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The Silicon Valley myth doesn’t leave much room for companies that aren’t wildly successful or spectacularly explosive. But to fully understand the tech industry and ensure that its goals don’t go astray, we need to talk more about companies that are in the middle.
You probably know the myth I’m referring to. There are myths about companies that started from scratch and grew up to be Apple, Facebook or Uber. Then there are the horror stories of startups that shine and blaze as spectacularly as the first iteration of office-rental startup WeWork and blood-testing company Theranos.
Those polar opposites are the beginnings that people write books and make movies about. The untouchables and the unforgivable are the images we hold in the minds of tech companies.
But most of life is not success or failure, it’s weakness in between and this also applies to most startups. There exists a vast middle ground of overlooked fledgling tech companies, which are certainly not winners but neither are they losers.
I’m talking about companies like Dropbox, Box, and Cloudera that were once hot enough to be on the covers of business magazines and have survived but barely burned the world. They are neither whales nor minnows. Dropbox, a digital file storage service, is on par with Levi Strauss.
Buying their stock doesn’t make many people super rich. Cloudera, which sells software to businesses to collect their data, on Tuesday agreed to sell the company for a share price much lower than what a major investor would have to pay when Cloudera was a company. a relatively nascent startup in 2014. Dropbox and Box, also a business software company, were worth as much or less than they were on their days when they went public in 2018 (Dropbox) and 2015 (Box). The technologies of these companies have either proven to be inadequate or they have been superseded by something better.
There are a lot of startups that have succeeded in the post-financial crisis tech boom, made a lot of money in tech and got tons of money on them, initial public offering and then… eh . They’re fine. Others were sold or quietly disappeared.
(One caveat: I’ll put Square in the middle until last year or so, when its technology, including digital facades for small businesses, proves crucial during the coronavirus pandemic.) That shows that companies can sometimes quickly go from meh to big, or from meh to die.)
The problem is that people in and around tech are happy to talk bad about companies, THIS WILL BE HUGE, and then barely mention them when they’re not star-studded.
Skipping the middle meh will be important to all of us for two reasons. First, it’s a missed opportunity to understand what’s right and what’s wrong. I joke on twitter that there should be a Midas List for meh, referring to Forbes’ annual ranking of the most successful startup investors. And why not? People and companies that don’t follow the hype may have lessons for us.
And second, the exclusion of the middle distorts the picture of Silicon Valley and reflects a harmful tendency to consider anything lacking in world-changing ideas as barely worthy of attention. This creates a false incentive to overwrite anything new and ignore startup ideas that can lead to worthy companies but no names.
I wish that just OK got more attention. Capturing the moon in Silicon Valley could lead to Google and Facebook. It could also lead to WeWork and Theranos. I don’t want the meh to be the target, but I also wish the middle wasn’t so invisible.