How is a Start-up Like a Religion?

Radhika Sivadi

3 min read ·


An unorthodox analysis of start-ups using the ideas of anthropology reveals what religion can teach small firms about team-building.

Great ideas don't often appear out of thin air (legends of Newton and his apple and Archimedes in his bathtub aside). They're often mash-ups.

Fresh thinking often comes from connecting two unlikely and disparate things. Perhaps pondering your personal passion for architecture gives you an idea that you can apply to your day job as a manager, or maybe the staging of a concert you saw on the weekend sparks an idea for how to pitch a client.

Letting two domains of knowledge that are usually alien to each other mix and mingle is a sure fire way to get your brain humming, so the idea of applying the thinking of anthropology to the world of start-ups isn't as strange as it appears at first blush.

On Ribbonfarm, the blog of writer Venkatesh Rao, guest blogger Kevin Simler recently explored what an anthropologist would make of start-ups with between 10 and 1,000 employees. He considers these small organizations as tribes (with a nod to Seth Godin), analyzes their cultures through the concept of "folkways" and thinks about their rituals. It's fascinating stuff and is well worth a read in full.

But if you want a bigger taste of Simler's thinking, perhaps the most mind-tickling section of his analysis is when he ponders what similarities start-ups share with religions. Using an anthropologist's understanding of religion in general (rather than a believer's understanding of his or her own faith), he notes that both start-ups and religions bind people together to pursue goals and notes they use similar techniques to do it. What are these methods shared by religions and start-ups?

What's Sacred?

"Émile Durkheim understood religion not as belief in the supernatural (as the popular conception would have it), but as a system of beliefs and practices relating to sacred things. Something is sacred, according to Durkheim, when it represents the interests of the group. Everything else is profane," writes Simler.

So what's sacred to start-ups? Simler suggests a couple of examples, including a company's logo. "This symbol is, quite literally, 'set apart and forbidden' by brand guidelines," he says.

Another example is core values. A start-up "may choose to treat certain values as sacred, such as code quality, product quality, or customer satisfaction."

But be warned, making something sacred "is a bit dangerous as it tends to ignore the existence of tradeoffs (sacred things are considered inviolable), but it can be valuable when used judiciously."

Solidarity Rituals

To explain solidarity rituals, Simler quotes an academic anthropology paper titled "Signaling, Solidarity, and the Sacred: The Evolution:"

Religions often maintain intragroup solidarity by requiring costly behavioral patterns of group members. The performance of these costly behaviors signals commitment and loyalty to the group and the beliefs of its members. Thus, trust is enhanced among group members, which enables them to minimize costly monitoring mechanisms that are otherwise necessary to overcome the free-rider problems that typically plague collective pursuits.

Or in everyday language, start-ups, not unlike religions, make folks who want to get in on the action jump through some hoops to prove their dedication. These are "solidarity rituals."

Aside from simple intellectual interest, understanding these ways that religions bind people together and motivate them can be useful, the post concludes. But if you're thinking of cribbing ideas from religion for your business, he ends with a note of caution.

"If you take inspiration from religion's playbook, just make sure it's not the page on orthodoxy. Once your community decides that some beliefs are wrong (and punishable!), all hope for acquiring knowledge is lost. To succeed in the risky, uncertain world a start-up inhabits, you need a community of free-thinkers, not true-believers," Simler says.

Intrigued? Check out the lengthy post for more anthropological insights into the working of small organizations.

Does your business hold anything as sacred or employ any solidarity rituals?

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Radhika Sivadi