Our Own Worst Enemies

Daniel Gibbons is a Techvibes Guest Contributor.

My son is now an “entrepreneur.” That’s what you’re called when you don’t have a job.

Ted Turner

I was irritated recently by discussion in the blogosphere about Plurk, last month’s newest entrant into the micro-blogging arena. Essentially it’s like Twitter but with a visual time-line. Perhaps there’s more to it, but I couldn’t be bothered to invest the time to find out, and as I’ve done with so many other lightweight web-based applications I signed up and haven’t been back since.

But what really annoyed me was the ridiculous bravado being expressed by bloggers who proudly announced themselves to be early adopters simply because they had signed up for a personal application for free while sitting in front of their macbooks in their pajamas.

For me, real early adopters are those who invest in new technology when there’s risk involved. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to spend money, but it does mean they have to insert new technology into a context in which it could bring dramatic productivity or efficiency benefits. The flip side of that coin being that this new technology could equally well not bring those benefits and cause said early adopter to royally screw up and get fired. In other words, to be a real early adopter you have to be displacing something that actually has an established and meaningful place in your home or office, something that has dependencies.

All of this grouchiness got me thinking… It seems that there is a plague of infantilism spreading through the early stage technology community, in which tools and services are developed that add no meaningful value, choosing instead to grab 15 seconds of Internet fame and seduce the blogosphere. Most of us who’ve dabbled in web 2.0 applications are guilty of drinking the kool-aid cocktail of two parts viral adoption mixed with one part give it away for free and make it up on volume. And worse still, unlike the real success stories (Flickr, YouTube, StumbleUpon, even Twitter), it’s as though we’re trying to game the system. We convince ourselves that what we’re doing is revolutionary and game-changing, when in fact it’s mostly quite spectacularly ordinary. This is the cult of the entrepreneur at its worst, where somehow being an entrepreneur has become detached from the need to create real businesses that produce real things for real customers.

My last start-up, Lypp, went through three reinventions, the first two of which were about chasing the web 2.0 bubble without the discipline to ask tough questions about whether anyone in the real world would find utility or value in our creations. It’s seductive at first — surprising how easy it is to get into those storied offices on and around Sand Hill Road — but in the end largely fruitless. Had we persisted I’m sure we could have raised the A round and perhaps jumped that large chasm in between the potential for something great and greatness actually materializing. In the end we settled for a much more mundane and pragmatic route, using our technology to deliver a conference call service and a platform for developing VoIP applications to an under-serviced Canadian market, and thereby creating a business that can run and grow profitably on auto-pilot. This time next year it will be what’s dismissively referred to as a “lifestyle business”, which certainly isn’t what a VC would want, but just fine for me nonetheless.

So what’s my point here? Well it might seem that I’m suggesting we all aim low rather than swing for the proverbial home run. But really I’m saying that the mentality of swinging for fences without doing the hard grind of creating something transformative first is utterly futile. As Marc Andreessen is fond of saying, it’s absolutely always the market that draws the line in the sand between success and failure in business, which in turn means that simply cheerleading yourself won’t produce any meaningful results.

In a recent presentation by a well-respected Canadian VC, he urged the audience to come into his office and bang their fists on the table, shouting claims of being the next Google. But much like American Idol, where most contestants are unable to distinguish between desperately wanting to have talent and actually having it, I’m sure that many aspiring entrepreneurs believe it’s all about wanting success, rather than innovating to achieve it. Try and be the next Google if you like, but remember that Larry and Sergey were working away long before the first bubble burst, and they were applying fantastically innovative engineering to a problem many (most even) dismissed as irrelevant.

So perhaps in the end that’s the message: we’re our own worst enemies because we confuse validation from our peers in the tech community with the harder truths the market more subtly relays to us. In fact, chances are if the praise from your peers and the pajama/macbook crowd is louder than everything else it’s time to look for a real job.