Silicon Valley – Adjusting to the Internet’s Long Tail?

Over the past year or so there’s been an unusual amount of public navel gazing on the investor side of Silicon Valley (and by proxy most of the North American venture capital space). Venture capital companies have an image of being slow, demanding, and cumbersome; solely focused on big wins with huge valuations. So called “super” angels have emerged to fill a void in the VC deal space, and new hybrid models like that of YCombinator have emerged.

As Max Levchin observes, angels have an interest in lower valued exits. He concludes that the positioning of super angels as VC alternatives has resulted in a “lack of visible significant innovation”. While Levchin’s observations are correct, I’m not certain that it’s the angel’s fault.

Instead, I think we’re reaching the “long tail” of the Internet, and we need to look for innovation elsewhere. The big hits in the Internet space have all had to do with providing analogues of existing human behaviours, and the number of untapped behaviours is diminishing. A preponderance of incremental innovations with corresponding low exits is only to be expected.

We have been so focused on Internet related innovation for the past decade and a half (and software for the decade previous) that for a lot of investors seem to have forgotten that there are alternatives.

It’s not that there’s a shortage of demand for innovation. There are many areas that need great minds and risk capital. Unfortunately those aren’t the opportunities that can be exploited by a bright kid with six months programming experience. They’re big, capital intensive, long term projects that need teams of highly skilled people to address them. Some of these problems are critically important. They need to be solved if we’re going to preserve our current lifestyle, if not ensure our survival.

If the investment community wants to innovate, it’s going to have to stop looking for the ultimate solution to determining how to rank “influence” on Twitter, and instead look for better transportation solutions, better solar power generation, methods to scrub carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, local power generation and distribution, and solutions for other truly important problems.

While North America becomes increasingly concerned about it’s own relatively trivial problems like how to make an even cooler handheld device, our ability to innovate our very concept of innovation is collapsing in on itself like a dying star. Meanwhile, Asia is fast becoming the true leader in innovation and unless we pull out of this “make it big on the Internet” vortex, it won’t be long before we’re buying critical technology from abroad.

Let’s not blame the angel investors. Levchin says “we should aim higher.” He’s right. The question is whether or not we know which way is up.