Here's to the Misfits
That's the big technological vision—but inthis is starting with something much simpler, the online potluck app. Adler himself has started hosting potluck dinners that break down the anonymity of fast-paced urban life. Over dinner, he poses a question like, "What's a resolution you've made that you haven't followed through on?"
"We've ended up having people who are tearful or sharing very personal things in a group of 40 or 45 people. It's nice to actually engage people and say, 'These are my beliefs. What are yours? Here's why I do what I do.' "
Misfit Wearables, Fig, and inthis are offering very different products, and I found my way to their founders through completely different connections. But the three startups have one odd and interesting feature in common. They all are trying to solve problems that technology has helped create—our sedentary lifestyles, our isolation from one another—with more technology.
There are two ways to look at this. One is to say that we might all be better off shutting off our devices, walking over to our neighbors', and inviting them to dinner, rather than syncing our Google Calendars with a new experience layer while checking our personal wellness app and tracking our steps with a fancy pedometer. The first time I met Adler and heard his passion for restoring real human community in a virtual world, I wondered, Then why are you building a web app?
But there is a less cynical, and more realistic, alternative. Cultures don't change by rolling back the clock. They change when people create more culture, cultural artifacts, and institutions that account for the deficiencies of existing culture. In their own way, each of these startups is identifying a real need and offering something new, with its own unique possibilities, that would never be created if we simply stood athwart history yelling, "Stop!" Spend even a little time with folks like this, and you sense your cynicism diminishing, and appreciation growing for the depth of their vision for human flourishing, and their willingness to do something about it.
It wasn't hard to see that each of these ventures was risky. Every one of the founders we interviewed for this story had been part of a startup that didn't succeed, as well as startups that succeeded on a modest level but didn't deliver the gold rush that investors require. "My first two ventures reached millions—but neither achieved massive commercial success," Saber told me. In most other parts of the world, that would be laughably false humility. In Silicon Valley it is perfectly appropriate modesty.
It also wasn't hard to see that the venture that was furthest along—Vu's Misfit—is the one that slots most neatly into consumer culture, with its personal, private device that helps individuals achieve basic fitness goals. Fig's vision of the pursuit of wellness cheered on by friends and family, let alone inthis's goal of reconstituting community in a fragmented virtual world, are much more daunting and far less certain.
But Silicon Valley is highly tolerant of failure, and entrepreneurs by definition are energized by risk. What was inspiring about meeting Vu, Saber, Munro, and Adler was the way they are risking everything for their convictions about flourishing and faithfulness, casting their nets out into unfamiliar waters, building something that is good—not just for Christians but for the world.