The Long Tail of Mediocrity

Or how to make potato salad, annoy your friends and get paid for it!

Murali Narasimhan
Jul 6, 2014 · 3 min read

What if I told you I am making potato salad, “basically I am just making potato salad. I haven’t decided what kind yet.” You ask “Are you good at making potato salad?”. To that I reply that it might not be that good. It’s my first potato salad. But you can watch me make it live and I’ll shout out your name while attempting said potato salad if you give me at least $1.00. For a dollar more, you’ll get a photo of me making the salad. You are hungry for that salad and you ask timidly “Do I even get to taste the salad?”. I crinkle my brow and answer “For $3.00, yes. But if you want to participate in this grand endeavor it will cost you $7.00 more”. Too many cooks spoil the broth, but since none of us are cooks, this obviously doesn’t apply to us. Guess what? I just got an alert on my phone — apparently the world (777 of the population at least) wants to pay me $4,371.00 (at last count) to motivate me to get to the kitchen and whip up a salad. Your jaw drops and before you can start putting together a coherent sentence, I jump in and put you out of your misery and point you to this link here and say I did not come up with the brilliant potato salad idea.

You sigh and then mention to me about this app called Yo that does nothing but say “Yo” to your friends. I laugh and retort that I’m sure it was downloaded by just the developer and his close family and friends as a show of support. You reply back “If by close family and friends you mean a $1 million funding from a venture firm, then yes”. It’s my turn now to do some jaw dropping and I quickly wish I had some potato salad in the kitchen to stop my head from spinning.

Venture Capital (or crowd sourced funding) meet the long tail of internet. Easy money is inspiring mediocrity. VCs are flush with cash and they are willing to put a small amount of money (yes $1 million is small change nowadays) in a 1000 ventures. At least one of them should become a hit, right? Let’s look at the flip side of the coin. I’m fresh out of college. I’ll head out to the valley and build a 100 apps (after all building an app is so easy and doesn’t cost a lot of money). Dating and Flirting apps (or why bother just an app that prints out two letters) and by the law of the “long tail” you can end up getting $1 million dollars (or more ) for one of them. You just have to come up with a fancy term like “context based messaging”. I’ll take the $1 million dollars, thank you.

It’s not that the kids are not smart. I’m sure they can come up with some brilliant innovations. But if a 23 year old can turn down $3 billion dollars for a messaging app, surely you can build something similarly “not” earth shaking and hope to be paid in the millions (at least). Why bother building the next Google?

To put this all in perspective here’s snippet from Wikipedia about Google’s early stage financing:

“The first funding for Google was an August 1998 contribution of US$100,000 from Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, given before Google was incorporated.[48] Early in 1999, while graduate students, Brin and Page decided that the search engine they had developed was taking up too much time and distracting their academic pursuits. They went to Excite CEO George Bell and offered to sell it to him for US$1 million. He rejected the offer and later criticized Vinod Khosla, one of Excite’s venture capitalists, after he negotiated Brin and Page down to $750,000.”

I know we are not in 1998, but neither are we in the age of the $4,000 potato salad.

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