Is your start-up a vitamin pill or a painkiller?

By Matthew Bostock on December 12th, 2012

There are two types of tech start-up: vitamins and painkillers. A painkiller is out to solve a real problem: a deficiency or inefficiency in the world that people need fixed. A vitamin doesn’t really cure a problem at all: it’s there to fill a void, to keep us distracted. Take a look around. What do you see? Because I see a hell of a lot of vitamins in the European technology scene.

Is that a bad thing? Well, it depends on your point of view. I like ideas that make my life better in some way. The desire to approach and fix big problems has spawned some of the greatest companies in history. After working in the start-up industry for a while now, I’ve forgotten the names of more start-ups than I care to recall. But not all of them seem to be shooting for those big innovations. In fact, not many of them are at all.

It’s sometimes said that if it exists, there is porn of it. That’s now true of start-ups, too. To put it another way: what happened when publishing tools were made available to all with the advent of WordPress is now happening to start-ups. With money, enthusiasm and unemployed young people in abundance, every conceivable start-up idea, no matter how wacky, is being tried out somewhere – with occasionally comic results.

Here’s a social network for dogs, for example. That’s by no means the only idea that makes me want to point and shout: “what a waste of internet”. But there’s a reason why these ultimately laughable ideas take flight in the start-up world, and that’s because it’s all so alluring and easy.

From the outside, the start-up scene looks cool. Everyone wears flip-flops and works on beanbags. It’s an enticing way of life; one that people are gravitating towards more than the products around which a company is actually built. But choosing a profession on the basis of a promised lifestyle is surely madness.

Don’t get me wrong, it plays a huge part in the experience, so it should in your decision-making. But maybe we’re neglecting, you know, business models and stuff in the process. People want in on the scene, regardless of their contribution to it. They see everyone around them doing the same thing. And governments everywhere are aiding and abetting this behaviour.

It also doesn’t help when we idolise the rarities that actually make it big. Pinterest, Path, Instagram. Do they solve real problems? Do they make our lives better? No: they’re vitamins. But of course the media loves to bang on about those fabled billion-dollar acquisitions. It gives a false sense of security that time-wasting apps, with no sustainable business models and no users, can be “successful”.

VCs are playing their part in propagating all of this too. They’re as moved as any of us by fads, placing their chips on whatever ideas are likely to scale under the current trend forecast and get picked up by some goon hoping to slap ads besides whatever trendy product has taken off. They invest in some painkillers, but with the word “exit” breaking down their necks, the fact is that these ideas often don’t scaleanywhere near as fast as the vitamins.

I should say, by the way, that I use Instagram every day. And I like a lot of the other vitamins out there. But I’d like to see more entrepreneurs realising the transformative power of technology: to help us save energy, to make HIV a liveable disease. Let’s have a few more painkillers, shall we?