A few years ago, Greg Marra, then a Facebook product manager, was describing the paradox of the News Feed, that endless stream of stories and shares and agita we can't help but scroll through. He compared the feed to a stream of doughnuts--tidbits of negligible nutritional value that people just can't resist. "If you just watch people eat doughnuts, you're like, 'People love doughnuts. Let's bring them more doughnuts,' " Marra told Wired. "But if you talk to people, they're like, 'No, actually what I want is to eat fewer doughnuts and maybe have a kale smoothie.' " Facebook could serve kale smoothies too, he said.
Mark Zuckerberg and company, of course, are still wrestling with their doughnut problem. But the issue of consuming what we know isn't good for us goes far beyond Facebook's virtual walls. Doughnuts are everywhere--irresistible morsels that are irredeemably awful for us. What's true of snack foods is also true of the technologies we use, the cars we drive, and the games we play. Sure, they make life easier, maybe even give us a dopamine hit of momentary pleasure. But, in the long run, they don't make us happy and they sure don't make us healthy.
I mean this quite literally: The everyday world we inhabit is making us sick. The average American's half-hour commute and 3,500-calorie diet and 10 hours of daily screen time is making us physically, mentally, and socially ill. Some of the leading causes of death--heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some cancers--are largely a result of the world we've built, the companies we patronize, and the products we consume. Ours is a civilization designed to placate us to death.
So what does this have to do with entrepreneurship? Just about everything. I would argue that it's the responsibility of every entrepreneur to consider the impact of the companies we're building and the products we're crafting. It's a basic question but not an easy one: Is the net impact of my product or company making people healthier or less healthy?
Let me propose what I'll call the Doughnut Test, a simple five-question checklist to put to your company or product.
1. Does it reduce the time people spend alone?
2. Does it help people move more?
3. Is it good for you and your family/friends/community?
4. Does it make people feel better after they use it?
5. Do people benefit more the more they use it?
The purpose of the Doughnut Test isn't to dissuade entrepreneurs from creating something people want or, god forbid, something they might even crave. Rather, the purpose is to challenge us to think about the short- and long-term consequences of what we're building. Indeed, the Doughnut Test is more than a challenge: It's an opportunity. If we can actually make products that serve people's needs but also yield a better, healthier environment and healthier, happier customers, then we're building something truly irresistible.
Sure, expecting your company to make the world a better place is cliché. But that doesn't absolve us from thinking about how our companies might enhance the vitality and health of our customers and our communities.
Buckminster Fuller, one of the 20th century's most radically brilliant inventors, often talked about the challenge of changing the world. He espoused some hard-won wisdom: Don't try to reform people--don't tell them to behave differently and expect them to jump in line. Rather, reform the environment. Build things so that people will embrace change because it's easier, faster, and better. Make the healthy choice the easy choice. You can find examples of companies that are doing this at a website for a project I've launched with Steve Downs, the CTO at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It's called BuildingH.org (as in Building Health).
So ask yourself: Are you actually making the world a better, healthier place? Or are you just making doughnuts?