Legendary sci-fi author Isaac Asimov once said, "Any book worth banning is a book worth reading."
And every year, it seems, the American Library Association (ALA) proves Asimov right. Scan the ALA's list of banned and challenged classics--released and promoted each September as part of the ALA's Banned Books Week--and you'll find it simply amazing how most great books in the English language (including PG-rated fare like To Kill a Mockingbird) have been the subjects of censorship efforts.
You can apply a corollary of Asimov's quote to the world of entrepreneurship. That is, you can make a case that any startup worth banning is a startup worth paying attention to.
A few weeks ago, Thomas Goetz, founder of venture-backed health care tech startup Iodine, made this very point in a column for Inc.'s October issue. "Many successful companies have thrived by crossing into dangerous territory," he writes.
Facebook has time and again pushed the boundaries on privacy, in the interest of building more connections for its users (and more revenue opportunities for itself). And Uber, everybody's favorite example of a no-holds-barred company these days, has willfully flouted local laws and regulations in its haste to conquer new cities and countries.
Those are two prominent examples. There are more. In 2014 a report by New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman indicated that Airbnb's New York rentals had violated zoning and other laws. Aereo raised $100 million in funding before the Supreme Court hammered nails in its coffin last year. And earlier this month, there were widespread reports that Congress was investigating the legality of fantasy sports sites like DraftKings and FanDuel, both of which boast billion-dollar valuations.
The point is this: As frightening is it can be to feel as if the fate of your business model depends on the scales of justice, that very dependence is also a positive sign. It indicates that you've hit on something pervasive and vital enough to be the province of judges and lawmakers.
"Your new thing can't be merely better than the status quo; it needs to be so great that it is sought out over the old, familiar thing," writes Goetz. "To do that, your new thing must be more than provocative; it must be dangerous."
By dangerous, Goetz doesn't mean a risky product. He means a product that challenges and subverts the way people are used to obtaining a particular service. "It means delivering an experience in a way that more cautious folk would consider verboten," he writes.
Like most health care tech founders, Goetz is navigating these straits, confronting rules and regulations like HIPAA and the FDA. There's a reason it took Elizabeth Holmes more than a decade working out of the spotlight before her company, Theranos, could publicly announce it had developed an inexpensive, comprehensive blood test using a simple pinprick. You can't disrupt a traditional health standard as entrenched as the blood test without cutting through a metric ton of red tape first. Even after you nail the technology, you have to pass through regulatory hurdles.
None of this is to suggest your business model is flawed if you're not pushing boundaries. Nor is the pushing of boundaries a guarantee of success--look no further than Aereo.
Just keep in mind that the threat of legal action is rarely a death knell for great ideas. If anything, it means the idea has legs--and even the robed men and women with gavels are paying attention.