Thoughts on today’s tech startups

Startups are hot right now.  So hot in fact that some would suggest we are approaching another bubble.  I follow a number of tech startup blogs, podcasts, and Twitter accounts.  I find them fascinating from both a technology and economic perspective.  As a fiscal conservative with libertarian tendencies, I can’t help but cheer for the little guys trying to do something new and powering our economy at the same time.

One thing I have been contemplating, and I’m not even sure if this is a fair assessment of the situation, is why so many tech startups have this laser-focus on tiny problems.  Don’t get me wrong.  I see the merits of lean startups, minimal viable products, and starting small.  However, I’m an engineer, and it seems to me like a lot of up and coming tech startups are using a miniscule amount of technology prowess to solve consumer or business problems that aren’t bringing that much value to the world.  Companies like airbnb and groupon have a relatively small amount of tech IP backed by an army of business development, support, and sales people.  Yes, Web 2.0 companies face a lot of engineering challenges like coming up with great UI design and usability and managing massive amounts of load through various scalability techniques.  Seemingly, though, when you look deeper than that, there really isn’t that much going on.

There seems to be a trend toward really flashy web apps without a lot of substance.  There are even groups of hobbyist programmers who get together and try to build a minimal prototype over the course of a caffeine-fueled weekend.  That sounds like a lot of fun, but are you really going to produce something of enduring value like that?

Each person looks at the world from his own skewed perspective.  I have a lot of big ideas.  I have hundreds of hours invested in my current side project.  It’s hard.  Crazy hard.  Only in the last few weeks have I had enough of the structure of the application in place that it would start to do show promise of doing some truly original things that I don’t think have been done before.  I can’t help but feel that a lot of tech guys, developers or otherwise, won’t put up with months or years of the unpaid grind to try something crazy.  If tech startups make you think of launch parties with fountains of Absolut, I would humbly suggest your calling might be elsewhere.

My eyes are wide open.  I might completely fail in my ultimate objective, but I will have some amazing experiences I can draw on throughout my career.  I’m pretty okay with that.

Remember when I said I have lots of big ideas?  I’m pretty sure I won’t get to them all, so I’m happy to share some thoughts.  Figure one of these out.  It will likely take you a really long time, might not make you much money, but could change the world in a meaningful way.  Here’s a few I like:

  • Alternative energy on the micro scale.  Solyndra hasn’t worked out so well.  Seems like Enron had some troubles too.  The infrastructure for energy delivery is costly, dangerous, and requires huge amounts of aboveground and underground easements.  Why aren’t we pursuing roof-mounted vertical-axis wind turbines, sewage gas recovery, or small optically magnified solar systems that track the sun?  Why on earth aren’t we wiring new houses for DC and LED lighting?  AC won for electrical transmission!  90% of what is in your house runs on DC through its own wall-wart power transformer!  We can do so much better, but not through legislation.  Let’s innovate all on our own, succeed or fail.  The last 8 Presidents have lectured us about energy independence from foreign nations.  Imagine if we harvested so much alternative energy at the neighborhood or residential unit level that we had energy independence from government-sponsored utility monopolies.  Sure wouldn’t hurt to have your own power in the event of the next natural or manmade disaster.
  • Combine cars and trains.  We’ve tried cars and trains.  They’ve worked great alone for the problems they are individually good at solving.  Commuter trains are great for moving large numbers of people safely long distances while packed in a small area.  Cars are great for short trips across town on your own schedule.  I call my answer pod cars.  They are self-powered, single passenger vehicles.  They are so small and lightweight they could easily be powered by electricity or miserly use of gasoline.  By limiting them to surface streets they could avoid deadly high-speed collisions with larger vehicles.  The innovation is that they can be combined in chains front-to-back and left-to-right and controlled by a single unit.  Parents could each have their own module for their individual commutes.  Their children could have small pods with their own power but no steering module until they were old enough to drive themselves.  Tens or hundreds of pods could be combined at designated highway merge points to be driven together by trained drivers/engineers.  These vehicles could travel in a designated lane with barriers from tractor-trailer and other heavy vehicles at speeds much higher and with fewer spots than is allowed for individual vehicles today, much like a traditional commuter train.
  • Affordable 3D hologram TVs.  Okay, not that important to the future of the world, but boy would that be sweet.  I watched some 3D TV recently, and I couldn’t help but think the glasses were a bit annoying and I got a small headache just like every 3D movie I’ve seen in theaters.  The downside to this item is that if we had 3D hologram TVs, we would probably all sit around watching TV to the extent that even actors and actresses wouldn’t want to go to work and there would be nothing to watch.  Okay, I was kidding here, but I was completely serious about micro energy and pod cars.
I come up with, and discard, ideas every day.  If you like hearing about them, I can blog about them more.  I won’t blog about anything I am trying to keep my own little secret, so if it’s here, have at it.  Solve some big problems, or at least give it a few spare brain cycles.  It’s fun!