Tech community, are we MTV or TED?


Francisco Dao argues that the path to success for new start-ups is looking a lot like Kim Kardashian’s rise to fame. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
August 19, 2011

Recently, my friend Dmitry Shapiro asked: “Why are so many great developers spending their time trying to create products specifically designed to addict and help us waste our time?” Along the same lines, I wonder whether members of the technology community have lost the ambition to build lasting companies that contribute to productivity instead of another “flavor of the month” social media application. Are these “quick hit” companies really that much different than the career of a Kim Kardashian or a Snooki?

The basic model seems to be: Get a TechCrunch writeup, make a lot of noise, cash out quickly and maybe linger on as a pseudo tech celebrity. And anyone who spends more than a week making the rounds of tech industry parties in San Francisco will quickly notice a whole group of people who seem far more concerned with “making the scene” than they are with actual entrepreneurship. (The Washington Post has a content sharing agreement with TechCrunch).

If we really are the world-changers that we think we are, where is the ambition to build a lasting company — a company that looks more like Meryl Streep’s career (40 years, 16 Oscar nominations, seven Golden Globe wins, etc.) than that of Snooki’s?

It is fairly common for people in the technology community to fancy ourselves intellectuals. We scoff at the general public for being vapid and shortsighted while we aspire to attend the likes of TED and Davos under the pretense that we are the real game changers — above the base distractions of the “common” man. But are we really any better than those who think what Lindsay Lohan wore in court this week is big news? Or are we equally guilty of following the allure of fame and vain diversions? A closer examination of trends in the tech community would suggest that we’re not all as exceptional as we believe ourselves to be, and before we assume that we deserve the mantle of intellectual superiority, we would do well to take a closer look in the mirror. The current bubble we face isn’t driven by valuation or funding but by our acceptance of mediocrity.

Consider our heroes. Even a cursory glance at most conference lineups reveals a host of speakers whose actual accomplishments are flimsy at best and whose primary skill seems to be self-promotion. (Should a first-time entrepreneur really be dispensing “knowledge?”) And yet we rarely stop to ask ourselves why we look up to those we’ve chosen. Instead of recognizing the entrepreneurs who have quietly risked it all to build something lasting, we get caught up in social media popularity contests and Twitter “influencers.” We too often ignore the men and women who have built companies that provide livelihoods for their employees while we fawn over self-help gurus offering four-hour short cuts. And although we act the part of intellectuals and world changers, most of us are so reliant on social proof that the first question we ask when considering a conference or event is, “Who else is going?”

Another disturbing trend is the drift toward motivational platitudes in the start-up world. Starting a company is hard, risky, painful and usually seems unfair. Starting a company that will leave a lasting mark on the world is reserved for the borderline insane or very lucky — not for those who need to be propped up with pep talks. In short, entrepreneurship is not a short cut. If you need someone to convince you that starting your own business is right for you, then it’s probably not. Going to conferences, hanging out with entrepreneurs or telling people that you’re a “start-up guy” does not put you in the category of those who put all their chips on the table to turn an idea into a reality.

Don’t consider this an indictment of the tech community but a challenge to think more independently, to question our aspirations and to reexamine our heroes. If we really are to be the game changers we think we are, then we cannot allow ourselves to be as easily swayed as we have been. Entrepreneurs of truly great accomplishments such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Gordon Moore, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin are deemed to be exceptional because they questioned everything and didn’t accept rote responses. Their success was the result of work and skill, not self-promotion, conference talks or loud-mouth antics. Their ambitions were unreasonable and I thank them for that, because as George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Francisco Dao is the founder of 50Kings, which hosts invitation-only adventures for technology and media innovators. He is a former leadership columnist for Inc.com, a lifelong entrepreneur, author and former stand-up comic.

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