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How the current investor climate leads to BS startups and a culture of over-promising


Recently, I’ve been rewatching the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley,

And wow- I’d rate the writing the same as Yes Minister. Such brilliant critiques, delivered subtly. As you might be able to tell by the title, this article was inspired by some of the jokes in that series. In one of the scenes, we learn about Peace Fare, a mobile game where users can virtually give money to the homeless or grow virtual corn for a virtual starving village. This game is touted as a solution to homelessness (in the real world).

This had me thinking of all the times when we were pitched as a revolutionary new Tech startup as the solution to a major hurdle, only to watch this revolution implode spectacularly. To recall an old classic, WeWork was once touted as the ‘next generation of work’ and the ‘future’.

So..why does this happen so often, especially with Tech? Why do so many Tech Startups pitched as Marilyn Monroe end up being a monkey with some makeup? Let’s answer that question today, based on a few observations over the last few years.

Startups are a fashion statement– One thing I’ve noticed over the last few years, startups have become more and more of a fashion statement. Startup culture was always popular with people who did 100 pushups at 3 AM and dreamt of being on Forbes, but the euphoria seems to be creeping up. I recently heard one person argue that the VC-backed ecosystem was the only source for sustainable long-term innovation (which is …). Even governments are blindly investing in fostering more startups, instead of looking at alternative ways for encouraging people to explore. Alongside this, it’s no longer fashionable to want to make money- every startup has to be on the warpath against the World’s evils. For some reason, companies are now bastions of online morality, virtue signaling at every opportunity. This has manifests in startup culture through grand pitch decks, and world-changing mission statements. Many overindex on the castles-in-the sky forecasts, and completely forget to devote their energy to basic substance.

There are many startups with a core-idea and many even execute on it. However, they run into a huge problem. They lack any knowlege of the real domain. No matter how much VC media would like you believe- a plucky band of college grads or a rugged party of ex-big tech employees can do very little to disrupt an industry with decades of rules, norms, and regulations. Ideas that seem like winners fall apart when evaluated through the lens of a specific field. A great example of this was demonstrated in this analysis of the Real Estate Tech industry by exceptionally insightful Modern MBA (would highly recommend you all sub to his YouTube, that channel is a goldmine). Here we see how intricasies of the US housing markets make it unfeasible for an otherwise common strategy- using algorithms to price assets, and then flipping at scale. The comments in that video, validate the analysis, with many people celebrating mispriced sales and Opendoor overpaying.

Sold my house right at the peak of my neighborhoods pricing. Opendoor has taken a 36k loss so far(and the price keeps dropping every few weeks). My ex girlfriend and I got out of the sale pretty happy since we got to pay off debts and move on to our own lives. We didn’t have much time to deal with a realtor and sales process since we were about to hit foreclosure and we’d have to short sale so Opendoor really took one for the team whether they liked it or not.

-One of the many comments showing how badly Opendoor did with their algorithms

Even I posted a comment about the importance of domain knowledge, and got this great response

Now you can absolutely do great work while knowing very little about the domain. Amongst my early work experiences were detecting Parkinson’s disease on voice calls in a chaotic environment, forecasting the impact of changing Health policy on Public Health for a state government with 200 Million people, and supply chain risk analysis. I know very little about these domains. However, I was still able contribute because I (the AI) wasn’t the star of the show. Other people laid the ground work for my work, and all of my analysis on the variables was recontextualized by domain experts. In a sense, I only was responsible for doing the math on the data- when that math was translated into policy changes was upto the domain experts- not a tech bro like me.

Theranos is another high-profile example of what happens when we ignore domain experts and rush to invest into Tech.

Remember, people on the ground are the true experts, and it is their understanding that solves problems. Tech exists as a tool, not the solution. All the failed high-tech, low-results solutions we cover today (and you will see irl) tried to cram in fancy technology while ignoring/not being aware of the fundamental challenges of the domain they were trying to disrupt. Remember kiddos, to break the rules, you have to master them first.

A serving of Humble Pie- Here’s something to remember: for many of the worlds true challenges are not tech challenges. They are often rooted in deep systemic problems, and need a much deeper reworking. Technology will be a crucial part no doubt, but it is best being the Sergio Busquets, not Lionel Messi. Done right, technology based solutions will no enable solutions, but focusing on the technology without looking at the challenges is putting the cart before the horse. To think that any problem can be solved with software, pitch-desks, and VC funding is childish, delusional, and narcissisitic.

As a follow up to this piece, I will be covering several trendy high-tech solutions, that completely fall apart when we take a closer look at them. We will also discuss their lower cost, less fancy solutions, to show understanding the domain and attacking the systems at their roots leads to better solutions.

That is it for this piece. I appreciate your time. As always, if you’re interested in working with me or checking out my other work, my links will be at the end of this email/post. If you like my writing, I would really appreciate an anonymous testimonial. You can drop it here. And if you found value in this write-up, I would appreciate you sharing it with more people. It is word-of-mouth referrals like yours that help me grow.

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