Innovation Doesn't Just Come From Big Ideas
from the innovation-fallacy dept
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.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.
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.
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.