There is generally a lot of enthusiasm in the startup world these days. But some observers worry that too many startups are working on “features” instead of world-changing ideas. Founders Fund published a provocative article summed up by the subtitle: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”. Alexis Madrigal writes in The Atlantic that “we need a fresh paradigm for startups”, and dismisses the significance of recent “hot” startups:
What we’ve seen have been evolutionary improvements on the patterns established five years ago. The platforms that have seemed hot in the last couple of years — Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest — add a bit of design or mobile intelligence to the established ways of thinking.
One thing these critics need to be careful about is that, as Clay Christensen has long argued, many important new inventions start out looking like toys. Twitter (Founder Fund’s headline example of a “trivial” startup) started out looking like a toy but has since transformed the way information is distributed for tens of millions of people. Madrigal dismisses cloud computing as “a rebranding of the Internet” whose only effect has been to make “the lives of some IT managers easier,” overlooking that cloud-based services solve the “third party payer” problem of enterprise sales, thereby completely changing how enterprises adopt new technology.
That said, I generally agree with the sentiment that the startup world is too focused on chasing trends. I don’t think this is the fault of entrepreneurs. I meet entrepreneurs all the time who are working on ideas that seem quite meaningful to me. Some of them are building futuristic new technologies. Some are trying to disintermediate incumbents and thereby restructure large industries. Others are trying to solve stubborn problems in important sectors like education, healthcare, or energy.
The problem I encounter is that many of these “meaningful” startups have trouble raising money from VCs. An entrepreneur working on groundbreaking robot technology recently joked to me that he’d have an easier time raising money if his robots were virtual and existed only on Facebook. He was only partly joking. His startup will require a lot of capital and doesn’t have an obvious near term acquirer. Only a small group of VCs today will even consider such an investment.