Silicon Valley is known for its revolutionary ideas, grandiose statements and ability to challenge the status quo. By now, we’re all familiar with the classic persona of the Bay Area-located, hoodie-wearing techie, who tells their team to “move fast and break things” in order to “disrupt” entire industries.
However, what those promising to change the world from their Silicon Valley office often forget is that so many of the big tech giants began by addressing a small but present pain point within a specific community.
Ultimately, finding a simple but important problem and matching it with the best solution possible will always be the foundation of a successful business. You don’t need to set out to become a multi-billion-dollar business and uproot entire systems in order to have impact.
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Silicon Valley narrative is often damaging to budding founders
The big tech scene tends to promote the idea that startups must seek to change the world with their new products or services. Venture capital (VC) investors in the Valley further compound this notion by consistently channeling their funds into high-risk, high-return companies with plans to disrupt entire industries.
Unfortunately, this emphasis on world-changing, fast-growing startups has bred cases such as that of Theranos, the blood testing startup (once valued at $9 billion) which was exposed to be fraudulently generating false results and posing safety risks to patients. Former Theranos CEO and founder Elizabeth Holmes is now facing criminal charges.
The case of Theranos is a symptom of this very problem: It’s important to note how a culture of world-changing products drives aspiring and existing entrepreneurs to think that there’s only one way to build a business in today’s climate.
Tech giants started with small problems
Many of today’s biggest tech companies began in humble pursuit of solving a common but simple problem within a certain sector.
Take Facebook, the world’s biggest social network, for example. The platform now boasts billions of users, yet it began as a tool to connect Harvard University students to one another.
Airbnb is another great example. Airbnb started off as a way for people to rent out their spare rooms (or air mattresses) as a stopgap to help them pay rent. The global platform now offers bespoke experiences as well as every single type of accommodation you could ask for.
And of course, nothing quite says “humble beginnings” quite like Jeff Bezos selling books online out of his garage. Amazon is now the highest-value company in the world, with products ranging from cloud services to smart speakers.
With so many of the world’s biggest companies starting off by solving a small problem, the message is clear: new startups need not focus only on disrupting an entire industry to succeed.
Find one small problem and solve it really well
Budding entrepreneurs should begin with a simple problem (ideally one which they themselves have), and find a way to solve it really well. Even if your product just creates a way for your customers to save a few minutes a day by eliminating a monotonous task, there’s potential for growth in the current climate in which everyone is fighting for more time in the day.
The B2B sector has seemingly endless potential for products that help people save time, be more productive and drive efficiencies. Aspiring entrepreneurs should consider the opportunities in the B2B space over the notoriously difficult B2C environment. For example, instead of creating an app whose mission is to help the entire world sleep better, build a platform that companies can use to support employees’ sleep patterns, and go from there.
Use foundational principles to build a solid base
If you choose to reject the Silicon Valley playbook of global disruption, remember that you still need to have a clear vision for your product. Start with the why, the how, and the what of your product. It’s best to begin with a small team of developers for any digital product, as too many cooks spoil the broth during the initial phases of development.
This small team should be full of expertise, though, and remember that diversity of thought helps build better products, so it’s good to have people from different backgrounds on board.
Ultimately, whatever your vision, you should be able to sell it to your team. If your team doesn’t buy into what you’re doing, they’ll struggle to take ownership of it and bring their own ideas to the table. Once you have this clear vision for your solution and a solid team of experts that are invested in bringing it to life, you can set your sights on bringing it into fruition.
Silicon Valley will always have its place in the startup world, but it’s important for new founders to remember that the whole tech world doesn’t exist within Silicon Valley. Rather than aspiring to be the next Uber or Amazon, emerging entrepreneurs should focus on simple but effective solutions, doing what they know best.
Originally published Dec. 10, 2020.