Innovation Doesn't Just Come From Big Ideas

from the innovation-fallacy dept

There have been a number of stories lately from people complaining that US entrepreneurs aren’t innovating enough. A few months ago, we wrote about a reporter who came to Silicon Valley and complained about too many trivial startups. At the time, we noted that this is actually part of the process of innovation, and figured that maybe this was just a problem of someone “dropping in” on Silicon Valley without understanding the larger way in which innovation works.

However, I’m much more surprised to see Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, who have been around for a while and involved in a variety of Silicon Valley projects making nearly the same argument as a part of an upcoming book.

They maintain that we’re not solving hard problems anymore, and they lay the blame, indirectly, on the innovations that have gotten us to where we are. As Levchin says, it used to be that if the project you were working on was hard to do, you thought it was valuable. Now, it’s so easy to start a business or launch a company, that people have started thinking that if it’s hard to do, it’s not as smart as doing something much easier.

Both Levchin and Thiel remind us that you can take something that looks easy, make it hard, and change the world. As Thiel said, before Google, people thought search was solved, and uninteresting. Google, “reconceptualized it as a difficult problem,” and from that position won a near-monopoly on the space.

First, it seems a little ironic for Levchin to be making this argument, considering his last company, Slide, could be described in exactly the terms that he now condemns. But, more to the point, I think Levchin and Thiel confuse “difficult” with “innovative,” when that’s often not the case. Innovation comes from a variety of places, often unexpected. There are plenty of stories of people just “scratching an itch” and doing something simple… which later turns out to be massively innovative. But part of the process of innovation is that it’s unexpected, and one of the reasons why Silicon Valley tends to bring out really innovative companies over the long run is because of its ability to rapidly test out lots of different ideas — many of which seem silly upfront. Lots of those ideas “fail fast,” but the ones that can stick, can really stick.

If anything, Levchin and Thiel’s thesis seems like a nearly exact parallel of other elitist viewpoints in other industries, whining about how the internet made things “easier” for lowly amateurs to get into the game. It reads no different than the music snobs and movie snobs whining about how new tools have made it easier for “just anyone” to make music and movies. What they miss is that, yes, this creates lots of crappy music/movies/startups — but the bad ones go away quickly, and because of all that experimentation, some wonderful, and often extremely unexpected, things arise. Innovation is a long and always ongoing process. Judging the level of innovation based solely on the “difficulty” of the problem being attempted is like judging a movie based solely on the budget. It just doesn’t work that way.

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Comments on “Innovation Doesn't Just Come From Big Ideas”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Youtube showed everybody how to do it, is there anyone threatening it?

Google become a giant, Bing is even liking to it but who is the big dog in the field?

You see an idea without execution is worthless, the US understood that, that is why they strip mined Germany of all their hightech stuff and scientists, did you know that the father of American rockets was the same guy who build them for nazi Germany?

Stealth technology came from the ex-USSR.
Textile automation technology came from the UK.

The greatest times for Americans was when everybody could tinker with ideas without fear of being sued, that is what created America, ideas that were spread and someone somewhere knew how to make use of it, someone knew how to implement it correctly.

PaulT (profile) says:

“As Thiel said, before Google, people thought search was solved, and uninteresting. Google, “reconceptualized it as a difficult problem,” and from that position won a near-monopoly on the space.”

Erm, really? The way i remember it, search was a minefield, and most search providers were more interested in making their sites into ad-filled “portals” than actually providing decent results. Google’s initial success was simply based on providing a clean home screen that led to relevant search results as quickly as possible. That’s certainly why I stopped using the likes of Altavista and Yahoo, anyway…

Perhaps he’s answered his own question in that quote. Some of the best ideas “look easy”, but are in fact nothing of the sort and have the power to change the industry. I’m sure “online store to buy MPs”, “online DVD rental” and “sending messages of 140 characters or less” were also ideas he would reject as “too easy”?

nero says:


True that the trival are part of the valley’s innovation process, blah-blah, and that Thiel and Levchin are out of line, blah blah. But – even worse – their core hypothesis that innovation is pretty much dead outside of computing is just asinine. This attitude is modal with the inbred nature of Silicon Valley. You can’t help it when you think the sun rises in your front yard and sets in the backyard. (Are there any adults in the room down there?)

– troll

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