Arden Thoughts

On Survival and Success in Silicon Valley

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Frighteningly UN-Ambitious Startup Ideas

When you read Paul Graham’s post on frighteningly ambitious startup ideas, it’s easy to become exhilarated by the idea of the next Steve Jobs replacing the search engine, email inboxes, or medical diagnostic tools with disruptive, visionary technology. This type of post generates enthusiasm for projects going through incubator programs and creates the kind of energy that led droves of people to Y Combinator’s most recent Demo Day in search of the next big idea (and investment).

But on the eve of Demo Day as I look through Techcrunch’s list (among others) of the best startups in this Y-combinator class, I see ideas that leave me unimpressed. This is not to say I think any of them are bad, unmarketable, or doomed, but I’m not blown away, and I certainly don’t find them frighteningly ambitious in their creativity.

There are two disheartening trends I found in post-Demo Day reports:

  • The classic pitch “we’re X for Y” represents the definition of an unoriginal idea. “These guys are doing this for dogs and we’re going to do this for cats!” is not earth-shattering. Yes, it’s a proven business model, and yes, it’s easy to explain your value proposition to potential investors, but I feel confident in assuming Steve Jobs didn’t pitch OS X by saying “It’s like Windows for Apple Computers.” According to the Techcrunch article: Crowdtilt is Kickstarter for groups of friends; Pair is Path for couples; Your Mechanic is Airbnb for car repair; 42floors is Trulia for commercial real estate; Sonalight is “Siri on Steroids;” another Techcrunch piece compares iCracked to Geek Squad for iOS devices; and in my opinion Exec sounds a lot like Taskrabbit for Executives. Most of what Techcrunch considers the best ideas from Demo Day are bred from someone else’s innovative idea.

With the press these companies are getting, I expect they will make investors and founding teams a hefty profit, but they certainly do not speak to me as signs of brilliant, innovative thinking.

  • Another theme of Demo Day ideas is online data crawling and aggregation around a particular focus area. These companies provide a centralized location to collect content others have created into one place. I willingly admit there may be an incredibly impressive algorithm behind it (in which case the best algorithm should scale to beat out all others), but it’s not original; it’s not mind-blowing. GigaOm identifies a top Demo Day contender in Ark as “a third party in the data search world” as Techcrunch gives Carsabi -an aggregate of used car sales listings- a spot in their top 10 list. And no, the fact that Carsabi “aggressively crawls every online car sale listing it can find” still doesn’t wow me.

Data aggregating provides a useful service external to the creative process. Useful services with an effective revenue-model are exactly that, but they definitely aren’t frightening me.

I want to be clear that this is not intended as a bash on incubators like Y combinator and 500 startups; they have nurtured the development of disruptive and paradigm-shifting companies, and I am confident they will continue to pursue world-changing ideas. But if reports coming out about this Demo Day are indicative of the best ideas being developed, these programs still have work to do. If I were Paul Graham, these types of companies simply would not satisfy me (despite what look to be very lucrative payoffs).

*I would love to hear more about the companies that missed a mention in these articles, particularly those that more closely reflect Paul Graham’s vision*

Filed under startups entrepreneurship innovation incubator

  1. ardenthoughts posted this