There was an article written by Hermione Way called “The problem with Silicon Valley is Itself.” The article can best be summarized in Hermione’s own words:
Living in San Francisco since January, I’ve interviewed around two hundred startups and there’s only two, out of two hundred, I think are game changers… Everyone is doing something amazing and trying to change the world, but in reality much of the technology being built here is not changing the world at all…
The problem with this type of thinking and the actual irony is how shortsighted these observations are. I’ve interviewed close to 40 successful startup founders at length, and almost all of them look like they started out as some cute little toy or some neat and easily dismissible feature. And that’s the pattern most startups follow.
Grooveshark was just another Napster where you upload music and other people can listen to it; Airbnb was some silly air mattress thing that had two people book while they launched at SXSW (and one of the people booking was the founder); WePay was just a way to share expenses with your roommates. I’m listening to Grooveshark while I write this, and I’ll be listening to it on my jailbroken iPhone when I have to go to the store tomorrow; I’m using Airbnb when I travel to London next week and staying with someone on their site for a full week; and I’m using WePay to manage everything anyone owes me and for a charity project that I’m working on right now. All of these products started out as these simple things that few expected would go anywhere.
On my Facebook feed, people from the barbeque are saying that the conversations weren’t anything like what Hermione portrayed them as. I’m not one to say whether this is sensationalism or not, because I wasn’t there. I can only judge based on what I read, but when I read stuff like this it makes me wonder what the purpose is. This is Silicon Valley, where people are willing to take the risk in the first place to be unconventional by the world’s standards and take a leap of faith to do something. They know their little projects are going to be scrutinized by people like this, but that won’t stop them.
The reality is, many of the best ideas don’t look like “game changers” when they start out. That’s why the smart investors focus on the founders, because we don’t actually know what ideas will work or not. The best we can do is build something we want out of our own frustration, and that’s usually what happens. But just because you don’t want to use it or you don’t find it interesting in its infant stage doesn’t make Silicon Valley a “problem”–it only makes you disillusioned. If you hang out in the midwest, it’s a completely different culture. Getting people to do a startup would be a feat, let alone getting someone to work on something “truly revolutionary” (are we talking about colonizing Mars here? I could understand Groupon clones, but at least we know that hardware companies are particularly slow and expensive to start).
There was a 14 year-old kid who started out selling his services drawing graffiti on jeans and jackets in a Detroit neighborhood. This would have looked like a stupid idea, but it his entry into the entertainment industry. His name is Eminem and he went on to become the best-selling artist of our decade. He holds the record for the most successive #1 albums from a solo artist. Did he change the world? Who knows, although he donated more than I could ever afford to charity through the Marshall Mathers Foundation and that’s good enough for me. There’s the headfake: you don’t focus on the kid drawing graffiti on jackets, you look at the kid and see he has enough passion that he’s going to do something great even if it takes him a few years to get there. Elon Musk didn’t just start out building orbital spacecraft for NASA, electric cars, and solar panels; he started out in “financial services” moving money between two e-mail addresses at X.com. He wouldn’t have been able to convince investors to fund some college dropout to start SpaceX or Tesla Motors, so he invested all of his money earned from the PayPal acquisition into those ventures.
Good ideas start small. They focus on a small group of people and make them really excited about your product. Ignore the people who will discount your ideas as a mere toy; they’ll be the same people writing about how “awesome and game changing” your idea is after the fact.