Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Are Big Ideas Dead?

It seems that Big Ideas are no longer around, at least in the high tech community. No one seems to really care about them. No one seems to want to take on any risk to pursue them in any serious entrepreneurial way. And the current emphasis seems to have shifted towards Small Ideas that require little or no funding and leverage existing set of public API's and the Social Graph (hat tip to Angel Bubble).

I say this after days of walking the hallways and chatting up numerous entrepreneurs and VCs at this year's SXSWi Conference (the interactive portion of South By Southwest, aka The-Closest-Thing-The-Tech-Community-Has-To-Woodstock) in search of someone pursuing, or at least believing in, a Big Idea. Instead, what I found was that it has somehow become more fashionable/lucrative/fundable to create incremental changes (even to clone Groupon or Foursquare), than to try to completely break the mold and change the dominant paradigm in any field. I was hoping to see something different, something truly original and breathtaking, but all that I could see was shades of the same.

And based on other reviews of the event, I am not alone in this disenchantment with the current state of our entrepreneurial culture.  Todd Wasserman has an interesting Op-Ed piece on Mashable, in which he proclaims:
"But we’re not just having an off year. We’re at a new, more boring stage in the [social media innovation] development cycle."
One very smart entrepreneur told me over drinks at SXSW that this year's Big Ideas are "The Internet and Social Networking", mocking the very premise of my inquiry, and thereby proving what I suspected all along: That we have all grown cynical of Big Ideas.

And there is some merit to this cynicism. Big Idea inventions like the Laser, Electricity, Automobile, Ultrasound, Steam Engine, Printing Press, and the Internet happen so rarely and require such a confluence of serendipity, good fortune and resources that in an environment where you can relatively easily launch and grow a company by making an incremental improvement over something already in existence (if not outright copying), then why should you bother? In fact, isn't all innovation an improvement on prior innovations anyway, and that progress is a series of baby steps? For instance, wasn't the can opener invented 50 years after the birth of the metal can itself?

True, but still I hope I am wrong about the death of Big Ideas and that there is still someone, somewhere out there pursuing something that would have quantum leap implications for humanity, even if it is a metal can waiting for a can opener. If you know of some projects along those lines, please do comment below!


  1. Nice analysis. I agree!

  2. I don't think the situation is any worse than it was in the past and I don't see a reason for disenchantment. Breakthrough innovations are by definition extremely rare. They usually come unexpected. You are more likely to find them in a small specialized conference, deep in a university lab or in a proverbial garage than at big mainstream media events.

  3. Thanks for the feedback Adeel and Eugene!

    @Eugene, I agree with you that breakthroughs are rare, but I think previous years at SXSW that witnessed FourSquare and Twitter coming of age had a different vibe to them than this year.

  4. Stephanie Katcher3/21/11, 7:05 PM

    Perhaps it is just the swing of the pendulum. The momentary pause before someone realizes the variable not previously considered. "Big Ideas" don't just come from the passionate visionaries on the track to revolutionize. They can come bursting out of stagnant environments purely because someone sparked by frustration clears the slate and inadvertently unleashes the next wave.

    I believe Big Ideas are coming... creative thinkers typically don't like to take it easy for long without feeling extremely restless.