Whenever I participate in an investor pitch, the question that always falls to me as the tech guy is, “What’s your secret sauce?” I am then expected to explain how we have discovered the secret of teleportation, and how no other engineer in the known universe could ever possibly figure it out as well.
What makes me especially frustrated by this question is that almost every successful startup in recent years has built its value by growing its user base, not by creating defensible IP. At the end of the day, Google, Apple, Microsoft or whoever will acquire you to gain access to your customers, not your technology.
The most recent example of this is Groupon, whose daily deals did not require a leap in technology, but whose tremendous value resides in its ability to successfully connect businesses with customers. Period.
And the examples are rife. Twitter lets you post a short message to a web page. Facebook lets you post messages and upload pictures. YouTube lets you upload a video. None of this is technically challenging.
In fact, I find it interesting to note that where technical innovation has occurred in these companies, it is usually to support the growth of the user base. A good example is the Cassandra database project, which grew out of Facebook’s need for database that would scale horizontally better than traditional relational databases.
And in many cases saying no to technology can help acquire users. YouTube limited videos to 10 minutes, and Twitter keeps messages to 140 characters. These limits are driven by the design of the user experience, not any inherent technical limitation.
So when I look back at the all nighters I pulled to figure out some solution to a daunting mobile video streaming challenge or unique multimedia DRM solution, I wonder if my time might have been better spent interacting with users or honing my SEO skills.
It’s all about focusing on the customer. This is what brings value. (And, by the way, it’s no surprise that the most innovative company in Silicon Valley, Apple, does this better than anyone.)