What Startups Can Learn from an 18th Century Russian Empress

The story goes that Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Catherine I and Peter the Great, reconstructed the famed imperial country retreat, Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, to better suit her tastes.  When the palace was completed Elizabeth loved it immensely but she couldn’t stand the jostling, 15 mile carriage ride from St. Petersburg.  Rather than endure the uncomfortable trip, Elizabeth ordered a canal built between the urban city and country estate so she could travel breezily by water.  Unfortunately, Elizabeth never got to enjoy her aquatic transport because she died before the canal was completed.

So what can we startup enthusiasts learn from a Russian Empress?  Putting aside her propensity for extravagant and wildly lavish things (it was falsely rumored that the roof of the Catherine Palace was made entirely of gold), Elizabeth illustrates a wonderful startup principle: if you don’t like something, change it to what you do like.  Elizabeth didn’t appreciate riding in a bumpy carriage especially for a trip she made frequently every year.  So what did she do?  She changed the mode of transportation to one she enjoyed.

This idea should be at the heart of every new company.  It doesn’t just mean “change the old to the new” but rather it means:

1) Find a true pain point from your personal experience.  A pain point can be a real problem that hinders people, like immigration laws or access to medical supplies, or as in the case of Elizabeth, it can be an accepted way of doing things that people tolerate but don’t actually enjoy.  Whatever it is, make sure you’re addressing a real pain point (big or small) that affects your life or the lives of those you’re close to rather than focusing on a problem you imagine someone else has.

2) Create a solution that you want to use.  If you’re solving a problem that affects your every day life, create a solution that you actually want to use and will use.  I never understand startup founders who don’t use their own product.  If you’re not your inspiration, first user and biggest critic, than how can you say you have a vested interest in your product?