Sunday, December 20, 2009

980 : Clive Thompson on Game Changing Startups

I loved this piece from Wired. Read this online at

I love Wired, whyTF can’t they come up with an India edition.

I have reproduced the article below for easier reading.


Today’s tech giants all have one thing in common: They tried to change the world.

Even as a two-man upstart, Google had an audacious goal: “to organize the world’s information.” Tiny Microsoft envisioned “a computer on every desk and in every home.” Facebook aimed to track “the social graph” of the planet, and eBay wanted to create an entirely new global marketplace. Big goals produced big results.

But what about today’s nascent tech companies? Are they still aiming high — and trying to tilt the planet? Some Silicon Valley observers worry that entrepreneurs these days are playing it too safe. At this summer’s TechCrunch 50 — a prestigious contest for new startups — longtime Valley writer Sarah Lacy found that the judges weren’t terribly jazzed about the entries. It’s not surprising, since they included (which makes a tool that fine-tunes online ad placement) and Cocodot (a Web site to “create celebrations”).

Worthy endeavors, I’m sure — and all organized with sensible business plans, executed with low costs, and already garnering respectable traffic. But seriously, is this the challenge that keeps entrepreneurs feverishly pounding the keyboard at 3 am? Creating celebrations?

You could argue that huge companies like Google and Microsoft and Facebook are working so ardently on big problems like cloud computing and social networking that less room is left for the little guys. But I don’t think that explains today’s smallness of vision. It’s always possible for tiny Davids to best tech Goliaths; indeed, that’s precisely what Google and Microsoft did back in their youth.

A more persuasive argument — which Lacy herself proposed — is that startups are hobbled by today’s quick-and-cheap startup culture. These days, Valley entrepreneurs tend to pick a cool (but niche) idea; bootstrap it with minimal staff, open source code, and rented server space; and then build a user base until some lumbering technosaur buys them up. That’s how Mint, which makes the nifty tool for analyzing personal finance, did it: Born in an apartment three years ago; sold to Intuit this summer for $170 million. This system is more fiscally responsible than the con-job IPOs of the dotcom boom — but it favors entrepreneurs with modest ambitions.

It’s not that the truly revolutionary businesses aren’t already here — we just don’t realize how game-changing they are. Remember: People sniffed at Google because they thought AltaVista and Infoseek had already “solved” search. Microsoft, too, was seen as a joke: Real men built hardware, not software. And as for eBay — dude, who’s gonna buy someone else’s cast-off Weebles? Twitter is the most recent idea that seems “big,” but at first it was soundly mocked — until the State Department asked CEO Evan Williams to keep the servers running during the Iranian revolt.

Why is true tech innovation so hard to recognize? Because a revolutionary new tool makes life permanently different, and we have trouble imagining change.

If I had to place a bet on one area, it would be location-based apps on mobile phones. As Robert Scoble — one of the underwhelmed TechCrunch 50 judges — pointed out, geo-apps like Foursquare and Brightkite are following the same curve as Twitter: “If you show it to the average user, they go, ‘That’s stupid,’ but a year later everyone around you is swearing by it.”

Innovation is invisible, until it suddenly bursts into view.

Email Clive Thompson

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