Having managed to drag myself away from the grittily addictive business of building hi-tech stuff, I got to the “Flagons Den” startup pitch event in London a few nights ago, only to have… a thoroughly lovely time. (Just so you know, I was down as a reserve pitcher, but when it reached 9pm that was the end of that).
It was a right old people-evening for me: people I’d met before (Glenn Shoosmith, Andrew Lockley, etc), people I’d only previously met online (Jay Nguyen, etc), people who had seen me pitch (Conrad Ford, etc), and a fair few who I met for the first time (Huw Walters, Shash Deshmukh, etc). Excellent!
Just so you know, I originally floated the idea for Flagons Den on the OpenCoffee Meetup Forum with my Ghost of Startups Future post in mind: basically, that ‘Big Ideas’ are often a Really Bad Place to try to start a company from. Arguably, it’s much more effective to research a zone of opportunity, matchmake it to some capital-rich angel who you happens to like that zone, and only then go hunting for ideas. And so it was especially nice that some of the evening’s pitchers weren’t actually pitching what people like to think of as ‘backable ideas’, but rather (particularly Avi!) were pitching perceived opportunities to see where they might lead to.
I have to say, though, that the stuff that makes me despair about most social media pitches is that they continue to be (as described by a Hacker News article this week that Shash mentioned to me) only solving “first-order problems”. The paradox about hacking most commentators fail to get is that real hackers despise ‘baby hacks’: whereas a “proper hack” is something that doesn’t just solve a problem, it changes the rules – ideally, it alters the conceptual status quo of how things mesh together, how objects in the world work, how you go about solving problems, while (in particular) empowering individuals to do things that they formerly could not.
I suspect you can trace much of the startup dreamworld back to an uneasy compromise between VC / greedy individualist MBA thinking (build big fast, retain ownership of a percentage) and the hacker ethic (Stallman, Torvalds, etc) – either way, we visualize ourselves as the Finnish blacksmith god Ilmarinen, cranking out our own versions of Sampo, a “magical artefact… that brought good fortune to its holder“. The people in both groupings are, without much doubt, all social revolutionaries at heart: the only real difference is that entrepreneurs want to retain some kind of ownership percentage. 🙂
Yet these days what’s missing from the pitch is keen vision (the kind of piercing insight that looks beyond the shiny, overfinessed surface of the present to the shaky bonds that link everything together) and towering ambition (which has the arrogance to conceive of ways to to redraw the lines between industries, but also the technological skills and persistence to make it happen). Change the world or stay home, I say: but does that make me the only properly revolutionary entrepreneur left in town? Or just a scaled up hacker with an MBA?