Brent Beshore recently shared an article titled “The Hypocrisy in Silicon Valley’s Big Talk on Innovation” which challenges many out there talking about their hugely important projects and super sexy startups to remember that the newest timewasting app (or, let’s be honest, the 10,000th productivity app) may not be all that innovative, or all that important.
It’s an interesting article, particularly in the light of the current reality of many of the “hottest startups” in recent memory. Andrew Mason of Groupon was forced out of the company he started last month. Living Social is in dire straits (some may disagree, but their financials speak volumes). Remember when group couponing was going to revolutionize commerce? The insane valuations of investors crazy to pour money into a “sure thing” that was “innovative” beyond any doubts seems almost comical, in retrospect. One thing Groupon and Living Social have accomplished is a strong contribution to the race to the bottom on prices and quality many companies are locked into these days, destroying company and product value and consumer perspectives on what something is actually worth. Looking at Zynga, another innovative next big thing, tells a somewhat similar tale. Things aren’t going well, in terms of management (Founder forced renegotiations on equity promises when things were going well), stock price, or future. Even Zynga itself got caught up in other’s hype when it paid $180 million for Draw Something, an app that became hugely popular in a relatively short period of time. It’s taking a $100 million write down on that purchase. These are just a few examples. Certainly we’re seeing great things in innovation and tech these days (from Twitter and Square to Tesla and Shopify), but there is a continued fascination and obsession with a multitude of companies that seem highly talented at raising money and making noise rather than building real companies of true value. Why?
For what little my opinion matters on the subject, I think it comes down to three things.
- Short sightedness. This is on behalf of both the investors and the entrepreneurs. The few stories we hear today of founders and investors cashing out for hundreds of millions after 3 years has poisoned people’s thought processes. Building something of real value takes a long time, great sacrifice, and more than most could ever imagine. If you’ve cashed out early for hundreds of millions, it was almost certainly a fluke. Since tech companies seem to be all the focus, let’s look at the ones we rely on the most: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung. These companies took years, even decades, to build and massive investments. There is no get rich quick. There is no build value quick. There is only hard work. Time will tell on Facebook’s real valuation (read: value). Right now, in pursuit of calming investors, they are making just about every single one of their users incredibly frustrated at every turn. Look at LinkedIn: once the ugly duckling of social media, they are the darling of the investor world today because they are creating real value and something people actually want and need. Twitter remains a toss up in my opinion – it is fundamentally the most transformative communication tool since the cell phone, but let’s see how they handle things moving forward.
- Tech. Tech isn’t a dirty word, but it is distorting perspectives on what is worthwhile and valuable. The ability to scale an app company quickly, reach millions, and quickly flip it for $180 million (see Draw Something) or $1 billion (see Instagram) has changed the way people pursue innovation, has changed the way investors look at risk and reward, and has changed the public’s perspective altogether. Look at Elon Musk with SpaceX and Tesla Motors. One man (supported by investors and an all star cast of employees, of course) is responsible for carrying the greatest nation on earth’s dream of space travel forward through his private sector efforts WHILE ALSO building the first real attempt at a viable electric car company. Most of the country laughs at him and says he’ll never make it. While many probably laughed at Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, monumental gains in demonstrating what is possible (computers, cell phones, satellites, the internet) should have us cheering for Elon and others like him rather than worshipping a photo filter app… For some reason, most aren’t.
- Distractions and Ease. The first two aren’t really the general population’s fault. They’re really more reserved for investors, entrepreneurs, and the media (particularly the startup media). We aren’t getting off that easy though. As Gary Vaynerchuk said, “Stop watching F-ing LOST” (I’m paraphrasing here and in full disclosure I absolutely loved LOST). Many people say how busy they are and how little time they have to a) do something that matters or b) do something they really want to do. I don’t need to quote any articles to point out how much time is spent wasted on Angry Birds, Social Media, or picking your latest filter. Sure, there’s a time and place for fun and social media is an amazing tool for business, communication, and maintaining friendships… but they’re also fantastic time wasters. Many people have lost sight of the big picture because they are focused on the very small screen right in front of them with flying birds that knock down pigs. People can get quite frustrated when their phone freezes or they lose service on a phone call. While this is indeed a frustrating experience, many forget the hundreds of billions of dollars and too many hours to count that went into creating computers, processors, cell phones, satellites, infrastructure, new forms of programming so on and so forth. The ease with which we live our lives, and the very entertaining distractions, have made most of us lose sight of what really matters and how hard it is to really build something of value.
I’m not trying to suggest that Mizzen+Main is a cure for cancer, or that we shouldn’t be excited and engage with fantastic tech developments. Not at all. I am all the more convinced, however, that we are on the right path to building something of real value, something that matters, and something that can have a very positive impact on our communities and our country. For a great perspective on our journey so far, please check out my brilliant cofounder’s thoughts on How to (Really) Found a Startup. It feels good to be getting our hands “dirty” (don’t worry we wash them before handling the fabric!), it truly is a labor of love. We’re building real products and aim to build something of true value.
In response to Brent, I said that companies need to aim for more than the next “hot app” while investors need to aim for more than a quick flip. Brent summed it up nicely: “Do stuff that matters”.
Please let me know what you think on Twitter @KevinSMU.