Thoughts on startups from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of those books which you can read a dozen times and pick up something with each read.
The character’s are unexceptional. You have one morose Englishman in search of a good cup tea (Arthur) and one half-human (Trillian), a space travelling hitchhiker with a fondness for towels (Ford Prefect), the former president of the galaxy and resident bipolar (Zaphod Beeblebrox) and a talking, manically depressed robot named Marvin.
The plot is similarly unexceptional. Earth is not actually planet, but is instead a super computer programmed by a race of super-intelligent mice charged with the task of answering the ultimate question of the universe
(spoiler alert: The answer is 42, but they’re not sure exactly what the question is).
But what is exceptional is Douglas Adam’s ability to completely capture and satirize our zeitgeist.
In his second novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Adam’s writes that:
The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three phases…the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?
And it got me thinking how relevant that analogy is to technology, and consumer startups in particular.
How can we eat?
Civilization begins with survival. To survive, we need to meet certain needs, like the need to eat. This is the most elemental piece of the equation; the identification of the problem followed by the resolve to overcome the problem and create a solution.
In technology, the analogy would be the various building blocks of the internet:
ARPANET and protocols like TCP/IP and email. The browser, followed by directories (like Yahoo!) and Search Engines (Google).
Why do we eat?
In the next phase, civilization becomes more introspective and creative.
They start to debate the meaning of life. Ya we have to eat, cool. But why do we have to eat?
In technology, we started to push the boundaries of the fundamental elements we created. We invented e-commerce (Amazon, Ebay), disrupted payments (Paypal) made the web mobile (Andriod, iOS) and social (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) and started evolving towards digital hardware (3d printing). Founders, inventors and technologists envisioned a different world and created it.
Where shall we eat lunch?
In the third and final phase, we move from the essentials to the trivial, from how can we fulfil our most essential need to deciding which trendy lunch spot to eat at (no matter how awesome their micobrew selection may be).
Peter Thiel describes this paradox as Atoms and Bits.
There are companies that run big data analytics trying to predict who will develop Alzheimer’s. Then there is another company that is trying to cure Alzheimer’s.
The company trying to cure Alzheimer’s is an Atom, the predictive company is a bit. And what he believes and what Douglas Adams predicted is that there are too many people working on bits problems and not enough people working on atom problems. Even if you look at some of the biggest companies in technology, you get a sense that they are more evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
While some may argue that this progression is natural, I don’t think we’ve quite maximized step two yet.