What If...?

For those of you that know me, you know I ask Why a lot (annoyingly so at times!).  So that's why (ha!) atBIF9, I loved what Matt Murrie is doing with getting "What If...?" out there - boldly!  We all need to ask this more.  So the next time you find yourself starting to say "no", try saying "What If..?" instead and thank Matt (and What If you followed him on twitter?)


The idea for What If…? was born on the campus of Westminster College, a small, liberal arts college in a small town in the middle of Missouri. The proud parents of What If…? are me, a Westminster professor, and Andrew R McHugh, a Westminster student. Even though Andrew was never a student in any of my classes, this did not stop us from having a wonderfully random collision. Curious minds stuck in small spaces tend to connect in the most serendipitous ways.


In entrepreneurial terms, the need for which we were creating a solution with What If…? was the need to have a more curious world. The problem with this, we soon discovered, was how few realized that an incurious populous was a problem at all; administrators, “leaders,” parents, and most everyone else tasked with shaping our collective futures seemed not to care that a lack of curiosity in people also leads to students and a citizenry that is uninterested, apathetic, and unconcerned. It was getting to the point where I began wondering if this was the point.

So, how do you tell an audience they have a need? You hold an event and prove it to them. The first What If…? Conference in February, 2012 was a half day event in which questions such as “What If There Were Carfree Cities?,” “What If Prisoners Could Be Rehabilitated?,” and “What If Video Games Could Change the World?” were asked, discussed in small groups, digested over a large meal together, and then given life well beyond the close of the Conference.

Our second conference this past March was a two day event. The first day was a three hour action workshop in which a group used a “What If…? Shift Approach” to address a current concern in higher education: “What If Technology Has Rendered the Physical Classroom Obsolete?” (Whether or not those in higher education want to listen to what the group came up with…that’s another question entirely.) The second day was a full-day conference exploring questions such as, “What If We Had Superpowers?,” “What If Women Were In Charge?,” “What If Everything Were Hyperlinked?,” and “What If I’m Wrong?

We’ve now had time to prototype and validate our product. We believe What If…? presents a unique value to people in every corner of the planet, so it is now our mission to grow a community to connect and spread it. This has been tremendously educational for us as we balance between a movement and a business. It has also been incredibly frustrating as we’ve learned that, since our startup isn’t an app that helps you pick people up at bars, we’re not exactly what investors are looking for. We’ve also learned that Venture Capitalists (in the truest sense) no longer exist. The idea that someone would actually “venture” out into the unknown and support a startup because it’s spunky, scrappy, got its shit together, and providing a needed service? Well, apparently, those people are gone (and perhaps, never existed). All of the investors we meet keep asking how we fit our conference onto the screen of a smartphone. Yet, surviving on ramen noodles and working multiple jobs on the side, we’ve managed to outlast several local startups who received awards, funding, and investment.    


Why are we willing to torture our intestines with crappy food, destroy our sleep cycles with multiple jobs, and put our lenders and renters on edge with every payment? Why are we willing to continue living in a community that consistently doesn’t get us or what we’re doing? Because What If…? is needed. For every person that scratches his or her head at What If…? instead of embracing it, for every potential investor asking us about our business plan instead of our business model canvas, for every Midwesterner wanting to know why ask “what if…?” when we should just be satisfied with “what is,” we are reminded why we’re doing this.

But, just as we’ve been made to feel we don’t quite belong in the startup world, we’ve encountered several other misfit toys along the way. Most of them come from the realm of education. Both students and educators alike have flocked to the “What If…?” mindset of curiosity, creativity, and question asking as a means of engaging and changing our world. There is a real need and an increasing outcry for education reform, at all levels.

But the needed reform doesn’t stop at schools. Our entire approach to the exchange of information is broken. Perhaps, the chief competitor for What If…?, and certainly an entity we’d like to disrupt, is TED. Not only has TED created its own class of 1%ers; but, as Andrew points out in his blog “On Ted,” its structure is fundamentally flawed and representative of an archaic, industrial model. The effective transfer of ideas and information can be done better. We deserve better. Our ideas deserve better.

What If…? Social Enterprises isn’t setting out to destroy TED; we view ourselves as a different channel on a television of ideas. We’re similar in that we’re a physical, experiential conference that disseminates its content via a variety of media (webpage, YouTube channel, blog, Huffington Post, podcasts, Facebook, and Twitter), but we take a very different approach. It is our purpose to democratize the question asking process by providing multiple platfor(u)ms to do so. And we are perfectly comfortable with being wrong along the way to getting it right.

What if the World craves your curiosity? We’d love for you to experience What If…? for yourself at our 2014 Conference