Startup America: Open Letter to Steve Case

By now a lot of you have heard of the latest government initiative in a string of efforts from the Obama administration to push the innovation agenda – Startup America – led by America’s new startup czar and AOL cofounder Steve Case. Steve introduces the program via video here, where he also solicits Americans for feedback. So we thought we’d put our comments here. If Steve finds it and reads it, we’ll be honored.

Steve talks about how America has always been leaders in innovation. Obama’s State of the Union mentioned how we “are the nation of Google and Facebook” and Steve makes historic comparisons to times of great risk and invention in America’s history like the Mayflower, the lightbulb, etc.

I think it’s important to highlight the contrast between these examples, which demonstrates how innovation has changed and what we need to do to stay relevant.

The light bulb epitomizes the profitable innovation of its time, invention. Invention puts inventors on the center stage – masters in experimentation, the scientific process and – as Thomas Edison would testify – great patience. Thomas’ famous quote is “genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration”. His Menlo Park facility (now preserved in the Henry Ford Museum) was arguably one of the world’s first locations for repeated, successful and impactful technological innovation.

Invention like those that came out of Menlo Park dominated in a time where innovation involved tangible parts that can be seen by the human eye; Where innovation was done physically with your hands instead of with your fingertips on a keyboard. In this time period, the value (and profit) corresponded to functional achievements, like a light bulb at a practical price and a longer lifespan.

Now let’s fast-forward to today, where innovation and patience are not a successful mix; where dozens of iPad alternatives emerge just 1-2 years after its release; and where technical achievements is no longer the name of the game. The light bulb competed with candles and lamps, but today’s technology is easily replicated, copied and competed with. We think the difference between an Apple or Windows operating systems is the world, but compared to the delta between candle light and a light bulb, we’ve lost perspective.

Now the world has different priorities – instant gratification, intuitiveness, user interfaces, convenience – and even the smallest features separates the winners from the losers. This requires innovators of all sizes, not just startups, to get better at very subjective factors early inventors would have never foreseen. This type of modern innovation can’t be solved by pouring more money into R&D, government sponsored programs or special tax discounts. In fact, Apple is well known for very successful, profitable product innovation at a very small R&D budget.

It requires the right tools and processes, the right perspectives, mindsets and a real attunement to what customers want. These things can’t be bought, they can only be earned.

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