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Web 3.0: The New Rock Bands

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Yes, it's true. The recent announcement of a cool $150K for YC graduates proves it.

Web startups are the new rock bands.

The analogy falls apart very easily, of course, but the important thing here isn't to figure out the many ways the analogy is wrong: that's easy enough to take apart. The important thing is to realize the many ways that it is true. After we look at similarities then we can see where the analogy fails.

Web companies -- including really big ones -- are operating as popularity-driven small ecosystems that grow, plateau, then slowly fade out. It's gotten so that instead of one really big effort, YC and others are promoting hundreds of little efforts, each with the same rise-stall-fade growth pattern. Mechanics are in place to garner publicity, to introduce them to money, to help leverage their social impact on the marketplace. And now, with more cash involved, it's got more of an "American Idol" feeling than ever.

Most web startups fail. Some do very well -- for a short while. Some very rare ones keep generating hit after hit: Facebook is one of those. But overall, the pattern is very clear: package an idea, do quick and rapidly scaling customer development, generate buzz, watch numbers soar, flip to a larger company who is unable to do any of that. Stay for a while, then walk.

In a way, you could say that YC and places like it are doing what middle-management is supposed to be doing for some of these large companies: developing innovation and increasing customer mind-share. But I think that makes it sound a little too businesslike for what's really going on: a big old talent search, contest, media, and investing frenzy. If that isn't rock bands, I don't know what is.

The term "rock star programmer" used to have a good meaning. Now nobody likes it. Perhaps the term "rock star founder" will take it's place, perhaps not.

This latest cash injection for YC grads is just increasing the pull of talent coming in. It's like those old shows where if you won a contest they would make you a record and send you on a promotional tour (albeit a rather cheap one by industry standards, but the point was engineering the contest to draw the most applicants and generate the most publicity, not to actually help a particular band or singer)

Personally I think it's a good thing: lots of little groups of folks with marginally new ideas driving the technology to make things appeal more and more to mass audiences. Tech addiction issues aside, and there are some really serious ones, it seems to me to be the best way to optimally change things.

But let's not fool ourselves. Even companies that claim to provide some serious, hard-nosed practical value directly to users are still out there shining the image up, doing the tech interviews, adding game mechanics to their sites -- doing whatever it takes to push the popularity peak out as high as possible before the plateau begins. It's not just the wannabes that fade away. Everybody knows that ten or fifteen years from now the vast majority of the successful startups won't be around either. Except perhaps for fans of startups in general and trivia nuts, of course, who can remember all of the one-hit-wonders and tunes-from-way-back-when.

There's no corruption in the VC industry that I can see, and there's no industry lawyers suing folks -- the analogy has many flaws. But the two systems are eerily similar. Since the systems are so similar in overall shape, it should bear watching to see what other similarities emerge in the details.

UPDATE: There's one big difference that bears identifying in case you want your own startup: rock bands needed the record labels, media, agents, and promotional machinery in order to reach their audiences. With Web 3.0, the little ecosystems themselves provide a huge boost -- no doubt that YC has built up a lot of machinery for launching little startups -- but all of that scaling can happen from anywhere. The distribution part is free. Web 3.0 may be full of rock bands, but we don't need record stores any more. To a large degree, there are a lot of "groupies" in the startup world -- hangers on that are out just to ride the waves. One month it's one startup, the next month another.

With the tech situated the way it is, it's probably a good time to have a small band playing little venues -- if you know what you're doing, it's probably much better doing that for a living, perhaps making it big or perhaps not, than thinking of this in terms of fame-and-fortune-or-die.

1 Comment

A watershed point in the life of any young rock-star wannabe is the moment when one realizes that the session musicians are usually much, much better musicians than the stars.

But the stars do have the hair...

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on January 29, 2011 8:38 AM.

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