Are You Accidentally Building Your Startup Like a 4-Year-Old?

This childish mistake that lots of entrepreneurs make can have big consequences.

Aaron Dinin, PhD
5 min readMay 18


Photo by DAVID ZHOU on Unsplash

“I don’t understand,” I said to the founder sitting across from me. “What problem are you trying to solve?”

This particular founder was part of an important segment of the entrepreneurial community building socially conscious, sustainable ventures. In his case, he was building a non-profit that collects expiring food from restaurants and distributes it to food kitchens. However, he was having trouble convincing restaurants to use his service, and he was also having trouble finding food banks that wanted his donations.

“Aren’t the problems obvious?” the founder asked, exasperated by what he assumed was my naivety. “We’re solving two really important problems: food waste and food insecurity. Every year, 119 billion pounds worth of food are wasted by restaurants in the United States. That’s the equivalent of somewhere around 130 billion meals! At the same time, 34 million people in the US are food insecure. Put these things together, and — boom! — we solve both problems.”

“I get that part,” I told him. “In theory, it’s a nice story. But, in reality, it doesn’t work because the two things you just described as problems aren’t actually problems.”

“Aren’t problems?” he interrupted before I could even finish getting the last word out of my mouth. “What do you mean they aren’t problems?!?!? If you don’t think wasting billions of pounds worth of food while 34 million people in this country are starving isn’t a huge problem, you’re an idiot. No offense, but you are.”

“No offense taken,” I assured him. “And I definitely am an idiot about a lot of things, but not this. Food waste and food insecurity aren’t problems.”

“Then what are they?” he huffed.

“They’re results,” I told him. “And your inability to appreciate that distinction doesn’t quite make you an idiot, but it does make you sound like my four-year-old.”

How my 4-year-old lost her stickers

I began telling him the story of driving my four-year-old daughter home from daycare. From the back…



Aaron Dinin, PhD

I teach entrepreneurship at Duke. Software Engineer. PhD in English. I write about the mistakes entrepreneurs make since I’ve made plenty. More @