Disrupt, Disruption, and the Nobility of the Tech Scene
So I went to TechCrunch Disrupt this week. I’ve always wanted go, but, you know, when you’re busily employed running a company, you don’t always have the time to go to conferences. It’s always been on my list, and I figured “Hey, you’re unemployed now. You should do it. Why not?” I also wanted people to see I’m still interested in stuff, of course, and to kinda put it into people’s minds I’m free.
I’m glad I went. Under the swirling rumors and drama of Arrington’s departure, it was a pretty amazing event. Say what you want about him, but Arrington’s such a great interviewer on stage. He asks the tough questions, he pushes people, he rails and parries mightily against the corporate non-answer answer. He’s not usually successful, and people labor to not have to give anything away, but it’s refreshing to see him constantly struggling to not make the whole thing one big orchestrated PR event.
Other than that, though, I dunno. Nick quoted me, as I posted the other day, as being unimpressed with most of the thing. I guess maybe I was kinda unimpressed with the new startups. Most of the talk amongst the older people was around economics, and the bubble, and how these kids these days, don’t think know this has all happened before (everything has happened before and it will happen again, as the Cylons say)… I do love a good bubble talk, but that didn’t seem quite right to me in terms of what felt off. Then, today, as I was having lunch with my friend Helen, before our conversation turned to the utterly silly and ridiculous, I managed to form my thinking around what it was that irked me about everything there and the startups.
I think the subconscious zeitgeist of the last maybe.. ten years? of internet startups has been running in three ways. That is, there were three sort of goals, or purposes that imbibed us all with a sense of good and nobility to what we were doing and what motivated the startup community, especially around social:
First, we had the ideas around radical transparency, around fighting back anonymity and trolls, around living a unified, whole life and doing it under your name and not being embarrassed about who you were or what you did with your life. It’s hard to remember this now, because Facebook has taken it so far and succeeded so insanely that the conversation these days is almost completely around when we NEED anonymity. And that’s true. But let’s not discount how important it was to also have an identity. Maybe most of the benefits people saw from increased transparency haven’t arrived yet, or they never will, or we’re all getting older so we aren’t so enthusiastic about it. I don’t know. But what I do know is that for the last decade this was a driving force, a thing people felt strongly about, and now it is, for all intents and purposes, done.
Next we had the sort of “reduce isolation” motivation. Things around microtrends and subcultures and “it gets better” and support, and not feeling so alone and outcast in the world. Connecting people together on the web that may not have anyone to talk to in their small town, etc. It is, I believe, to this day, one of the best gifts the web has given us, but, again, it is, for all intents and purposes, complete.
And finally we had the sort of “disrupt the industries that are pissing us off” routine - the evil PMRC and RIAA and Comcat sucks and AOL sucks and monopolies and information wants to be free and why the hell do I have to pay $200 a month for a bunch of channels I don’t want just so I can watch The Sopranos, and god damn do I hate AT&T and now we have Netflix and Skype and Bit Torrent and iTunes Music Store and Spotify and the Kindle and while this battle has not been completely won, the disruptive players are established, and the battle is well underway and we are generally making progress.
So. What do we have now? What motivates us? What can the web do for us? Why are we doing this anymore? What would be the fundamental motivators that endow the web scene with some sort of sense of nobility? They are there, I think. There are the obvious ones of education, health care and the environment - three “industries” that are ripe for reinvention. Oh and government, of course. And of course, while the kids were annoyed that their books, movies, television shows and rock were being sold by old, monolithic, evil empires, there are countless additional industries where this is still the case. Let us not forget Chris Dixon’s awesome insight that predicting the future of the internet is easy: anything that hasn’t been dramatically transformed, will be. We see this now in some industries with The Melt, and Air BnB and whatnot.
To me, though, education, health care, the environment and government are probably the big ones. The ones where making a difference would truly make a difference. But the thing about those is that these dragons which we ponder battling are exponentially larger, more entrenched and powerful than Comcast, RIAA et al. Is it doable? Is it possible to topple these? Sure, probably, right? But is it possible to disrupt or topple these in the manner in which we have become accustomed? Are $50,000 angel rounds and multiple small rounds and series b, c, d, or h the way to go? Can three people and $50k disrupt 200 years of education processes, compromises, agreements, history, cruft, bloat and weight? I don’t see any reason, academically, why they couldn’t, but it also isn’t clear to me how the currently-en-vogue processes of forming a tech startup are helpful.
Let me illustrate this with an anecdote: there were a few companies @ Disrupt that, to me, seemed like they might not just be doing some real good*, but have a chance at making an impact. One of them was CakeHealth. Great tech, awesome idea, a way to make people’s lives simpler in dealing with their health care and their insurance companies. When they pitched in the startup finals, Marissa Meyer was on the judging panel. She started talking a bit about Google Health, and “why it failed,” and you could see her line of thinking: disrupting health care is insanely difficult. She listed a giant litany of obstacles. Indeed, in many ways, you could see she was almost ceding the battle. At the very least, you could see her blatant skepticism that health care is disrupt-able with such a small team. More depressingly, she seemed to be saying that even the mighty GOOGLE couldn’t crack it. Indeed, part of me secretly thinks CakeHealth didn’t win not because it wasn’t disruptive enough, but because it was tackling something un-disrupt-able. Health Care in the US is not the hotel industry or car sharing. It is legion. It is everywhere. It is, perhaps, indestructible. Or close to it.
So, in thinking about going back into tech, this is sort of my conundrum: the desire to do some real good, mixed with a love of the small startup world, combined with a lurking belief that the solutions needed to solve the real problems are going to be large. Real large. Like Tesla or Space X large. No one’s come close to really marshaling those levels of resources in the tech scene to tackle education, health care of environment yet. And if I did go back into this, that’s maybe what I’d be looking for.**
* There are a TON of companies not sort of trying to play the “good” card by incrementally doing a little bit of good, chipping away at one small problem and making it a smidge better, and taking the mantle up of making a real difference. A cynic might argue that they are cloaking themselves in the “good” thing because people are yearning for it. Of course, an optimist might seize this as the solution to my conundrum: agile startups can make things better through a thousand points of light, or death by a thousand cuts. I invoke a thousand points of light intentionally, however, and explicitly call up the problems with it when Bush I invoked it: large battles often require coordination.
** There’s an alternate view for me, of course, as an operations guy: just go do ops for someone that is awesome, has a great work place, and needs assistance making a great company of 10 grow to a great company of 200. And the joy and nobility of making a great place to work where people are happy - tech is GREAT at that. But, then, in doing that, why confine it to tech? This still might be the way to go, for me, but it exists outside of these insights, I think.