little innovative product that cranked out hundreds, sometimes thousands of automated sports recaps and other related articles for almost every professional and collegiate sports team, based on nothing more than a data stream.

When we landed a deal with Yahoo Fantasy Football to provide fantasy matchup recaps for their platform, I diligently carved out the algorithms while my counterpart, the CEO, worked with AWS to spin up…

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Joe Procopio

I'm a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. NLG pioneer. Building TeachingStartup.com & GROWERS. Write at Inc.com and BuiltIn.com. More at joeprocopio.com