Yesterday I asked a prominent VC a question:
"Why is it that, despite the fact that so many successful startup ideas come from academic research, on the investment side there doesn't seem to be anyone vetting companies on the basis of whether or not what they're doing is consistent with the relevant research and best practices from academia?"
His response was that, unlike with startups in other sectors (e.g. biotech, cleantech, etc.), most tech startups don't come out of academia, but rather are created to fill an unmet need in the marketplace. And that neither he nor many of his colleagues spent much time talking with academics for this reason.
This seems to be the standard thinking across the industry right now. But despite having nothing but respect for this investor, I think the party line here is unequivocally wrong.
Let's start with the notion that most tech startups don't come out of academia. While this may be true if you consider only the one-sentence pitch, once you look at the actual design and implementation choices these startups are making there is typically quite a lot to work with.
For example, there is a startup I recently looked at that works to match mentors with mentees. Though one might not be aware of it, there is actually a wealth of research into best practices:
- What factors should be used when matching mentors with mentees?
- How should the relationship between the mentor and mentee be structured?
- What kind of training, if any, should be given to the participants?
That's not to say that a startup that's doing something outside the research, or even contraindicated by the research, is in any way suspect. But it does raise some questions: Does the startup have a good reason for what they're doing? Are they aware of the relevant research? Is there something they know that we don't?
If the entrepreneurs have good answers to these questions then it's all the more reason to take them seriously. But if they don't then this should raise a few red flags. And it's not only niche startups in wonky areas where this is an issue.
For example, I rarely post to Facebook anymore, but people who follow me can still get a good idea of what I'm up to. Why? Because Facebook leverages the idea of behavioral residue to figure out what I'm doing (and let my friends know) without me having to explicitly post updates. It does this by using both interior behavioral residue, e.g. what I'm reading and clicking on within the site, and exterior behavioral residue, e.g. photos of me taken outside of Facebook.
To understand why leveraging behavioral residue is so important for social networks, consider that of people who visit the typical website only about 10% will make an account. Of those about 10% will make at least one content contribution, and of those about 10% will become core contributors. So if you consider your typical user with a couple hundred friends, this translates into seeing content from only a tiny handful of other people on a regular basis.
In contrast with Facebook, one of the reason why FourSquare has yet to succeed is due to significant problems with their initial design decisions:
- The only content on the site comes from users who manually check into locations and post updates. This means that of my 150 or so friends, I'm only seeing what one or two of them are actually doing, so what's the value?
- The heavy use of extrinsic motivation (e.g. badges) has been shown time and again that extrinsic motivation undermines intrinsic motivation.
The latter especially is a good example of why investing on traction alone is problematic: many startups that leverage extrinsic rewards are able to get a good amount of initial traction, but almost none of them are able to retain users or cross the chasm into the mainstream. Why isn't it anyone's job to know this, even though the research is readily available for any who wants to read it? And why is it so hard to go to any major startup event without seeing VCs showering money on these sorts of startups that are so contraindicated by the research that they have almost no realistic chance of succeeding?
This same critique of investors applies equally to the startups themselves. You probably wouldn't hire an attorney who wasn't willing to familiarize himself with the relevant case law before going to court. So why is it that the vast majority of people hired as community managers and growth marketers have never read Robert Kraut? And the vast majority of people hired to create mobile apps have never heard of Mizuko Ito?
A lot of people associate the word design with fonts, colors, and graphics, but what the word actually means is fate — in the most existential sense of the word. That is, good design literally makes it inevitable that the user will take certain actions and have certain subjective experiences. While good UX and graphic design are essential, they're only valuable to the extent that the person doing them knows how to create an authentic connection with the users and elicit specific emotional and social outcomes. So why are we hiring designers mainly on their Photoshop skills and maybe knowing a few tricks for optimizing conversions on landing pages? What a waste.
Of all the social sciences, the following seem to be disproportionately valuable in terms of creating and evaluating startups:
- Psychology / Social Psychology
- Internet Psychology / Computer Mediated Communication
- Cognitive Development / Early Childhood Education
- Organizational Behavior
- Education Research
- Behavioral Economics
And yet not only is no one hiring for this, but having expertise in these areas likely won't even get you so much as a nominal bonus. I realize that traction and team will always be the two biggest factors in determining which startups get funded, but have we really become so myopic as to place zero value on knowing whether or not a startup is congruent or contraindicated by the last 80+ years of research?
So should you invest in (or work for) the startup that sends text messages to people reminding them to take their medicine? How about the one that lets you hire temp laborers using cell phones? Or the app for club owners that purports to increase the amount of money spent on drinks? In each of these cases there is a wealth of relevant literature that can be used to help figure out whether or not the founders have done their homework and how likely they are to succeed. And it seems like if you don't have someone whose willing to invest a few hours to read the literature then you're playing with a significant handicap.
Investors often wait months before investing in order to let a little more information surface, during which time the valuation can (and often does) increase by literally millions. Given that the cost of doing the extra research for each deal would be nominal in the grand scheme of things, and given the fact that this research can benefit not only the investors but also the portfolio companies themselves, does it really make sense to be so confident that there's nothing of value here?
What makes the web special is that it's not just a technology or a place, but a set of values. That's what we were all originally so excited about. But as startups become more and more prosaic, these values are largely becoming lost. As Howard Rheingold once said, "The 'killer app' of tomorrow won't be software or hardware devices, but the social practices they make possible." You can't step in the same river twice, but I think there's something to be said for startups that make possible truly novel and valuable social practices, and for creating a larger ecosystem that enables them.