What is entrepreneurship about? Creating new things, making money, or adding value?

A series of recent blog posts and news items – here, here, here, here – have me worried about how Silicon Valley* and the startup world relate to the rest of culture and society. There’s a reason Wall Street has a bad name; Silicon Valley shouldn’t have to end up like that. Part of it is just not saying really silly, out-of-touch stuff. But an even bigger part has to do with what startup culture is really about.

I’m only an observer, so far be it from me to really define what startup culture is or isn’t. But it seems to me there are a few related factors that are emphasized to different degrees by different people and groups. They are: building new things; adding value; and making money.

In an ideal world, all three fit together. But it should be obvious that it’s possible to make money without really adding any value to the world, just as it’s possible to create something that’s new but doesn’t add value. And it’s the value-add piece of the startup and tech culture that I really think needs to be emphasized. I love hearing that community talk about their obsession with solving difficult problems, with providing utility for their users. And I actually think, considering how much money flows through startup land, the culture there does at least an OK job of not making it all about financial success.**

So what I’m a bit concerned about is a culture that’s overly obsessed with newness. Drop that heuristic – that new is good – into most places of the world and it’d be an improvement. But with the cost of creating something new now so low (at least in the software space) might Silicon Valley culture be over-emphasizing the desirability of merely bringing new things into the world?

A friend asked me recently what the latest wave of internet-enabled technology had actually done to improve the world, and I had to think a bit longer than I was comfortable with. I think there are compelling answers, but we have to provide them, and argue for them. It’s not enough to simply assume that new equals better.

If Silicon Valley wants to avoid sharing Wall Street’s reputation, it’s going to need to think about how it relates to the rest of society. In doing so, I recommend emphasizing a culture of solving problems and adding value, rather than just focusing on what’s new.

*I’m using ‘Silicon Valley’ more to refer to startup culture broadly than to the geography

**Maybe my view from the East Coast is skewed on this one and it’s not as good as I think

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