A letter to California
I’m not a city guy. I am a web developer, however, and I watch you guys closely. What can I say, I’m very impressed by you and your relentless ambition. I have never seen humans so intent on pursuing ideas. But instead of just talking about these ideas, you turn them into profitable businesses and continue to chase them. That’s not a quality I see very often where I’m from. There are driven people everywhere, but your breed are the best of the best.
My name is Kyle Hotchkiss and I’m just a guy who lives in a no-name “city” called Lynchburg in Virginia. The city is in quotes because Virginia’s qualification of a city is a unique status given to towns that provides citizens with 2 or 3 more benefits than counties at the expense of a small tax increase. I feel like I’m in a very unique position relative to you, California, and I wanted to talk to you about how you talk about yourself.
I see tons of startup related things in the news, hear about them from coworkers, and stumble upon them on Twitter. It’s what I signed up for, I like to keep updated with new ideas. I like to know what the trends are in web development so that I can feel caught up with the times. And I’ve caught plenty of patterns that are behind all of these startups. Here are my thoughts.
Disruption. The thing that drives me a little bit crazy about you guys is how you use the word disruption to describe things. Constantly. The word has lost its value. Maybe it’s not your fault. Maybe it’s the press doing it. But an idea that improves upon an existing concept is not “disruptive.” Saying you found a way to provide Internet access to all of Africa in the next 3 years for under 1 billion dollars is “disruptive”. Your idea may be “innovative” but is most likely “iterative” if you’ve only offered a small improvement over somebody else’s idea in the market. I understand that you want to leave a huge bang on the press and on potential customers but maybe a better focus on how you differ from your competitors would be a good selling point too. For example, the other day I was looking at Braintree, trying to see how they differed from Stripe. From the marketing angle, it looks like they provide the exact same service with a different skin and different backers (with the exception of the first $50,000 of payment processing fees being waived, which is great, but I’m okay with paying for payment processing to reduce the sudden shock later of having to pay for it)
World change. I wish your ideas changed the world as much as you wanted them to. The marketing trick of an idea being so innovate and amazing that it actually makes the world a better place is such an amazing way for business to move forward, but I’ve seen very few companies actually follow through with this. I spent a short time in Nepal and the only businesses I could see penetrating that far away from America’s reach were Coca-Cola and Apple. But it’s the second one that should pique your interest - Apple has a name and an adoration in a place where reliable electricity doesn’t yet exist. Products can be created that make the world a better place for all of us - the iPhone is a perfect example. I really wish we’d save the “world-change” title marketing trick to only apply to products that have least taken our own nation by storm. I wish you guys understood how few ideas flow out of San Francisco into my America. There’s no marketing here, thus no market. There are tens of thousands of people’s lives in Lynchburg who could be improved by your ideas but there’s just no reach. Look at Square - they’ve got a name for themselves here. They made payment processing something that people could do with that they already have and at a great price point. I don’t personally have a use for their product yet, but I’m hoping I will soon - and I’ll stick with Square (not paypal) since it was their idea to start and it’s beautifully executed.
Selling out. This is where you guys have me confused. I see so many fantastic ideas bought out by the likes of Google, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo (haha don’t do that), and other big companies. I guess it’s cool that you made it big and get the payday of your dreams, but sadly you leave your customers in the dust and the corporation doesn’t take as good of care of your idea as you did. I’ve felt pretty used when that’s happened to services in the past. Sadly, this idea manifests itself as glamorous to my Lynchburg friends who only hear about this side of your culture. I have a friend with no digital background who has an idea for an app that he keeps trying to pursue and his long-term plan is to sell it and “get rich.” He has no plans on paying a programmer to help him build a prototype and no idea how to proceed if his idea isn’t purchased. I felt kinda sad that the idea he choose to pursue with his time was in hopes to sell the idea in the end. I understand that it looks like life gets better with one big check from our side, but I’ve never seen somebody get handed a large check and had all their problems disappear.
The problems we solve. I have to confess I envy your talent as well. You spend every second of your day trying to fix the problems you find and you come up with great solutions. But I wish you would spend your time finding problems that exist outside of the tech bubble and trying to improve the lives of small-town Americans. There are 2.2 million farms in the United States (wikipedia) and you guys have the time, talent, and creativity to greatly improve this process. Drone based farming, why not? Mesh sensor networks to check soil conditions? That sounds like a great idea! Marrying ideas has created many great businesses before. The past few months, I’ve been more burdened to try to solve overseas issues with what I’ve been given, and while I think it’s awesome Facebook, Google, and the US Navy want to bring wifi all over the place with drones and balloons, I’m most inspired by a nonprofit that you birthed called Watsi. I wish that I knew about Watsi before (again, there was no marketing to me in central Virginia about this idea) but more than that, I hope Watsi is the beginning of many Silicon Valley based organizations that provide food, water, and shelter to the millions around the world who don’t have these things. I believe that we have the ability to solve the world’s basic living condition issues with our current resource pool and I believe we have every bit of talent and drive we need to do that in Silicon Valley now. Start chasing these ideas, and I’m sure you’ll have plenty of Lynchburgians joining on board, because I think we all honestly want to make the world a better place.
So California, I’m sorry to rant on, but I also hope you know I love your faith in each others dreams, I love your drive, I love that you can take any idea and make it commercial and then use your resources with VC to grow the idea to be a business that makes life better for lots of people. I love that you guys are trying to bridge employment gaps (like with women and income-equality) when other parts of our country leave these issues in the dark. I love that your spirit is so contagious it’s catching on in other places in the United States (silicon prairie, silicon alley). I hope you guys continue to innovate and continue make the Internet exciting for all of us normal folk. And I hope that you’ll find new ways to bridge the gap with the rest of America to meet needs where they’re at, and that your ideas would literally make the world a better place for all of us to live.