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Meanwhile, just East of Silicon Valley, in Tupelo Mississippi... (humbledmba.com)
183 points by jaf12duke on June 9, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 46 comments

I've worked on problems that are famously profound (cancer research!) and problems that people think are stupid, trivial, and ephemeral. I've also worked for big, famous institutions, and I've worked for tiny companies.

And I caution everyone not to fall into the mental trap of overvaluing mass at the expense of momentum. When Tim Berners-Lee invented HTML, it looked kind of silly. And, actually, it has looked kind of silly ever since. But make no mistake: The invention of the web is probably a more important human advance than anything else that has happened in the last twenty years. It has probably already saved more years of human life than the last twenty years of cancer research, for example.

A lot of the problems that people think are important and profound are intractable. Intractable problems don't go away, because they don't get solved. They are around for the long haul. There's time to build institutions around them, to build popular awareness of them, to get really good at marketing them. When someone claims to be working on a Very Important Intractable Problem everyone knows they are Smart.

Whereas many world-changing practical inventions are never profound. They are always either silly or boring. They start off silly. When you first invent the mobile radio people laugh at you, because you are a ham radio geek and you carry around some big ugly boxes in a van. Then mobile radios become frivolous things carried only by the CEOs in the movie Wall Street. Then they become frivolous things carried only by hipsters. Then they become frivolous things carried only by salarymen. Then they become frivolous things carried by the young. And then... they become ubiquitous, no big deal, boring. In a handful of decades we are going to equip everyone in the world with a goddamn tricorder and society is barely going to consciously notice.

That is a technology with momentum. Yeah, nobody takes mobiles seriously. They're disposable, and they never work as well as you think they should, and they're used for frivolous purposes like having fun and raising children and reading tedious emails from your boss. But that doesn't mean they aren't important.

I'm not sure I agree, entirely, that the invention of the web was the key thing. I think really the invention of the internet (TCP/IP, DNS, routers, running cables) were the big thing. And it inevitably led to apps running on it, which became gradually more sophisticated. Email, Usenet, Veronica, Gopher, and eventually, the browser and HTML.

In a sense what you're suggesting is somewhat analogous to saying Microsoft Word was more important than the PC. Though I guess you could argue that Microsoft Windows was at least as important as the PC.

I agree about the importance of, e.g., TCP/IP. But we're headed for James Burke territory now. It's ultimately kind of pointless to argue which inventions in a chain were more important than others: What are the criteria? Who is more important, Einstein or Einstein's mother? Where would Einstein have been without his mother?

And inventions tend to come along when their time is right. Lots of important things are invented simultaneously. That makes it hard to argue that, say, the inventors of Gopher were significantly less brilliant than Tim Berners-Lee, or that OS/2 was less significant than Windows 3.1 from any perspective other than hindsight.

All of which ties into what I think is my greater point: Don't be too hard on yourself about the apparent pointlessness of your work. A lot of pointless things turn out to be worthwhile, and a lot of apparently important things turn out to be pointless.

Thanks for the reference to Burke and "Connections".

I'm not sure whether you are using Burke as an example of over- or under-weighting factors in history. I believe the latter, but can see either argument.

No matter. "Connections" was worthwhile viewing.

Here is the way I (not the GP) would make the case: at the time HTML was invented, we had e-mail, chat, bulletin boards, ftp sites, and news groups. You could download pictures and movies and music (although the bandwidth and processing demands were prohibitive, especially for movies). What we didn't have was any way to visualize this: oh look, someone said that, referring to this, which is visualized by a thumbnail, which takes me to this other thing when I click it. Once this happened, the value proposition finally became obvious to a large swath of the population.

I agree with what you say, but here's a crisper statement: that the web was the first internet service to exploit the usability gains of the graphical user interface.

(There were graphical Usenet clients, but most people used text-mode clients. Even if graphical email clients like Outlook were used by more people than text-mode ones, they weren't significantly better because email wasn't designed to make use of them.)

