Blippar, which shut down this week, was easily one of the most ambitious startups I've ever covered. Ambarish Mitra, Blippar's garrulous co-founder and CEO, told me his augmented-reality app had a good chance of becoming the operating system used by "90 percent of all optics-based wearable devices."

When I interviewed him in December 2016 for Inc., he said the company, soon to be valued at more than $1 billion by its investors, was a year away from having a machine-learning-driven "knowledge graph" that contained more than 20 billion pieces of information. A user would be able to point his or her phone at any item nearby and not only identify it but, as often as not, buy it, right there in the app.

To my knowledge, none of that ever came to pass. Maybe the billion-dollar-valuation part, but even that's in dispute.

Even though Blippar competed frontally with Google, Microsoft, and Snap, which all had augmented reality products, Mitra claimed they were the underdogs, since Blippar had been at it longer and had the advantage of a singular focus. When he acknowledged the largeness of the challenge -- "You're basically building a superhuman brain driven by human-level cognition, and which has the entire knowledge repository of the whole world" -- it felt like preemptive self-congratulations for succeeding at it. 

Blippar's success did not seem like an obvious foregone conclusion, though. "[E]ven if the age of AR is upon us," I wrote in a profile that appeared in print in Inc. in March 2017, "there's a whiff of magical thinking to Mitra's belief that his startup, which is still losing tens of millions of dollars per year and struggling with technical glitches, will be its biggest winner." 

But if Blippar looked like a long shot, its CEO was a sure bet, at least as a subject. There was his quasi-mythic background: a black-sheep son from the provinces of India who ran away to fend for himself in the slums of Mumbai, only to win a business-pitch contest that launched him into entrepreneurship. There was the magpie spiritualism that made every conversation with him a philosophical roller coaster. And there were, of course, the outsize pronouncements that made for great copy. 

Invest in the person, not the idea or company: It's one of those pieces of venture capital wisdom that's become so pervasive, it's hard to say where it originated. Andreessen Horowitz's Chris Dixon distilled the reasoning in a post about missing out on a chance to invest in Dropbox: Basically, big opportunities are likely to attract a lot of entrants, and, in a crowded field, talent at the top will determine who wins. 

But what kind of talent makes for an investable entrepreneur? Dropbox's Drew Houston was a child-prodigy coder, but not every tech company needs one of those as CEO. Steve Jobs, to cite one famous example, wasn't much of an engineer or coder. What Jobs did possess, perhaps to a world-historical degree, was vision--a feel for how products ought to look and work and how to make consumers desire them. Jobs's knack for seeing what wasn't there was a big part of his aura, the legendary "reality distortion field" that made him seem like a prophet even when he was wrong.

A reality distortion field is an awfully useful tool for an entrepreneur. If you're not a technical type, like Jobs, it can help you persuade someone who is -- like Steve Wozniak -- to lend you their brain. Or something else of value: As I reported, Mitra used his own prophetic aura to convince an outdoor advertising company to give Blippar free office space for a year in an expensive London neighborhood, where his nascent company had easy access to big advertisers. 

There's a dark side to all this, of course. In Silicon Valley, where VCs rely on so-called pattern matching to spot the glitters of gold among the mountains of dross, you can get far by playing the role of the visionary. Sometimes disturbingly far, as you know if you read Bad Blood, John Carreyrou's expose of the $10 billion fraud that was Elizabeth Holmes's blood-testing startup, Theranos. Holmes self-consciously exploited her perceived similarities to Jobs; when she was reading Walter Isaacson's biography of the Apple CEO, Carreyrou reported, her employees could tell what chapter she was on by the new mannerisms she adopted that week. 

Theranos, it hardly needs to be said, was an extreme case. (Criminally so, according to a Justice Department indictment on fraud charges.) Much more common are the companies like Blippar that have some kind of real technology, but that get an order of magnitude more attention and capital than they merit thanks to their charismatic leaders. Mitra, like Holmes, played it fast and loose with his biography at times in the interest of constructing a heroic narrative arc.

He also exaggerated his product's capabilities. In my tests of Blippar's image-recognition capabilities, it had trouble identifying common household items like coffee pots and fruit. When I asked Mitra about that, he half-convinced me it was a fluke. "We could do a million things right, but the day I give it to you to test, you point it at the millionth-and-one thing, and that is the visual world," he said. 

Toward the end of its existence, Blippar had pivoted away from visual search toward a B2B product enabling indoor navigation of places like shopping malls, an application with more obvious, if narrower, commercial potential. Curious to hear how he'd amended his vision in response to circumstances, I reached out to Mitra via email after the announcement that Blippar had become insolvent. "Unfortunately," he replied, "now is not a good time to talk due to the demands of the process."

A visionary CEO can be a great asset to a startup. But if he or she is its greatest asset, that's a problem.

You can augment it or distort it, but reality always comes back at the end. 

Published on: Dec 20, 2018