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Reading a press release or the highlights of a new website for a recent Silicon Valley startup can provide a crash course in marketing buzzwords. Familiar terms like “bootstrap,” “hustle,” “synergy” and “unicorn” litter the lexicon to the point of being near meaningless.
But in my experience, the term that fails in its role of description more than any other is “innovate.” You’ll be hard pressed to find a single mission statement that doesn’t pronounce a company’s “innovative” approach to its particular industry. The problem with this word, though, is that it has become a stand-in for “do differently.”
I am a long-time resident of Silicon Valley and it has been the heart of many of my business ventures in the past two decades. I founded my first company in 2014, which was recognized by The Silicon Review. I am also a frequent speaker at conferences such as the Silicon Valley Smart Future Summit and focus a great number of my investor relations in San Francisco.
This has given me the opportunity to witness the transformation in Silicon Valley and its various levels of innovation over the years. Today, Silicon Valley companies, instead of looking for the next actual innovation – a game-changing reimagining of how people live their lives – are eager for clever phase shifts and incremental upgrades they can tout as the “next big thing.”
It’s reached the point of satire with television shows (Silicon Valley) and books (The Big Disruption) skewering the “change at all costs” mentality of Silicon Valley – where the ability to say you’ve done something different trumps the actual change. So, where are we now in Silicon Valley, and what types of changes are needed to reclaim the throne of innovation that changes lives?
The Current Technology Climate In Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley is home to both the world’s largest technology companies (Google, Facebook) and a bevy of eager startups trying to replicate the mega successes of their predecessors. Platforms now make it easier than ever to launch and grow a company, and the VC megastructure in the region makes it more viable to grow and obtain funding for a successful idea. At the same time, the saturation of mobile technology makes even smaller, niche ideas viable.
Small ideas can become big businesses if implemented and scaled correctly. This isn’t necessarily bad – the history of capitalism is one of the incremental ideas outperforming the competition. But for a culture that was built on ripping apart the status quo and changing how we think about the world around us, I believe that the word “innovate” now gets tossed around far too often.
What we’re seeing instead are iterations. The world’s most impressive smartphone? It looks a lot like last year’s smartphone. A revolutionary upgrade to search engine technology? It has almost no immediate impact on the day-to-day life of the average consumer.
The biggest tech companies are churning out new ideas and upgrades to their technologies at rapid speed. Their huge infrastructures and piles of cash allow them to invest heavily in R&D around things like artificial intelligence, voice, augmented reality and more. But all those resources, combined with investors looking for short-term returns, mean lots of incremental changes designed to impact the bottom line as much as the future. It’s a fine line they have to walk, and the result is that we are seeing far fewer game-changing technologies upending the status quo.
The Future Of Silicon Valley
While Silicon Valley is still home to more startups than almost any other city in the world, as well as the headquarters of some of the biggest companies in the U.S., the U.S. technology industry has diversified substantially in the last 10 years. From the biomedical startups of Boston to AI and engineering in Pittsburgh to the startup culture in New York that rivals – and, in some cases, beats out Silicon Valley – investors and entrepreneurs alike are diversifying and spreading to other places, and taking on new mindsets about how to approach their work.
Revolution CEO Steve Case described it as “the beginning of a slowing of what has been a brain drain the last 20 years.” Many entrepreneurs are staying in their hometowns and investing there, no longer wooed by the promise of an innovation hub in centralized locations. That’s not to say that Silicon Valley doesn’t have some of the cache it once did. It’s just a matter of scale. It’s more expensive to live there and not as necessary to be physically close to the big VCs, and there are tech hubs in more cities than ever before.
At the same time, with large companies increasingly hunkering down and focusing on incremental improvements, truly innovative companies and entrepreneurs are having luck operating with lower overhead close to home.
Providing A Needed Service
Technology is no longer an industry unto itself. Today’s startups are diversified across dozens of verticals – from biotech to cybersecurity to blockchain and consumer applications. The “next Facebook” may never exist, but there are plenty of billion-dollar ideas that will revolutionize the infrastructure on which we live our lives and do business.
Combined with an increasingly diverse startup culture, a greater willingness by investors to look outside of the Bay Area and fewer game-changing ideas coming from the big five, “innovation” has an entirely new meaning as we approach a new decade.
I believe that innovation isn’t reinvention. Technology isn’t innovation. Technology is a tool that allows us to innovate and solve existing problems that consistently plague humanity. Innovation needs to be thought of as real resolutions to current problems.
Of course, that meaning will continue to shift, and the role of Silicon Valley will continue to change as the way in which we interact with technology evolves.
March 14, 2019 at 08:11AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs