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Why is so much of Silicon Valley obsessed with small ideas that don't solve a problem?

The world does not need another mobile photosharing app or SMS-based event planning system. The truth is that it's not that hard to get into commercialization of more complex technology if you're willing to invest time and energy into getting the background. Why do the vast majority of startups seem to settle for low-success-rate vanity apps than solve a real problem?

Though the tone of this question is intentionally accusatory, there's a real effect here that I think can be discussed without making a value judgement. That is, without saying that mobile local photosharing is "less important," it's qualitatively different from tech transfer, which when done successfully is usually higher economic value as well as "impact." Why do so many fewer people pursue this?

31 Replies

Vijay Goel, MD
8
1
Vijay Goel, MD Entrepreneur • Advisor
Founder Chefalytics, Co-owner Bite Catering Couture, Independent consultant (ex-McKinsey)
Silicon Valley is an echochamber disconnected from real people with real problems. Also, it's hard to get investors to get excited about something complicated that they don't understand.

On the other side, it's actually great to be able to work more deliberately in a space where you're not competing against VC funded entities that can defy economics and take the air (and margin) out of a market until you actually figure out what paying customers want to buy.

You'd think that 20 year olds don't have the life experience to understand most of the world's needs. And I believe you'd be correct...I had very different needs at 20 than I develop for now.
Samie Syed
0
3
Samie Syed Entrepreneur
Digital Project Manager / Product Manager at emocial digital
1) "commercialization of more complex technology if you're willing to invest time and energy into getting the background."

You still need to build a prototype.

2) Most start ups do not have the r and d to create something that is cutting edge, so focus on consumer based apps.
Steve Simitzis
12
3
Steve Simitzis Advisor
Founder and CEO at Treat
Communicating and sharing memories and stories with each other is one of the things we do that defines us as human. I wouldn't consider these small ideas. What big problem did Twitter set out to solve - yet now the disenfranchised depend on the platform to be heard by the world.

Yes some of these apps are gratuitous or redundant and most of them fail, but every now and then we get one that enables new ways of understanding each other. I hope these experiments never stop.
Mir Haque
2
0
Mir Haque Entrepreneur
Tech Entrepreneur, Corporate Strategy & Finance Professional
I think it's more about time and money issues. Large projects require a lot of money. Most small apps are done by folks who never quit their fulltime job. Also many entrepreneurs see small projects as a stepping stone to something bigger through right pivot once they meet right partners, get right funding, etc.
Heidi Therese Dangelmaier
1
0
disruptive category innovation for female + digital native market | new product + tech + brands + services + media
Ran Hadary
3
0
Ran Hadary Entrepreneur
Founder & CEO at RIDARTECH
I think you are absolutely right in your simple question.

But I don't think there is a simple answer, however, one that comes immediately to my mind is that everybody (or at least a vast majority) is looking for a quick win, one that will make you instantly rich and famous.

Maybe an answer to your question, (a) most people don't like to work hard and explore other areas.
(b) If you are stuck in the same puddle with our high-tech folks you don't get to see the real world and the real problems.

Shingai Samudzi
8
0
Shingai Samudzi Entrepreneur
Founder & CEO at ProjectVision
Look at the demographics of Silicon Valley. Most of those consumer-oriented products you rail against have business models geared largely at capturing the discretionary income of that demographic group. From a profit perspective, that's a fair way to perceive investment - requires minimal up front investment and targeted at the portion of the population with the greatest spending power.

That said, the lack of diversity or widespread investor cultural sophistication has also largely limited SV's investment success to the US consumer market. It has failed pretty abysmally when attempting to port that investment mindset into China, SE Asia, or Africa.
Darryl D.
1
0
Darryl D. Entrepreneur
Value Creation Specialist
Barriers to entry are lower for smaller ideas, in general. Also, most of these founders don't have the life or professional experiences to have observed these issues that need solving. Combine a dosage of group think with capital providers seeking certain types of investments they've had success with previously... you end up with tunnel vision. Sometimes these simplistic apps do result in usage that no one thought of, and can solve real issues - Twitter.

There are amazing companies being built elsewhere in the country and world tackling major problems. Hopefully they begin getting more and more of the spotlight.
Stephen Cataldo
3
0
Stephen Cataldo Advisor
Drupal | Startups | Green Conferences | Carpooling | Strategic Planning During Conflict
I'd break your question into 2 parts: what inspires developer/designer bootstrappers, and what do investors fund. So one answer is what someone whose profession is web development will know about and use ... photosharing and consumer apps, or github and tech tools. (Also, many vanity-apps are often easier, and partly a learning process for developers, rather than real businesses.) And I think a big part of the problem is investors preferring a slim chance of making astronomical returns instead of a good chance of making good returns, trying to be the next big thing instead of just meeting a niche need.
David Schwartz
11
0
David Schwartz Entrepreneur • Advisor
Multi-Platform (Desktop+Mobile) Rapid Prototyping + Dev, Tool Dev
I don't live in Silicon Valley and I don't talk to VCs, so I can't really comment from that perspective. I'm a software developer approaching 60, and wrote my first program in 1972 when I was 16. I love software and software technology; however, I find it quite frustrating that we employ the same tools and processes to develop software today as was used in the 1960s. I'd love to come up with better, more efficient development tools. For one thing, I'm a highly visual thinker; I see solutions in my mind, and having to translate them into a verbal expression (as code) to implement them is like having to plant grass in a detailed pattern and watch it grow. You'd think VCs would be lined-up to fund something like this, but so much software tech has shifted to open-source that it's hard to make money with it any more.

That said, I'm not infatuated with the technology we create for mass consumption the way most people are, including other programmers. I don't care about the things that seem to be catching fire in the app world -- they seem to cater to the more narcissistic side of humanity which holds very little appeal to me.

The only thing I can suggest is that there are so many of these silly "reach out and touch people" apps because people ARE narcissistic, and our society seems to be making people paranoid of interacting with others directly. If you're a VC, you're probably looking for anything that's subject to the Law of Large Numbers, which is anything that appeals to tens of millions of kids (who are infatuated, if not addicted to mobile tech) where a small fraction of them are capable of generating some kind of monetary activity.

However, I think we're in a kind of infatuation phase where the market tends to get all googely-eyed over fairly simple things. It'll wear off, and more complex apps will begin to come on the scene.

I'm working on something myself that's based on an idea originally conceived 20 years ago that has been waiting for the technology to evolve sufficiently to make it feasible. And the feedback I'm getting is showing me ways to bust it out into an entirely new experience, given the ability of mobile apps to fundamentally transform the underlying approach and process.

Take a look around the app landscape and ask yourself, "how many of today's apps are simply linear extrapolations of existing concepts with lots of eye-candy, versus those that represent totally transformed approaches?" Mobile tech has the potential to transform the ways we do things, but I haven't seen much in that direction yet. Which tells me the game has barely begun!
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