The internet is reshaping our economy from one of huge corporations with lots of jobs to huge platforms with lots of income streams

From Innovation and the Bell Labs Miracle in today NYTimes:

Innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job “better, or cheaper, or both.” Regrettably, we now use the term to describe almost anything. It can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.

The conflation of these different kinds of innovations seems to be leading us toward a belief that small groups of profit-seeking entrepreneurs turning out innovative consumer products are as effective as our innovative forebears. History does not support this belief. The teams at Bell Labs that invented the laser, transistor and solar cell were not seeking profits. They were seeking understanding. Yet in the process they created not only new products but entirely new — and lucrative — industries.

Putting aside the obvious rebuttal that large companies like Intel, Microsoft, Apple and even AT&T were once startups, the author seems to confuse “jobs” with “income streams”. For example, it would be easy to dismiss a website like Craigslist as a “social media tool” that has only created a few dozen jobs for its employees. But in fact it has created billions of dollars of income streams for people buying and selling things on its platform. The internet is increasingly reshaping our economy from one of huge corporations with lots of jobs to huge platforms with lots of income streams.

“It is the human friction that makes the sparks”

From Jonah Lehrer, Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work (via Stowe Boyd):

Building 20 [a scene of incredible innovation at MIT] and brainstorming came into being at almost exactly the same time. In the sixty years since then, if the studies are right, brainstorming has achieved nothing—or, at least, less than would have been achieved by six decades’ worth of brainstormers working quietly on their own. Building 20, though, ranks as one of the most creative environments of all time, a space with an almost uncanny ability to extract the best from people. Among M.I.T. people, it was referred to as “the magical incubator.”

The fatal misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interactions. The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant—not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism—that doesn’t mean that they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.

I think this underscores one of the main reasons remote early-stage projects often fail. We mistakenly think of brainstorming as something you can do in meetings, and teaching as something you can perform through carefully composed documents or lectures.

I was part of a number of failed remote R&D attempts. The one time it worked was when we decided to abandon meetings, project documents, tracking tools, etc. Instead, we got a high quality speakerphone so everyone could overhear everyone else’s conversations, and we left it on all day, every day. It wasn’t the same as being together in person, but we did manage to get some of the human friction back.

 

Howard Lindzon’s “Web is Dead” series

Howard’s Stocktwits interviews are always really fun.  Some people don’t get his subtly self-deprecating sense of humor but I love it. Besides discussing the usual suspects (Facebook, Twitter, Apple), we spend some time trashing Wall Street and chatting about some early-stage startups including Founder Collective investments Bnter, Giiv, Ze Frank Games, and Canvas (founder of 4chan Moot’s new startup).  Of course I also shamelessly promote Hunch.

Also, Fred Wilson’s interview with Howard is a must watch.

It’s not East Coast vs West Coast, it’s about making more places like the Valley

I’ve written a few times about what seems to be an exploding tech scene in NYC.  This is sometimes interpreted as arguing that NYC is a better place to start a company than the Valley. Most recently, Matt Mireles seems to be addressing people like me with his critique of the NYC startup scene (he makes some good points as does Caterina Fake in her response).

I’ve never meant my arguments to be about where it is better to start a company. California is a phenomenal place to start a tech company. NYC is a great place as well. (Note to Matt – it’s hard for first time founders everywhere). To me, the important question isn’t which place is better, but rather how we import the things that make the Valley great into NYC. As I said last year:

New York City has many of the same strengths as Silicon Valley – merit-driven capitalism, the embrace of newcomers and particularly immigrants, and a consistent willingness to reinvent itself.   Silicon Valley will always be the mecca of technology, but now that people here are getting back to, as Obama says, making things, New York City has a shot at becoming relevant again in the tech world.

I spent the past week in California and had the honor of meeting some legendary venture investors. I was deeply impressed: they are legends for a reason. Of course, they are incredibly smart and hard working and all of that, but most impressively, it was clear that they truly believe in making big bets on ambitious, seemingly wacky ideas to try to change the world. Every VC has this rhetoric on their website, but – at least in my experience – most just want to make incremental money on incremental technologies. (Side note: I noticed that the more powerful the VC, the more likely they were to pay close attention, show up on time, and not bring phones/computers into meetings.  I guess when you are changing the world, emails can wait an hour for a response).

California should be NYC’s role model and ally. The enemy should be people and institutions who make money but don’t actually create anything useful. In NYC, this mostly means Wall Street, along with the Wall Street mindset that sometimes infects East Coast VC’s (emphasis on financial engineering, needing to see metrics & “traction” vs betting on people and ideas, etc).

Matt should do what’s best for his company. God knows it’s hard enough doing a startup – you don’t need to carry the weight of reinvigorating a region on your back as well. That might mean moving to California. Meanwhile, forward-thinking investors and founders in NYC will continue trying to make things that change the world – in other words, trying to make NYC more like the Valley.

Every time an engineer joins Google, a startup dies

VC returns over the last decade have been poor. The cause is widely agreed to be an excess of venture capital dollars to worthy startups. Observers seem to universally assume that the solution is for the VC industry to downsize.

For example, Fred Wilson says about VC:

You cannot invest $25bn per year and generate the kinds of returns investors seek from the asset class. If $100bn per year in exits is a steady state number, then we need to work back from that and determine how much the asset class can manage…. I think “back to the future” is the answer to most of the venture capital asset class problems. Less capital in the asset class, smaller fund sizes, smaller partnerships, smaller deals, and smaller exits

Similarly, Bill Gurley writes:

There are many reasons to believe that a reduction in the size of the VC industry will be healthy for the industry overall and should lead to above average returns in the future.

All of these analyses start with the assumption that aggregate venture-backed exits (acquisition and IPOs) will remain roughly constant. I don’t see why we need to accept that assumption. The aggregate value of venture-backed startups, like all valuations, is a function of profits generated (or predicted to be generated). In technology, profits are driven by innovation. I don’t see any reason we should assume venture-backed innovation can’t be dramatically increased.

For example, innovation has varied widely across times and places – the most innovative region in the world for the last 50 years being Silicon Valley. What if, say, Steve Jobs hadn’t grown up in Silicon Valley? What if he had gone to work for another company? Does anyone really think Apple – and all the innovation and wealth it created – would exist if Jobs hadn’t happened to grow up in a culture that was so startup friendly? Jobs is obviously a remarkable person, but there are probably 100 Steve Jobs born every year. The vast majority just never have a chance or give a thought to starting a revolutionary new company.

Some people blame our education system, or assume that there is some fixed number of entrepreneurs born every year. I think the problem is cultural. As much as we like to think of our culture as being entrepreneurial, the reality is 99% of our top talent doesn’t seriously contemplate starting companies. Colleges crank out tons of extremely smart and well-educated kids every year. The vast majority go into “administrative” careers that don’t really produce anything – law, banking and consulting. Most of the rest join big companies. As I’ve argued many times before, big companies (with a few notable exceptions) aren’t nearly as successful as startups at creating new products.  The bigger the company, the more likely it suffers from agency issues, strategy taxes, and myopia. But most of all: nothing is more motivating and inspiring than the sense of ownership and self-direction only a startup can provide.

Whenever I see a brilliant kid decide to join Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, or Google, I think to myself: a startup just died, and as a result our world is a little less wealthy, innovative, and interesting.