He did say in the past 20 years. Everything you're talking about occurred outside of that time frame.

> And I caution everyone not to fall into the mental trap of overvaluing mass at the expense of momentum

Aha! But the formula for momentum, P = mv, shows that momentum increases linearly with mass. So it's impossible to overvalue mass at the expense of momentum!

The difference here is that we have to see the bigger problem within the small problem. Creating HTML to access documents is a solution to a small problem, storing human knowledge in HTML so they can accessed anywhere in world is a solution to a huge problem. Creating another photo sharing app is a solution to a small (an imo , stupid) problem, captivating real life moments and implementing time shifting solutions is a solution to a huge problem.

I live in Memphis, TN (a couple of hours northwest of Tupelo, MS). I moved back to Memphis in 2008 after a couple of years in San Jose working for the Paypal and Microplace divisions of eBay.

One of the reasons for moving back was to have a meaningful and positive impact through entrepreneurship. How much impact would a company (say, a web startup) making $2M - $3M in annual revenues have in Silicon Valley? Very little, in my opinion. However, the same company located in a community like Memphis would have a tremendous positive impact -- not only on the local economy, but on the local psyche. And this is important to me.

I often wonder if this is really important to others, though. It's an honest question: do we believe that American society needs the Memphises and Tupeloes and Detroits and Clevelands? If so, we really should reach out and do something about it.

If not, fair enough.

And for what it's worth, the move back to Memphis has been incredibly enriching for me. I'm very happy I did it. The relatively low cost of living has provided an excellent opportunity for me work on various projects and live a much more balanced life than I felt was possible when my family lived in the valley. I'm currently working on my second startup attempt here and I'm thrilled about it. Look for a "Show HN" post soon.

"do we believe that American society needs the Memphises and Tupeloes and Detroits and Clevelands?"

American society doesn't need any city. Outside of the city they live in and those they visit, the whole rest of America (and the world) is an abstraction to any given person. I don't ultimately care if my car is assembled in Detroit or Ohio or South Carolina or Mexico or Japan - I mainly care about build quality, reliability, price, etc. Despite repeated campaigns to "Buy American", people favor local and personal interests over national ones.

Now if X,000 productive people decide they need a place, they can turn it into something meaningful. If Memphis had 5,000 new businesses generating $3M, then Memphis will live and prosper. Sounds like it's one down, 4,999 to go :)

"American society doesn't need any city"

I agree that American society doesn't need any one particular city, but we do need a healthy ecosystem of urban areas.

My question is: are the smaller, lower-tier cities necessary in order to have that healthy ecosystem?

> I agree that American society doesn't need any one particular city, but we do need a healthy ecosystem of urban areas.

Do we?

I'm happy to assume the benefit of a couple of finance-urban-centers, but it's unclear that there's a huge benefit from having finance, art, and fashion in NYC. If fashion and art were elsewhere, NYC would be significantly smaller, but would we be worse off?

My point is that the big urban areas in the US contain aggregates that may not be particularly synergistic. If they're not, then its the "lower-tier" cities that are actually important, and that we happen to co-located many of them.

"are the smaller, lower-tier cities necessary in order to have that healthy ecosystem?"

And that question can be rephrased as "Do smaller, lower-tier cities contribute to a socially and economically healthy America?"

Don't get me wrong, I really, really want there to be a reason for cities of 50K-500K to exist. Unfortunately, I think it's too small of a labor market for talented but not self-suffiently entrepreneurial people to bother staying in. The only towns this size that are prospering outside of major metros are state capitals or college towns, which benefit from a large, captive employer.

There are a great many things that American society needs that can't be quantified in this way. I think that's what some of this post is getting at. There is value in tech innovation boltering places beyond the places where it is most efficient and profitable.

The core problem is that you can't solve a problem you don't understand.

