Nevermind that today’s startup heroes are virtual stand-ins for yesterday’s rock stars. The uniform: T-shirts and jeans. The origin story: a garage. The pursuit: a major “hit.” Add celebrity, well-publicized gossip and financial windfalls.
And herewith, the symmetries depart. (Of course, today’s newly-minted-millionaires are less likely to appear on teenage bedroom wall posters.)
This is part of the reason it’s time to debunk or denude the voluptuous myth of overnight success. Of TechCrunch prizes as knighting ceremonies.
Consider Nirvana. When its loudest living member, Dave Grohl, talks about the band in its infancy, he admits they were plainly bad. They started out as noisemakers, not musicians. In fact, they stayed that way for a long time: bad, until they became great. They didn’t achieve greatness by plotting or planning or “networking” their way to A&R men (the VCs of their day) but by practicing. Over and over and over again until they sucked the “suck” out of their sound. They didn’t await greatness--they grew into it.
As Grohl tells the story very publicly, Nirvana wasn’t simply a chart-topping stage act in the ’90s--made for TV in a test tube--but a story of sheer passion and focus, channeled into fortuitous circumstances. Their grinding shed a spark. That spark led to an explosion, and in the wake of that explosion, they left a deep terrestrial mark in the march of music history.
There are tech success stories that warrant similar consideration. Companies that started out far more modestly, by what you might consider “any means necessary,” or more sweatily and imperfectly, than people might think, see, or assume.
Nasty Gal's Sophia Amoruso is a mega-talent, to be sure. She’s a creatively muscular, savvy, indefatigable and dauntless young CEO, as capable in boardrooms as she is in the showroom, on the street or in front of a camera, but that’s now. Nasty Gal wasn’t always a polished powerhouse, the envy of other commerce startups. Sophia started out with an eBay account, buying select merchandise and reselling it for a profit. Period. Absent from the original equation was a voice, tone, ethos, look, feel, or comprehensive scheme for living, all of which the brand now presents. It took time to work the nasty into Nasty Gal.
College Humor is another good example. Josh Abramson is undeniably one of the rare talents of our time, and his deft touch, timing, and taste are consistently platinum, but the success of his site didn’t always seem foreordained. College Humor started out crude. Rough. Even painfully amateurish. But together with Ricky Van Veen, it failed quickly, failed early, and failed forward, managing to develop one of the web’s first real revenue-generating media businesses for the under-30 set. It even continued to grow (and some would say get better) post-acquisition, an even rarer feat.
The finest example: Vice. Rumors place its valuation today north of $2.5 billion.
But rewind to 1994, and the Montreal-based title for miscreants was hardly a model to follow in publishing. Street credentials aside, the magazine hovered in a state of entertaining but undeniable mediocrity for years, before finding its feet. Or its tarnished, transparent, irreverent (and scalable) soul.
Founders who want to follow any kind of memorable, meaningful path--for their companies, for their investors, or for culture writ large, in a world they’re allegedly trying to change--can’t settle for cheap radio-play solutions in a digital age, or adopt the “one-hit wonder” mentality.
To create real cultural touchstones, we have to understand that there is no such thing as an overnight miracle. There is no cheat. No corners to cut. No app store elevation to a speedy exit. Because let’s face it: The majority of chart-toppers fail to occupy a place in the collective memory, or in history as we someday record it.
We don’t need another “hit.” We need to redefine success, or at least to realign around specific outcomes. To build companies that summon real loyalty, buy-in, credibility, or a following--measured either by word of mouth or defensible metrics. We have to build experiences. Not products. Not pixel-perfect screens, or smooth and repeatable flows. Business ecosystems are important, yes, but above all, it’s the human experience that matters most. How people think and feel when they use or move through the thing you’ve built.
It’s only these kinds of experiences that any of us are likely to enjoy with relish or gusto in a year or two. Or three. Whether they’re of any consequence in a decade is an altogether different question.
At this stage in the feverish, casino-like startup game, the app world is a lottery at best--not a meritocracy, nor an even playing field. What smarter entrepreneurs and small businesses ought to eye when they stare down their dreams, against a menacing landscape of competition, aren’t pieces of digital real estate but hyper-memorable encounters. Real, human experiences, aided by technology.
It’s not about memes--it’s about moments. Not “friends,” but faces. Supper clubs. Social clubs. Special events. Emerging communities. Private networks. Public meetings. Physical, real-world experiences that complement our lives online, but extend it emotionally and naturally, in way that we now need and crave more than ever before.
Remember, in this rock-star era of startups, metaphorical or otherwise, the “concert” is monumentally more rewarding than the record. For musicians. For audiences. For people. For posterity.
We’re at a moment in the march of digital life when belief in the real--and a desire for more it--is reemerging with a vengeance. It’s not replacing the need for digital tools, or for that matter, digital rules, but we’re being reminded of our own inescapable humanness. Of real human needs. Which means maybe it’s time to find that slim, thin, wispy version of Nirvana, in the here and now. And if you can’t, start banging out some version of it in a garage near you.