What the smartest people do on the weekend is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years

Many breakthrough technologies were hatched by hobbyists in garages and dorm rooms. Prominent examples include the PC, the web, blogs, and most open source software.

The fact that flip-flop wearing hobbyists spawn large industries is commonly viewed as an amusing eccentricity of the technology industry. But there is a reason why hobbies are so important.

Business people vote with their dollars, and are mostly trying to create near-term financial returns. Engineers vote with their time, and are mostly trying to invent interesting new things. Hobbies are what the smartest people spend their time on when they aren’t constrained by near-term financial goals.

Today, the tech hobbies with momentum include: math-based currencies like Bitcoin, new software development tools like NoSQL databases, the internet of things, 3D printing, touch-free human/computer interfaces, and “artisanal” hardware like the kind you find on Kickstarter.

It’s a good bet these present-day hobbies will seed future industries. What the smartest people do on the weekends is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years.

“PCs are going to be like trucks”

Steve Jobs in 2010:

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that’s what you needed on the farms. Cars became more popular as cities rose, and things like power steering and automatic transmission became popular.

PCs are going to be like trucks. They are still going to be around…they are going to be one out of x people.

This transformation is going to make some people uneasy…because the PC has taken us a long ways. It’s brilliant. We like to talk about the post-PC era, but when it really starts to happen, it’s uncomfortable.

We are just scratching the surface on the kinds of apps for the iPad…I think there are lots of kinds of content that can be created on the iPad.

When I am going to write that 35-page analyst report, I am going to want my Bluetooth keyboard. That’s 1 percent of the time. The software will get more powerful. I think your vision would have to be pretty short to think these can’t grow into machines that can do more things, like editing video, graphic arts, productivity. You can imagine all of these content creation possibilities on these kind of things. Time takes care of lots of these things.

This year, about five times as many smartphones will be shipped versus PCs, and tablets will surpass PCs for the first time. According to Jobs, the right way to look at this isn’t that mobile devices are creating a new market. It’s that mobile devices are relegating PCs to special-purpose, mostly industrial devices.

The computing deployment phase

Technological revolutions happen in two main phases: the installation phase and the deployment phase. Here’s a chart (from this excellent book by Carlota Perez via Fred Wilson) showing the four previous technological revolutions and the first part of the current one:

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Each revolution begins with a financial bubble that propels the (irrationally) rapid “installation” of the new technology.  Then there’s a crash, followed by a recovery and then a long period of productive growth as the new technology is “deployed” throughout other industries as well as society more broadly. Eventually the revolution runs its course and a new technological revolution begins.

In the transition from installation to deployment, the bulk of the entrepreneurial activity moves “up the stack”. For example, in the installation phase of the automobile revolution, the action was in building cars. In the deployment phase, the action shifted to the app layer: the highway system, shipping, suburbanization, big box retail, etc.

This pattern is repeating itself in the computing/internet revolution. Most of the successful startups in the 90s built core infrastructure (e.g. optical switching) whereas most of the successful startups since then built applications on top of that infrastructure (e.g. search). The next phase should see startups higher in the stack. According to historical patterns, these would be ones that require deeper cultural change or deeper integration into existing industries.

Some questions to consider:

– What industries are the best candidates for the next phase of deployment? The likely candidates are the information-intensive mega-industries that have been only superficially affected by the internet thus far: education, healthcare, and finance. Note that deployment doesn’t just mean creating, say, a healthcare or education app. It means refactoring an industry into its “optimal structure” – what the industry would look like if rebuilt from scratch using the new technology.

– How long will this deployment period last? Most people – at least in the tech industry – think it’s just getting started. From the inside, it looks like one big revolution with lots of smaller, internal revolutions (PC, internet, mobile, etc). Each smaller revolution extends the duration and impact of the core revolution.

– Where will this innovation take place? The historical pattern suggests it will become more geographically diffuse over time. Detroit was the main beneficiary of the first part of the automobile revolution. Lots of other places benefited from the second part. This is the main reason to be bullish on ”application layer” cities like New York and LA. It is also suggests that entrepreneurs will increasingly have multi-disciplinary expertise.

Ten million users is the new one million users

Entrepreneurs and investors have been enamored with consumer internet startups for the last few years. But there are signs this is ending.

Some observations:

– Thousands of early-stage consumer web/mobile companies were started and funded in last 24 months.

– There are only a few dozen VCs who actively write consumer Series A checks, and those VCs will only do a few deals a year.

– Facebook’s market cap is about half of what most tech investors expected before the IPO.

– A few breakout early-stage consumer hits (Instagram, Pinterest) have reached tens of millions of users in record time.

– Internet users have tens of thousands of services/apps to choose from but limited time and attention.

Some consequences:

– For consumer startups with non-transactional models (ad-based or unknown business models), you need something closer to 10 million users versus 1 million users to get Series A funded.

– For consumer startups with transactional models, e.g. e-commerce, the number of users required is often far lower because revenue is the more important metric. Hence, many early-stage consumer startups are switching to transactional models.

– It’s becoming increasingly common for early-stage consumer startups to do bridge financings (raising more money from past investors, usually on terms similar to the prior round) instead of Series As.

– VCs are increasingly focusing on B2B for early-stage investments.

– There will be a lot more consumer talent acquisitions.

Some advice:

– If you are thinking of starting a non-transactional consumer startup, be aware that you are entering what is perhaps the most competitive sector in tech in the last decade.

– If you can raise more money, do it. (Especially pre-launch: remember, there’s nothing like numbers to screw up a good story).

– Be prepared for lower valuations for non-transactional early-stage consumer startups (breakout later-stage companies, on the other hand, will likely continue to command high valuations).

Predicting the future of the Internet is easy: anything it hasn’t yet dramatically transformed, it will.

People love to focus on horse races:  NYC vs Silcon Valley, Facebook vs Twitter, IPO markets vs private exchanges, the valuation of some startup vs some other startup.  Like a lot of people in the tech industry, I’ve gotten inquiries recently on the meaning of Facebook’s “private” IPO with Goldman Sachs, whether VC valuations are indicative of a bubble, whether such-and-such startup is overvalued, and so on.

These questions are all footnotes that will be forgotten in a few years.  The Internet has gone through fits and starts – in particular the dot com crash of 2000 disillusioned many – but every year we see it transform industries that previously sauntered along blissfully denying its existence.  Already transformed: music, news, advertising, telecom. Being transformed: finance, commerce, TV & movies, real estate, politics & government. Soon to be transformed (among many others): healthcare, education, energy.

The modern economy runs primarily on information, and the Internet is by orders of magnitude the greatest information mechanism ever invented.  In a few years, we’ll look back in amazement that in 2011 we still used brokers to help us find houses, that doctors kept records scribbled on notepads, that government information was carefully spoon-fed to a compliant press corps, and that scarcity of information and tools was a primary inhibitor to education.

Thus far the US has led Internet innovation. There are things the US can do to keep this lead, including: 1) exporting the entrepreneurial ethos of Silicon Valley to the rest of the country (including places like my home city, New York), 2) allowing talented people to go where their skills are most needed (e.g. by changing US immigration policies), 3) convincing the upcoming generation to innovate in sectors that have a direct impact on the quality of peoples’ lives (Internet, healthcare, energy, education) instead of wasting time on sectors that were historically prestigious (e.g. finance and law) but add little to negative economic and societal value.

Predicting the future of the Internet is easy: anything it hasn’t yet dramatically transformed, it will.  People, companies, investors and even countries can’t stop this transformation. The only choice you have is whether you join the side of innovation and progress or you don’t.