Zeitgeist: [tsīt’gīst’, zīt’gīst’] n. The spirit or genius which marks the thought or feeling of a period or age.
The bandwagoneers that comprise and embrace much of the Silicon Valley monoculture have increasingly not been among the vanguard of enterprises that are delivering real change and innovation within and across traditional value chains and business models. Perhaps that is the result of a zeitgeist that manifests in the Valley on a regular basis in which the thinking goes that if one successful business launch makes sense, then several dozen more incremental versions of said business make even more sense. Paypal founder Peter Thiel has even commented: "There is so much incrementalism now." Umair Haque, Director of Havas Media Labs, discussed the problem in a Harvard Business Review article back in 2008, lamenting that “… the malaise is deep and systemic. Many of you may disagree – but I’m vastly disappointed in the moral and strategic bankruptcy of today’s crop of venture investors and so-called revolutionaries.”
In a zeitgeist market, the number of new entrants is usually high, the ability to create differentiated offerings with unique value propositions (the strongest predictor of new product success) is more difficult to achieve, and new forms of business model innovation are required for success (e.g., service and solution innovation rather than product and process innovation; experiential innovation; legal rights and bundling innovation; privacy rights innovation; agency innovation, where businesses act on behalf of customers).
There are reasons for this creeping incrementalism and much can be blamed on the democratizing nature of the Internet as the ultimate platform for idea sharing. Additionally, the ability to rapidly access formidable compute capacity, other technology infrastructure and agile development tools via the cloud allows today’s garage startups to create stepwise iterations of already buzz-worthy offerings in record time. The “sharing” economy dynamic has already become over-saturated with new enterprises springing up to compete with the innovators that broke trail in the space – uber, lyft, airbnb, Getaround, Zipcar, Homeaway, TaskRabbit, Liquid, Dog Vacay, Fon – you get the idea.
Innovation Zeitgeist, a book by entrepreneur/author Alistair Davidson, drilled deeply into this dynamic several years ago.
What I have observed is in the rush to make individual companies and product successful, managers have missed a larger trend - a Zeitgeist influence on what is getting developed and launched. Simply put, there are more entrepreneurs launching similar products than ever before. And because of the Internet, these product leak into other markets quickly.
Far more companies in Silicon Valley think they are creating viable business models and services that deliver real economic and societal value than those that truly are creating something both lasting and impactful. Eluding the zeitgeist and focusing on addressing real issues, problems and opportunities is the challenge that needs to be met.
Diverse thinking is critical to an effective culture of innovation and Silicon Valley’s challenges with respect to diversity, particularly when it comes to enterprise leadership, has been well-publicized. That issue/challenge may be the central contributing factor in a culture that eschews business model innovation for incremental uniqueness and a “me too” entrepreneurialism.
When we stop and ruminate on the many macroeconomic and core societal problems the world faces today, can we really say that there is a need for yet another social network variant that succeeds only in chewing up time and mindshare – Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, blah, blah, blah.
I don’t know. Perhaps these are only the cynical musings of someone who thinks we can do much better, must do much better.