I imagine that a large number of the twenty-somethings lured into the Valley to build the next wave of YC startups have just finished or dropped out of college. Very few of them will have worked at large companies with real sales revenue. Of the ones who have, most of their "real company" experience is still in the tech sector.

That's why there is this growing sense of cloneliness: you build an area that attracts people of roughly the same demographic, who have been exposed to roughly the same kinds of life experiences, and you whip them into a frenzy to be entrepreneurial. The hypersocial tech scene breeds a monoculture whose key mantras include "do something now/fail fast/pivot-pivot-pivot". Is it any wonder there are so many photo/social/messaging-oriented startups?

Every person in every company in every industry in the entire world needs better tech, software and hardware. I'd wager that many of the bright-eyed, bushy tailed entrepreneurs in the Valley are not even aware of the existence of 99% of those people, to say nothing of their domain problems.

Stop monetizing eyeballs to get a bigger valuation. Start solving real problems and adding real value.

Great comment.

The sentiment of the post really reminded me of this Bukowski poem:

  with an Apple Macintosh
  you can't run Radio Shack programs
  in its disc drive.
  nor can a Commodore 64
  drive read a file
  you have created on an
  IBM Personal Computer.
  both Kaypro and Osborne computers use
  the CP/M operating system
  but can't read each other's
  for they format (write
  on) discs in different
  the Tandy 2000 runs MS-DOS but
  can't use most programs produced for
  the IBM Personal Computer
  unless certain
  bits and bytes are
  but the wind still blows over
  and in the Spring
  the turkey buzzard struts and
  flounces before his

There is an underlying demographic issue here. Startups tend to cater to people who have already made a lifestyle choice to embrace pervasive technology in their lives.

I am likely an outlier on HN, in that I consciously do not use technology for my "life". I go home to my kids, we play in the backyard, we go on walks, we mow the lawn, we play board games, and read books.

So do you want to know the 2 startups that DO help me?

1) Mint.com - I do need financial management, and I love mint.com for that.

2) ServiceMagic.com - I spend 5 minutes online, and within a couple hours have someone doing home maintenance work for me. THAT simplifies my life.

So whose life are you really trying to improve? Mobile hipsters? Or working folk? The problems are very different.

I love this post, because I feel exactly the same way. And maybe it's because I'm from Chicagoland and currently live here.

I feel like often times, the majority of startups in Silicon Valley are working on really cool ideas, apps, and solutions, but for problems that very few "everyday" people have.

And that's not a bad thing. Solving a specific problem for a specific (big or small) group of people is great.

But part of me wishes sometimes that more folks in the traditional Silicon Valley startup ecosystem would use all those resources to make real change in other parts of this world.

Yeah, that's probably naive.

After all, at the end of the day, it is business.

I spent 10+ years of my life working on technology that makes cell phone chips better and your processor in your laptop faster. But you never heard of that company, because it's obscure, hardcore tech that no media will ever cover (if you are curious, read http://www.eve-team.com/demos/linux_boot_demo.html)

Now I work on fluff ideas, consumer Internet concepts. It's flashy, people get excited about the space. It probably has less impact. But it's more visible. I'm not the only one in that situation. Even within large companies like Intel, Microsoft or VMWare, the products that people discuss the most are not usually the ones that bring the most revenue, or impact more people.

IMO, if you want to affect people's everyday lives in meaningful (but possibly unglamorous) ways, take your wit and your problem solving abilities and your leadership skills to local government. City, county. School board, PTA coach a youth sports team, or teach a class.

The fact is that the startup world is one where extremely rich people give money to already pretty wealthy people (in relative terms: not just money, but education, social standing) to find ways to make them richer. Usually in the form of some kind of mass entertainment experience.

I don't meant to diminish the positive and transformative effects many of the inventions of the startup/Internet age have had on society and people as a whole. But if you are really primarily interested in making people's lives better, start with the real social network first. In the hierarchy of needs, a better photo sharing service is way down on the list.

