Hyper-connected tech blogger Robert Scoble, recently wrote about treating startups more critically. Robert found himself meeting with lots of crappy, over-funded, digital startups that desperately need more time in the oven, an intervention by Dr. Drew, or more likely, Dr. Kevorkian. (My words, not Robert’s.) Not only am I seeing the same things, but I’d take it a step further. I believe this current crop of entrepreneurs might actually be hurting America - and perverting the very idea of innovation in the same way Beyonce’s Run The World is like kicking Aretha Franklin in the ribs…repeatedly. All is not lost. There are ways to take advantage of this situation, though it’s way too late to save this song:
“Innovation” for and by the YouTube Generation
Justin Kan, the bright young founder of video streaming site Justin.TV, recently wrote this about the current generation:
“We’re making our own way and making our own jobs…We don’t need your jobs, your advice, your instruction. Pretty soon we won’t need your music labels or publishing houses; we’ll be doing it ourselves on iTunes and Amazon.”
While I admire Justin’s can-do spirit and terrific achievements, he’s spent far too much time around other ambitious, hungry entrepreneurs. He is the exception, the elite. 99% of his peers are not peers at all. They don’t build streaming websites; they snack on Cheetos while streaming planking videos. They have the same sense of entitlement, selfishness, and ‘Screw The Man‘ attitude Justin alludes to, minus two important things – talent and the drive to work at it.
The latest US generation has led a life of leisure. Arab protesters carry swords and machetes, ours carry iPhone 4S’s in pink, personalized cases. The resulting innovations and their inventors reflect that hardship-free aesthetic. In many ways, this latest wave of digital entrepreneurs takes the easy path. It’s easy to start a web site. It’s easy to make an app. It’s easy to do anything that doesn’t require big capital investment, physical infrastructure, or a fleet of trucks driven by beefy, middle-aged men named Al or Tony. Things like Angry Birds, coupon sites, and social networks look like the pets of America’s great inventions from the past – flight, electricity, assembly lines, cars, the internet, Ike and Tina Turner.
From computers to office furniture used by cute digital startups like Pinterest or Oink or FoSchnizzle, – it’s all made possible by a superior breed of entrepreneurs and inventors. They toil away in relative obscurity, often in Asia, solving big, complex problems. They squeeze 64GB onto something a Ken doll might swallow. Or, they make un-killable batteries that let Kim Kardashian tweet deep into the night. They even make solar cells viable and water out of thin air.
In the US, a stunning surplus of VC cash and leisure time feeds this feeble form of innovation – where getting something to scroll from left instead of right can be considered a breakthrough. It’s not that the entrepreneurs themselves aren’t smart or impressive. The market simply doesn’t demand they try that hard. Why build a plant when someone will give you $300 million to collect email addresses for a daily deals site?
The risk is the same as what happened in the banking industry – easy money drives high salaries and diverts talent from productive industries to unproductive ones. There’s plenty of demand for top engineers and inventors to improve natural gas extraction or harness ocean water. Instead, that talent can be found gambling on fictitious investments or perfecting the trajectory of a dead digital pig. Multiply that by several thousand and you have:
- A country completely disconnected from real world problems faced by the rest of the planet – like no drinking water.
- Entrepreneurs missing out on a chance to make money solving tangible problems
- The US falling farther behind and deeper in debt as its top talent clicks away inside a dimming, narrow, digital consumer bunghole
I’m not saying there’s no room for entertainment or leisure-oriented innovation, but I am saying if we want to continue getting those Lenovo’s from China, they’re not going to accept our Tweets or Oinks as payment.
What’s next and so what?
As US incomes stagnate and emerging markets discover Prada and Pringles, American innovators will need to start making things Indians and Chinese will buy. You and I know what they won’t have any Pinterest in. China can and will clone its own Farmvilles and Facebooks. If we’re not careful, they’ll be selling us Tracy Morgan tweets and lead-infused digital carrots at half price. In my book, Econovation I write about what innovations the next decade will demand. As you stampede Barnes & Noble to buy dozens of copies for all your friends, there are things you should consider doing right now:
- Entrepreneurs: Immediately start preparing your pitch for any kind of digital, social, mobile, adorable buzzword startup you have in mind. The time will never be better to get it funded. For a little while longer, it’s like taking candy from a baby. (Coincidentally, that’s the premise of my forthcoming mobile game startup, Furious Babies.)
- Investors: You probably know that no one cares about that new RSS reader app you funded. Save your money for a business that makes something tangible. I know it’s not in vogue, but it will be…soon.
- Inventors: If you can solve a real-world problem – and there’s no shortage of them, start now! Dust off your soldering irons, Bunsen burners, and particle accelerators. Most important, find someone to help get your VC pitches ready. Your time is about to come. Even the government will dance the Macarena to help you.
- Parents: Glue posters of real innovators all over your kids’ walls. I’m not above suggesting electrified security in case they try replacing them with Jonas Brothers photos. Don’t settle until your kids do this when they see Ajay Bhatt:
by Steve Faktor
For more wit and wisdom, and to keep me posted on how your new startup is going, visit ideafaktory.com