Posted by News Express | 24 July 2017 | 1,748 times
Engagement, of course, is not a new pursuit. It’s just the latest euphemism for what we used to call capturing eyeballs. But I guess that was a bit too blunt and honest to survive the sanitisation of the industry. The collective ecosystem learns and adapts at an incredible pace, including how best to position its image to incite the least amount of scepticism. They have better words now to hide the same scheme in plain sight. The normalisation of questionable motives in the public perception is key to enabling the next iteration to proceed without obstacle.
And, iterate they do, at a furious pace. Every new fund is competing against the survivors of the last one, and the more purpose-bred contenders of the current one. It’s what makes looking at the values and principles of today so fascinating and frightening. If this is where things stand in 2016, what does 2020 look like? 2024? 2030? The mutations will continue. And they absolutely will not stop, until every last one of us has been through the funnel and converted to a servile consumer as ingredients in the sludge of growth.
Innovation, risk, and morals are being packaged with ever greater efficiency through startup accelerators that take the raw ingredients, preferably pattern-matched look-alikes of Zuckerberg, and turn them into securitised batches of start-ups. Whole tranches of burgeoning businesses packaged into spring and fall cohorts. This packaging has turned out to be a great model for the packagers. Many small sums spent on 7 per cent of ownership. If you package enough entrepreneurial product, your actuary tables will line up beautifully.
And you get to indoctrinate these seeds with the values and practices of the most successful viral strains from last season. Genetically modified, cloned, and inoculated start-up founders with all the right bits, flipped to ensure the greatest chance of the biggest yield.
But what is a conscientious objector to do? Time waits for no one, and only the Luddites think that their home too won’t one day soon be configured with Buy Now buttons, for all the beloved Brands. Controlled by a friendly bolt in the cloud that learns all your habits, preferences and titillations one command at a time. Data-mining has also successfully been rebranded to the more palatable machine learning. Who wants to stop anyone, human or machine, from learning? What are you, the digital taliban? So, too, with the start-ups themselves: “If we don’t, we’re leaving money on the table!” Has there ever been a more gluttonous justification for guiltless business practices?
Could it be that perfecting the most viral superbug - until the final strain is discovered that really does devour the whole world - isn’t what the whole start-up community should be focused on? What if we opened our eyes to non-exponential start-ups and the needs they may have instead.
But again, don’t you know businesses are valued on future potential, not present reality? Yes I do. And that’s my objection. Surely, a mix is prudent, but the spectrum has gotten out of whack; to the point where the present is entirely discounted by the lure of the future. And the past, what it took to get where we are, is either ignored or forgiven. Mistakes may have been made, but tomorrow is an entirely new day, divorced from any of the days that went before it. It’s a constant cycle of absolution combined with a community-induced amnesia to past transgressions. It’s just more efficient that way.
Technology isn’t the only industry that grapples and struggles with growth, so we can learn from studying others suffering the same pressures. Take the drug business. It costs staggering sums to develop a new mass-market drug, and it’s a risky endeavour, so we reward the explorers with a patent monopoly when they strike gold. But it’s not a permanent one. There’s a time limit, and after that generics distribute the gains of progress widely without the yoke of a profit-maximisation goal.
What if we thought about how we could apply some of that to the world of software? How can we turn more of the Twitters and Facebooks and Googles into generics? What shifts in underlying technology and cost do we need to hit to make it feasible to run something like Twitter on Wikipedia’s budget (and fund it by donations, rather than advertisements)? What if the next Big Idea looked more like e-mail, and less like the walled gardens of today?
We’ve made this transition at the infrastructural level, to some extent. Technological and algorithmic advances from closed-source software have been turned into generics via open source, with spectacular commercial success, no less. As one boat sinks, a thousand new ones float. One software company or product’s death is easier to celebrate, rather than mourn, when you know the intellectual organs are giving life to 10 new ones.
Additionally, start-up culture used to focus a lot on the personal risk of the founders and early employees: to a nauseating degree, yes. This heroism was the justification for all the spoils there were to come. These days, there’s a lot less talk of existential risk, because there’s a lot less of it. There’s so much money floating around that for many founders, the risk is mostly gone; at least, in the financial sense, if not in the moral and time-opportunity sense. Failure is celebrated to such a degree in part, because the system needs to recycle able bodies as quickly as it can, to keep the overall system growing. Spent three years on a start-up that didn’t work out? No sweat, bro. Here’s a hug and a reboot, and a new bag of money to try again. You’re here just in time for my next fund.
Now some of that is clearly good. Less extreme risk means, at least in theory, greater access for more people to participate in the start-up lottery. But, it also has some clear downsides of detachment. If this go is just one of many, if you can always just hit restart, then you’re probably not as concerned about this specific go-around. So, what if we step over the line a little here: It’s The Hustle, Baby! And, besides, if we miss, no biggie.
Maybe, it’s time we rediscover some personal liability. Limited, yes, none, no. Complete detachment from the consequences of your choices isn’t producing the kind of responsibility the world so dearly needs.
We would be continuing this discourse in the next article.
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•Lawrence Nwaodu is a small business expert and enterprise consultant, trained in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, with an MBA in Entrepreneurship from The Management School, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, and MSc in Finance and Financial Management Services from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Netherlands. Mr. Nwaodu is the Lead Consultant at IDEAS Exchange Consulting, Lagos. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org (07066375847).
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