>In the hierarchy of needs, a better photo sharing service is way down on the list.

The problem with this line of thinking is that needs are a vector, not a scalar, and while one form of contribution may have a larger norm, all forms of contribution are eventually important. Irrelevant of considerations about the precise norm of the contribution-vector, soceity thrives on having people contribute in loads of different ways; if we were all oncologists there would be nobody who could treat heart disease, etc.

I say do what you're good at, mostly, and charity where you can.

Right on! Code for America is a prototype project that helps people do just this.


Said perfectly.

But aren't there services that address their needs. Groupon, despite all it's criticisms does that. It gives people a deal on local goods and services. Mint helps them get a better overview of their finances. Airbnb may help them find a reasonably priced place to stay should they travel. This is just a short list. There's more out there than photo sharing apps and social games. In fact, I think some of these tools serve people in places like these better and, at least in the case of Groupon, may do more for a merchant in a small town than a big city. Personally I've never understood why someone would want to pay high rents to live in a city like manhattan and then look for a deal on a sandwich.

His friends are a lawyer and a teacher. There are also tons of startups in the education space, and a few relevant to lawyers. I think it is a good reminder that photo sharing gets a disproportionate amount of coverage inside the echo chamber relative to its actual importance.

>But aren't there services that address their needs. Groupon, despite all it's criticisms does that. It gives people a deal on local goods and services. Mint helps them get a better overview of their finances. Airbnb may help them find a reasonably priced place to stay should they travel.

I don't think he was saying that there weren't. What he is saying is that if, say, GroupOn turns out to be, as has been predicted by a recent swarm of articles, a failure, it has an overall neutral impact at best for the Tupeloids despite having an excellent impact for its founder, who by this point is clearly going to walk away laughing all the way to the bank even if the IPO tanks or something else happens. He's basically saying to remember that what we do has consequences for people whom we usually never encounter.

I feel the same way. Recently I've been studying up on humanitarian and developmental aid. I'm new that field and I've heard a lot of criticism about how "aid doesn't work" and so on. I recently learned about the Poverty Action Lab [1] which focuses on using data to discover what "works" in aid.

Fwiw here are four books on my reading list:

* Making Aid Work & Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee

* More Than Good Intentions: How a New Economics Is Helping to Solve Global Poverty by Dean Karlan

* Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed by Thomas W. Dichter

* The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers

Some outstanding questions I have:

* I've read there is a "negative correlation with success" when many of the major international aid organizations get involved (world bank, etc) [2]. Is this because they only take on really hard problems or is it because the organizations actually make the situation worse?

* Everyone is going gaga over micro-credit. Is it really helpful for getting folks out of poverty or are we just bringing america's bad debt habits to the third world?

* What can I do to help reduce human suffering in the world? (e.g. How can I end human trafficking, provide clean water, protect ethnic groups from genocide [rwanda etc.])?

[1] http://www.povertyactionlab.org/

[2] http://www.globallawbooks.org/reviews/detail.asp?id=234

Sorry if this sounds snarky, yet I think it's true: If you have to leave an area to be reminded what everyday people are like, your business is already handicapped.

Brilliant post.

Wouldn't it be something if the frantic term-sheet-chasing energy we have in StartupLand could be applied to the world's truly interesting problems?

There are people working on things like this (myself included) -- the problem is that many of the "real problems" out there, the ones that are really worth solving, don't have easy economic arguments. Dollars/euros/RMB are a rather unidimensional metric for value, and what the economy values and what humans value don't generally match up very well.

It's challenge enough getting potential investors to see the ROI in your webapp with well-known paths to monetization - try making a case for a project with social ROI, and very little economic return in any reasonable timeframe (by our short human attention span standards).

I would love to see (and be part of) a broader solution to this.

