My recent journey on the road to start-up innovation
On July 10th and 11th I attended the New York Venture Summit for Young Start-ups. I am happy to report that attendance was quite good. As the day progressed dozens of VC, reviewers and start-up hopefuls milled about the venue. Panels were interesting and engaging, covering a variety of topics from start-up pitching advice to industry innovation, even messages and suggestions to the president on how to invigorate the NY start-up community.
The pitch-fest itself was a flurry of activity. Full disclosure, the StreamScape Team applied to present but did not make the cut due to a large number of applicants. With over 50 companies registered and many more that applied, only about a dozen were able to present. This is quite encouraging as we are seeing a record number of young entrepreneurs and small start-ups jumping into the fray.
What was somewhat discouraging is the focus of presenters and applicant companies. It seemed overall that a majority of the start-ups broke into two categories. In many cases, new products were being introduced that improved consumer reach and self-sufficiency. Smart home hardware, automated employee screening, unattended search and payment automation via digital currency solutions were interspersed with infrastructure products that worked behind the scenes to automate or optimize mundane tasks. Products that were ripe acquisition targets and would clearly never see the light of day.
Overall it seemed that emerging technology focus was squarely on process optimization and automation that further isolates consumers from human interaction; rather than products or services that offer productivity and empower knowledge workers and consumers. In short, success was measured by ability to eliminate people from the business equation. And I was suddenly reminded of the finale of Wizard of Oz where Dorothy discovers that the entire Emerald City is run by a single zany guy, operating a crazy machine full of bells and whistles .. possibly built using Open Source components left behind by the Munchkins, while in servitude to the Wicked Witch. Sadly I had to click my heels and whisper "There is no place like home."
Not surprisingly, an Uber appeared and I was transported back to reality, where employees still struggled in search of knowledge, courage in decision making and better healthcare for heart conditions. The Man behind the technology curtain could operate a city by himself, but he would not offer help or productivity to those people who need it. Apparently, there was no App for that.
Now, none of this is the fault of the start-ups. Its hard enough to come up with an idea, convince others to follow and find competent technologists that can turn your business hunch into a product. It's harder still to convince investors looking to make a profit on the long-term benefits and viability of your vision. Venture Capital is after-all, a business focused on revenues, revenue cycles and deals, like any other business. Its not surprising that start-ups often get caught up in a race to the exit, long before they start the run.
But here is where the venture community can really help young start-ups. Instead of always looking at management teams as Olympic sprinters and products as potential spark torches that can cause a short-lived disruption, set aside some cycles to reward ideas that have long-term potential. Products that make jobs easier and improve employee productivity rather than eliminate employees and jobs have always had longest and best cycles of return. Making the complex stuff, easy and affordable is a great economic moat. As we have often seen, ".. the light that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.." Don't discount productivity tools that have shaped industries in the past. Be it picks and shovels or knowledge management tools. There is still gold in them hills.