The Startup Hierarchy of Needs
By Josh Linkner, forbes.com, 12-06-2014
In 1943, esteemed psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed his now-famous Hierarchy of Needs, which has withstood the test of time as a well-accepted framework for the way we think, interact with others, and survive accordingly. The hierarchy is structured as a pyramid, with the bottom representing our most fundamental, basic needs as humans. Once those have been met sufficiently, then we are able to figuratively “move up the pyramid,” into other categories.Only once the second class of needs is met, then may we continue moving upward, and so on and so forth. In order, the pyramid is structured as follows:
- Physiological: Have you eaten? Are you able to breathe? Sleep?
- Safety: Do you have a roof over your head? Are your resources secure? Is your family safe?
- Love and belonging: Friendship, family, intimacy.
- Esteem: Confidence, respect, self-esteem, a sense of achievement.
- Self-actualization: Creativity, problem-solving, morality.
If we as people are only able to function most effectively within this general construct, it stands to reason that startups (which grow, evolve, and develop much like people) would follow suit. Let’s take a look:
First, at the most basic and fundamental level is your ability as a company to make payroll and keep the lights on. If you can’t ensure your own survival, then nothing else is worth discussing. Now, this isn’t something to just gloss over; it’s not always a simple thing. Times are constantly changing, situations are often challenging, and problems will most certainly arise: it’s your task as a leader to keep your head above water, if nothing else.
Next , your safety is guaranteed by your innovation. Starting with the notion that your core product truly solves a problem for your consumers is paramount, but not the whole equation. The status quo is your biggest threat – in today’s fast-paced world of ruthless competition, it’s clear that your competitors certainly aren’t standing still. They’re constantly pushing ahead, so if you’re not, you’ll be left in their dust. Instead, push your team to constant reinvent, especially while you’re in a position of strength. The more you can advance your product and stay ahead of the curve, the better you’ve guaranteed your own safety.
Third on the hierarchy list is the community that surrounds you. Your team is first and foremost; if your staff isn’t strong, your foundation will crumble. Additionally however, your company is connected to other people: venture investors, advisors, mentors, board members, and others. It’s crucial that your vision is collectively aligned so that going forward, everyone is on the same page to ensure your success.
Moving up the pyramid, you’ve reached the point to prove yourself in the market. At this point, your customer base is active – buyers provide great feedback, and are repeating purchases from you. Your market fit is clear, and things are falling into place. Much as if an infant needs every minute of attention but a teenager is capable of much more, so too you have more abilities as a company (and leader) at this stage of development. Media are taking notice, traction is building, and you’re on trend toward greatness.
At the top of the pyramid is the achievement of your higher purpose, as you seek to leave a legacy and leave your mark on the world. If your goal is to revolutionize educational tools, that’s amazing – but you can’t do that without making payroll. Start at the bottom and move your way up to get to this point, where you’re able to achieve this. In similar fashion, I’d make this category inclusive of the extra “nice to haves,” rather than needs: new whiz-bang features, fancy launch parties, swanky office décor, etc. All of this stuff is wonderful and oftentimes the fanfare is deserved, but it’s a distraction if you’re not well set in the rest of your foundation.
I’m all for setting out to accomplish something BIG – grandiose, even – but it’s not wise to go after the endgame of your vision before making sure that you have the rest of these pieces in place. The difficulty of this arrangement is not to be understated; startups are hard work – if they were easy, everyone would become an entrepreneur . That being said, the juice is well worth the squeeze: if you’re able to reach the top level of the hierarchy and leave a long-lasting mark on the world, you’ve achieved something incredibly special, and the world will thank you for it.For an inside view into my world as a VC, entrepreneur, author, and keynote speaker, visit JoshLinkner.com and order my new book, “The Road to Reinvention,” on Amazon.