Having worked for several big companies, I moved to the valley last year to work with a startup that uses technology (big data, cloud, hadoop) to solve problems for farmers. Now I feel like I am putting my time and energies to a better use - solving real problems for a multi-trillion dollar global agriculture industry, while having fun and continuing to get a real paycheck. For those interested, come check us out http://www.weatherbill.com/about/careers/

>How many of us are doing something that is going to improve the lives of Henderson and Rebecca in Tupelo, Mississippi? How many of us are making something that is going to help them save money or help them make money or help them increase their quality of life?

Henderson and Rebecca are able to pay for the services, directly or indirectly (by, for example, having ads being displayed to them from businesses who make money by selling stuff to them)

Unfortunately there are no money in solving these problems:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty#Characteristics :



Every year nearly 11 million children living in poverty die before their fifth birthday.


According to a UN report on modern slavery, the most common form of human trafficking is for prostitution, which is largely fueled by poverty.[57][58] In Zimbabwe, a number of girls are turning to prostitution for food to survive because of the increasing poverty.[59] In one survey, 67% of children from disadvantaged inner cities said they had witnessed a serious assault, and 33% reported witnessing a homicide.[60] 51% of fifth graders from New Orleans (median income for a household: $27,133) have been found to be victims of violence, compared to 32% in Washington, DC (mean income for a household: $40,127).[61]


These children aren't a feasible market. Too bad for them.

I love this post simply because I am from the south, in the midst of a startup, and have had similar thoughts from time to time. But there are a couple of things to remember. The free market forces are determined by the demands of the people. We need reality but we also need entertainment and escape every once in a while. That's what the twitters, facebooks, etc. of the world are for. They provide an outlet to socialize and connect and are beneficial in those ways. And while many of these startups probably won't benefit a couple in Tupelo, MS specifically, I guarantee you they are okay with that. The man in the article had a law degree and was doing what he loved and the woman teaching, which she presumably chose out of passion, not the desire for money. This couple could be as happy as any. It is not our job to focus our creations on benefitting them, because they are perfectly happy with their lifestyle. If they weren't, they would change it. Creations of new enterprises, no matter the focus, creates jobs and tax money for those less fortunate. That is enough in my opinion.

I'm a developer looking to join a startup that's working on problems that matter. I'm in Palo Alto. Contact me if interested.

A big part of the problem is differing degrees of technical sophistication. Both in the design of applications and the understanding of where problems exist. One person sees the need for photo sharing, and the other doesn't even understand they have a "photo problem".

I understand this concern and think about it quite a bit myself. Is whatever I'm working on worthwhile? Who does it help, exactly?

The fact of the matter is that the problems people have in Big City, CA may be vastly different than those in Small Town, MI. Proximity, salary and culture can all vary so widely that you can't necessarily solve a problem that is shared between these two groups.

Personally, I think you just need to work on what inspires you. Photo sharing? Go for it. A new way to deliver groceries in small towns and disparate areas? Dig in. But don't hate on yourself because you think your problem is insignificant to someone that isn't your target market; that's just silly.

There was an ignite talk called "nobody cares about your crappy web app" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bZKPPw4w2c It really complements this post

'unvacation' = awesome

I don't want to stop working, however I do want novel visual and situation input.


This used to be known as "working vacation", or alternatively "travelling for work".

"Unvacation" sounds like something the Griswold family does.

For some reason, I got a strong "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance" vibe from that. Thanks for sharing.

One of my dreams with building a startup is to be independent and pour my energy and passion into something that I own. I don't perceive that as unsubstantial.

If you're looking for meaningful work (and a rollercoaster ride as fast as any startup) Barack Obama's re-election effort is hiring for their digital team: http://www.barackobama.com/page/jobs

Pretty sure he's talking about meaningful work, not politics.

(Thank you, thank you, tip your waitress.)

Politics needs to stay off HN.

At least those photo guys are trying to innovate and solve new problems. Think about the thousands upon thousands of engineers that spend their lives tweaking seo knobs so they can serve up a few more ads.

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