The Cult of Silicon Valley
Hardly anyone will argue the fact that Silicon Valley has set the tone for a lot of culture making in the world since the last two decades. I am not even going to impress upon you the impact of this geographical land mass on 100 year old businesses and the annihilation of their business models. I will refrain from using the D-word since ‘Disruption’ is like the evil grandchild of ‘Paradigm shift’ and will most definitely be found in every buzzword spewing McKinsey report.
Besides the powerhouses of innovation — Google, Apple, Amazon (and Tesla) that not only want you to find and buy stuff quickly and cheaply, look at 300x250 ad banners, but also harbor ambitions of helping you not die and go to outer space besides several other moonshots, there are hundreds of start-ups born in the valley focused on solving the thorniest issues plaguing society today. Some may not be as much concerned about society’s problems but do end up making indelible dents in popular consciousness by riding the hype cycle.
I am not even counting the large behemoths like IBM, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft et al, even though they are an integral part of high technology and practically gave the ‘silicon’ in Silicon Valley. They’ve just not contributed as much to the culture making in recent times. When did you see people setting up camp and standing in queues for HP’s latest range of blade servers?
The cultural significance and era defining impact of the valley has been the creation of the belief that the power of technology trump all other forms of power in the post-industrial age. And as an individual market participant, if you have the entrepreneurial zeal with the wherewithal to execute on your idea like a Nazi, you can not only change the world in ways large and small, but also acquire unimaginable riches in the process.
So it’s all about quickly building an MVP for the next hot social network/app and running towards a more-than-profitable exit right? Well I’m not questioning the altruistic credentials of the tech industry. If you chart the gloried history of the valley, then you will most likely find that entrepreneurs who really did end up making sizable dents in the way we work, play and do business were not obsessed with filling up their coffers. These were folks with a vision of building products and businesses that leverage technology to upend older ways of doing things. It is this theme of young dreamers making things, rather than managing factories and assembly lines, that attracts people with world changing ambitions to the valley.
Predating the browser wars of the 90’s, when a one could finally see what this ‘net’ thing really is, was Tim Berners Lee who created the sandbox called the internet and opened up the gates to anyone who wanted to play and get their hands dirty. Following the dotcom bust, the next big wave in the internet industry saw massive technology led innovation. Think cloud, the social web, rampant ubiquity of mobile devices, and data deluge. What we are witnessing today is an evolved form of Moore’s law being played out at a massive scale. The barriers to entry for starting a company, launching an app, or learning how to code are so low that any bloke with a reasonably fast internet connection can confidently claim to be the next Jobs/Gates/Page.
So are we all set to make hay in a broadband powered utopia? Is a laptop with high speed internet the fundamental solution to all of society’s problems? Will our yoga mat-carrying hipster code jocks help us eradicate the Ebola virus while working from a coffee shop? The answers may be a bit disconcerting.
Silicon Valley urgently needs to shed the hubris and myth making that comes with the world-changing. Culture making be damned. While some bright minds are genuinely trying to solve real problems of the marginalized and disenfranchised of the world, there seems to be millions of VC dollars chasing apps or services seeped in the ephemera of social connection and triviality. In her stirring piece, C.Z. Nnaemeka implores the young and brightest to not ‘chase the nth iteration of a company already serving the young, privileged, liberal jetsetter’. She laments the lack of ‘big problem’ solving and a general disinterest in solving the issues and troubles of the ‘unexotic underclass’.
Now, why the heck should any one care? Especially a young entrepreneur-to-be. Especially a young entrepreneur-to-be whose trajectory of non-stop success has placed him or her leagues above the unexotic underclass. You should care because the unexotic underclass can help address one of the biggest inefficiencies plaguing the startup scene right now: the flood of (ostensibly) smart, ambitious young people desperate to be entrepreneurs; and the embarrassingly idea-starved landscape where too many smart people are chasing too many dumb ideas, because they have none of their own (or, because they suspect no one will invest in what they really want to do). The unexotic underclass has big problems, maybe not the Big Problems — capital B, capital P — that get ‘discussed’ at Davos. But they have problems nonetheless, and where there are problems, there are markets.
While I so ineloquently attempt to capture the essence of entrepreneurship and Silicon Valley, the fact is that I have never set foot in the valley. My connection to start-up land till now has been through the World Wide Web and the products I use every day enabling me to do creative new things like writing this blog.
I hope to use this outlet to learn, connect with interesting folks, create good content and hopefully in small ways — solve for the unexotic underclass.