Tech Revisionism is Already Happening

An article about the “most ridiculous startup ideas that became successful” has been making the rounds on social media. It amused me, mainly because the “ridiculous” ideas used to summarize each company are more like strained ex post facto descriptions that describe what they currently do, not the starting business model.

  • Facebook was not meant to be another Myspace. It started as a way for college students to communicate with each other (after a very brief life as a “hot or not” thing for Harvard dorms). If you’re a Millenial, ask your parents if they ever looked at Classmates.com. Odds are that they have. Myspace was a public site where 13-year-olds made 90s-esque web profiles that were open to everyone, including 40-year-old men pretending to be 13-year-olds. That Facebook did not require this degree of openness has been part of its success.
  • Dropbox seemed like the first major file transfer program I heard of aside from Google Docs. As this XKCD shows, we’re still desperately working on file transfer and so almost any idea could go. (My current solution is Google Drive)
  • Amazon took off a lot after eBay drew people online. Amazon started around the time of the dot com bubble, so it’s not like investors needed much rationalization before investing in websites. But if you think about it, the basic starting idea kind of makes sense: Amazon could get virtually any book for a customer without wasting money on inventory costs. Also, Amazon hasn’t turned a profit in years because it tries to keep expanding, so maybe we should be wary of calling it a success for now.
  • Virgin was founded not long after the airline industry was deregulated, so the timing isn’t crazy.
  • I know virtually nothing about Mint or Palantir, but the idea of a company being really dependent on defense contracts is actually not uncommon.
  • Craigslist is a classifieds web site in a time when newspaper classifieds are slowly dying. Investing in it seems really reasonable. And actually, it doesn’t seem to be pulling in a lot of venture capital money. The one major outside investor is eBay.
  • iOS isn’t even a company or a standalone product. Why is it on this list?
  • The whole point of Google was that its indexing algorithm was almost completely different than other search engines at the time. Does the author not remember how bad search results were in the 90s? Also, Google grew out of Larry Page’s dissertation, so it’s not like pitching was done before the algorithm existed.
  • Part of PayPal’s appeal is that it’s more secure to give just one website your financial information and use that for purchases than to give your credit card information to a new person every time you make buy something online
  • LinkedIn totally confused me in college, but now I appreciate separating my professional and social networking activities. And evidently lots of companies do use LinkedIn for recruiting since they can sort-of target appropriate people better than random Internet ads.
  • Tesla actually does work with other car companies on some models and does have a goal of providing electric car equipment to other manufacturers to help mainstream electric cars. And considering that it was founded in 2003, its existence predates the cleantech “backlash”.
  • 2/3 of SpaceX is owned by Elon Musk. And SpaceX doesn’t just want to be a commercial NASA (and even if the author finds this really weird, I would invite him to read almost any science fiction talking about space colonization). It plans to do commercial satellite launches as well, which are big business now.
  • Firefox is the work of a free software group. Which is mostly funded by a non-profit (and a company that makes money, but that reinvests nearly all of that into the non-profit).
  • Honestly, the only crazy ideas here seem to be Instagram and Twitter. And people still seem unsure of how those are supposed to make money so maybe we’ll find that their current structures are ridiculous.

Of course, the reason this list is so popular is because people seem to love counterintuitive ideas proving some experts or conventional wisdom wrong. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell applied to entrepreneurship. And just as wrong.

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