Has the Startup Era Ended?
Swarm of engineering and business graduates secretly dream of building the new Facebook, the new Uber, the new Airbnb. Almost every big city now boasts one or more startup accelerators, modeled after Paul Graham’s now-legendary Y Combinator. Throngs of technology entrepreneurs are reshaping, “disrupting,” every aspect of our economy. Today’s big businesses are arthritic dinosaurs soon devoured by these nimble, fast-growing mammals with sharp teeth.
The web boom of ~1997-2006 brought us Amazon, Facebook, Google, Salesforce, Airbnb, etc., because the internet was the new thing, and a handful of kids in garages and dorm rooms could build a web site, raise a few million dollars, and scale to serve the whole world. The smartphone boom of ~2007-
2016 brought us Uber, Lyft, Snap, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, etc., because the same was true of smartphone apps.
Because we’ve all lived through back-to-back massive worldwide hardware revolutions — the growth of the internet, and the adoption of smartphones — we erroneously assume another one is around the corner, and once again, a few kids in a garage can write a little software to take advantage of it.
But there is no such revolution en route. The web has been occupied and colonized by big business; everyone already has a smartphone, and big companies dominate the App Store; and, most of all, today’s new technologies are complicated, expensive, and favor organizations that have huge amounts of scale and capital already.
It is no coincidence that seed funding is down in 2017. It is no coincidence that Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft have grown from “five big tech companies” to “the five most valuable public companies in the world.” The future belongs to them, and, to a lesser extent, their second-tier ilk.
It is widely accepted that the next wave of important technologies consists of AI, drones, AR/VR, cryptocurrencies, self-driving cars, and the “Internet of Things.” These technologies are, collectively, hugely important and consequential — but they are not remotely as accessible to startup disruption as the web and smartphones were.
What’s more, startups bring fresh approaches and thinking, while hidebound behemoths stagnate in their old ways of doing things. But for the next five to ten years, thanks to the nature of the new technologies coming down the pipe, those behemoths will just keep accruing ever more power — until, we can hope, the pendulum swings back again.