Here’s a long read on Peter Thiel’s brilliant scheme to pull brilliant young people out of boring old university and get them to take risks! with skin in the game! on the big technologies of the future. And what have they delivered? The short answer would be the square root of fuck-all. The slightly longer answer would be that they’ve produced a string of utterly trivial and unoriginal startups. In fact, it recalls nothing more than the heyday of Rocket Ventures in Berlin, cranking out slightly localised clones of Facebook, Soundcloud etc one after the other. But now, rather than the periphery copying the core, the clones are coming from inside the Valley.
In Boston, Grace Xiao, 20, is working on Kynplex, a social networking software for scientific innovations and Brian Truong, 23, is building software that replaces ads with questions for online publishers. In Durham, North Carolina, Ivonna Dumanyan, 22, is building wearable sensors for athletes. In Los Angeles, Anthony Zhang, 21, is building an on-demand food delivery app for college kids.
OK so, the first of those is a copy of Mendeley which itself is a copy of that web browser extension all the academics I know used to swear by and kept asking me if I might re-implement. The next is yet another ads company in the crashing online ad market. The next is a clone, too, and the one after that is a clone of Deliveroo, which itself is a clone of a clone. The piece’s protagonist is in ad-tech, too, and there’s even a Theranos clone in there. Apparently they’re going to get it right this time – pinky promise.
What gets me about this is the utter absence of anything like innovation or originality or indeed technology. It turns out that if you maximise the consequences of failure, people adopt solutions that they know will work for the most restricted possible definition of “work” – in this case, off-the-peg VC-friendly clone startups with minimal technology content, plus massive investment in privilege. Conformity is precisely what Thiel created, and precisely what he should have expected.
And, to be honest, what we should have expected from him. His success was built on having enough privilege to dick around until he lucked into Facebook, and on getting on the defence contracting gravy-train with Palantir. His graduates are quite clear that this is their plan, too. You stick it out through the hazing process and then you’re on the inside.
There was a look he shot me then, a look I’d come to recognize. It was the look that said, you don’t get it. Maybe his idea wouldn’t work, he said, and his company would fail. That happened. But there would be a half-dozen more ideas that he’d reach for, and after that, a half-dozen more. Each idea was just practice for realizing the next idea. And thanks to Thiel, he’d know the people — funders, engineers, advisors — that could best help him translate those ideas into companies. Yes, he could go back to Stanford any time. But why would he ever turn away from the thing that he’d started to build, which was not a company, but a network — and start all over again? This network, he contended, was far more valuable than any he could build in college — even at Stanford.
But I think it’s worth harping on the point that this isn’t the creation of an elite of technologists, but just the creation of an elite. This is not innovation and it has nothing to do with technology as such. It is just as dull and as grey as any small-town chamber of commerce. As a result, we can denounce it with confidence that we’re not losing anything but yet another cockroach startup trying to get you to turn off your ad blocker.