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TECHNOLOGY

Have Tech Start-ups Lost Their Sense of Fun?

Google & Apple innovate to win--fun has little to do with it. But more whimsy is exactly what young start-ups need.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page

Flickr/Joi

Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. A company a large as Google can't remain an object of pure play. But what happened to innovating because it was fun?

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Nick Bilton at The New York Times isn't having any fun. At least, not with such high tech and Internet companies as Apple or Google. In his view, like other industries before them, tech companies have moved beyond the stage of "tinkering with technology" for the intellectual joy it can bring and have become stereotypical large corporations "unwilling to stop at anything to win." He quotes Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School:

"There was a time when people building things on the Internet didn’t have a dream to be one of the biggest companies out there; their goal was not to be the next General Motors. But that is all changing. Now you have a battle of cultures on the Web where fun is being chiseled away."

On one hand, you can't expect a company to remain an object of pure play. Entrepreneurs have obligations to customs, vendors, and employees. Without a degree of maturity, people don't get paid what they're owed, products don't ship on time, and everyone (except that fun-loving founder) gets frustrated and angry.

And yet, Bilton's longing for a simpler time—when developers weren't looking to vacuum up personal information, contacts, and other data that have nothing to do with their services—offers an important insight to entrepreneurs.

The conflict between doing what you have a passion for and making money from that same activity goes back thousands of years. Plato wrote about it in The Republic, for example. There can come a point when collecting the coin seems more important than customer delight, innovation, and happy employees.

At that point, it's time for a fun break. Not what often passes for fun in many companies: ping pong tables, beers at the end of a long week, or—heaven help us!—some officially sanctioned team-building exercise. What you and your company need is doing a bit more of what you love.

Give employees a chance to work on some ideas they've thought might make a real difference, without worrying how much extra profit they might bring in. Let R&D people dream and ponder. Talk to customers and ask about their lives, what they enjoy, what keeps them awake at night—not about your products and services—so you can get to know them. Let yourself be fallible, uncertain, delighted, and filled with wonder.

All entrepreneurs have some interest in money. After all, something has to pay the way for all the activity. But chances are that you don't start a business just to make money. If you are in software, maybe it was the feeling of pleasure when some code worked perfectly and did something amazing. Carpenters might delight in a well-fit joint. A commercial cleaning company? There's true delight when a toilet or floor is sparkling clean.

As television great Mr. Rogers said, play is really the work of childhood. It's time to go out and make grown-up play the work of your company. When you do, your business will begin to reorder itself and everyone will start to notice. Your company will become important, no matter what line of business it's in or how large it is. And, after all, isn't that really why you wanted to go into business in the first place?

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Mar 6, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.
@ErikSherman




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