Founder Archetypes – The Missionary

The primary trade shows for the natural products industry are hosted by New Hope, owned by one of the world’s largest business conference companies – Informa. As the name suggests, New Hope is infused with advocacy and missionary zeal; like a whole lot of change-the-world-ism. 

As oversold as they are today, these shows were once the only realistic way to efficiently scale up the national distribution of natural and organic products when conventional retailers laughed over drinks at this end of the market. We should appreciate this history for sure. As for the missionary zeal…well… 

In graduate school, I developed an accidental expertise in missionary psychology. I acquired it at an archive in Boston. I spent two months reading over two thousand private letters from American missionaries operating large school systems in colonial India. I was hunting for nuggets of social history to connect to my 18 months of anthropological fieldwork in a specific town.  

In the process, I noticed two primary kinds of missionary:  

  1. ones who honestly want to serve the existing needs of others and then figure out how to get that done – Mother Theresa 
  2. ones who simply want to scale an ideology by any legal means possible—your worst stereotype of the awful missionary 

At times, the same missionary can flip flop between these two very, very different frames of mind. In some, it was clearly a source of significant psychic tension. 

The smartest ones quickly figured out a simple behavioral insight: if you want a stranger to adopt bizarre foreign ideas, you must exhibit some basic empathy for their situation first. Do something concrete for them without expecting anything in return, and they probably will listen. They owe you at least some time.  

Why the hell am I talking about this?  

Because the premium consumer packaged goods industry is chock full of missionary zeal…of all kinds, and most are the second kind, the worst kind. And most colonial missionaries were as well. They were often obnoxious, cultural bigots who spoke first and rarely listened.   

But not all of them. There were also stories of unbelievable personal risk and sacrifice with absolutely no earthly gain or fame.  

Early-stage companies founded on a missionary zeal don’t need to abandon their visions…but they do need to flip the script and learn to delay their gratification. 

 I’ll talk more about this in an upcoming episode of Startup Confidential. 

Dr. James Richardson

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