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More Maslow's Hierarchy, Less Maslow's Hammer

When people tell me how things occurred "in the day," I usually want to run in the other direction.


For the quarter-century I have worked in technology, the great spoken aspiration of many company builders has been to “change the world.”

Walk into many startups and you will find products code-named after mythic figures and superheroes (one of my companies designated its releases after characters in “The Lord of the Rings”; another named them after Marvel’s Avengers series). Lofty aspirations are on the lips of thousands of entrepreneurs every day, much like “… and world peace” comes out of the mouths of beauty contestants in the film “Miss Congeniality.”

Building new technologies and new companies is part of how company builders move up Maslow’s Hierarchy, the organizing theory put forth by psychologist Abraham Maslow to describe human motivation. Despite the lower-than-market-rate paychecks and long hours spent away from friends and family, we flock to fledgling companies because of a higher sense of purpose: We want to create something new, to work with a great team and to be part of something.

Challenging existing boundaries is a key extension of our national psyche, and part of the popular culture upon which America is built. Today, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are our pop heroes, much like Lewis and Clark, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were in the past.

Changing the world — actually, changing anything — turns out to be staggeringly hard work and exceedingly rare, as my former board member Ben Horowitz illustrates in his must-read book about company-building, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.”

In the technology world, most startups and existing players actually set the bar way too low for their company, employees and investors. While many entrepreneurs are motivated by raw technical challenge, many experienced company builders easily fall into a Catch-22 of taking what they know from a prior technology or work experience and applying it to something new. My first startup did exactly that, with a spectacularly poor outcome — a colossal fireball of lost money and opportunity.


What causes many new technologies to fail is that instead of being enough Maslow’s Hierarchy, they are too much Maslow’s Hammer: “If you are a hammer, everything is a nail.”

This paucity of ambition is especially true of innovation teams trying to repurpose an existing technology into a new niche. While large companies are most frequently accused of this error of judgment, startups are subject to the same sin. Repurposing an older technology is familiar and comfortable, like putting on a favorite pair of jeans; it still looks good and somehow just feels right. But, it rarely works.

As a company or technology builder, there are some self-diagnostics you can perform to make sure you are not falling into an ambition gap. One is simply to tap into the language of how you describe your product or service. Are you calling yourself a:

  • Next-gen something or other,
  • Uber (or other market leader) for X,
  • or a second or third player in X industry?

If you describe yourself that way, wake up and look for the missing smell of disruption. When people tell me how things occurred “in the day,” I usually want to run in the other direction. As Tony Soprano once reflected, “‘remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.”

If Einstein were alive today, perhaps we would have come up with a general theory of technology inertia: Given the choice to do the same thing or to radically innovate, one is more likely to do the same thing.

Big bets present big risks. And big bets can yield big rewards. For those of us with clay on our feet, it is easy to feel inadequate when comparing oneself to Elon Musk, a man simultaneously changing three different industries — automotive, space flight and home energy. But at a time when our nation is making a rough transition to a post-industrial and globally integrated economy, we need more moon shots and fewer food-ordering apps.

We need practical solutions to a lot of problems, but we also need a level of aspiration that creates a broad range of self-actualization beyond quick hammer smashes. That is how we will create the industries of the future — and the economic and social benefits to follow.

Alan Cohen is the chief commercial officer of Illumio. His last two startups, Airespace and Nicira, were acquired, respectively, by Cisco and VMware. He also serves as an adviser and board member to several technology companies. Reach him @ascohen.

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