We hear it all the time when it comes to various social media offerings. Blogs were dismissed early on by all important people who said they “don’t care about what people wearing pajamas sitting in their basement have to say about their cats.” Twitter was dismissed by people who “don’t care what so-and-so ate for lunch.” And on and on. But what’s interesting is this same sort of attitude seems to also be playing out on a larger scale, in how people look at innovation. Investor Peter Thiel is apparently complaining that Silicon Valley companies aren’t doing anything really important any more. But, I think, like the complaints about Blogging, Twitter and other social media efforts (some of which Thiel invested in), he’s focused too much on all the fluff and ignoring the fact that plenty of serious things are going on. However, there’s almost always been random silly startups that get lots of attention (and some of them later turn into being serious, important companies). Google, Amazon and eBay were all derided as being frivolous in their early years, but all turned into something much larger.
Along those lines, Dan Lyons has perhaps his most ridiculous column to date (and that’s saying a lot), in that he sets up by complaining about the same “frivolous” innovation going on in Silicon Valley, and then uses Nathan Myhrvold of Intellectual Ventures as the counter-example of a company taking on the real hard problems. Uh, yeah, the real hard problems of hoarding patents, waiting for someone else to do the real work, and then shaking them down for money? Lyons, like so many others, seems to not recognize the difference between ideas and execution. What has Intellectual Ventures actually executed on. What product has it brought to market? Absolutely none. The only thing it’s done to date is collect hundreds of millions of dollars from a few tech companies so that those companies can avoid getting sued, and can dig into IV’s patent database to countersue those who sue them. Lyons quotes Myhrvold making the following statement:
“The old Silicon Valley was about solving really hard problems, making technical bets. But there’s no real technical bet being made with Facebook or Zynga,” says Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft who now runs an invention lab in Seattle. “Today almost everyone in the Valley will tell you there is too much ‘me-tooism,’ too much looking for a gold rush and not enough people who are looking to solve really hard problems.”
Myhrvold is being misleading yet again. There’s always been “me-tooism” in the Valley, and sometimes it works out, and often it doesn’t. Microsoft, where Myhrvold worked for many years, was pretty damn famous for its brand of “me-tooism.” And, oh yeah, it too could be dismissed in its early days for not being “about solving really hard problems.” And, of course, there are plenty of tech companies out there that are working on solving hard problems, so cherry picking a few you don’t like does not make for a representation of the entire industry.
“What bothers me is the zillions of wannabes who will follow along, and the expectation that every company ought to be focused on doing really short-term, easy things to achieve giant paydays. I think that’s unrealistic, and it’s not healthy,” Myhrvold says.
So don’t worry about the wannabe and followers. They’ve always been around Silicon Valley and the ecosystem tends to take care of them over time. Focus on building what you’re building (which in Myhrvold’s case, still appears to be nothing) and let the market take care of the rest. It always seems to do just fine.