The Technology Sniff Test
Posted at 8:00h, 13 Sep 2016 in List Archive by Bonnie Halper No Comments 135 Likes Share

As we were riding the Citibike down 9th Avenue early one morning, the exhaust fumes from the buses heading into the Lincoln Tunnel conjured up memories of London and the early morning smell of the traffic exhaust there. Funny how certain smells can almost fool the senses and transport one to a different time and place. It also got us to thinking about New York and San Francisco/Silicon Valley, which will never cultivate certain big city smells of either New York or London.

Technology recently saw two multi-billion dollar exits: Dollar Shave Club and Jet.com – both of which were acquired by large corporations – Unilever and WalMart, respectively. This does give one pause to consider the types of businesses that gestate best in Silicon Valley – the Ubers and Airbnbs and yes, even Theranos’s of the world: companies that do tend to run into regulatory issues and even tax issues, given the European Commission’s recent ruling against Apple, and Amazon and Google are also in their sights; companies with a certain amount of hubris, if not a shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude. These are companies that aim high and go big, although in the case of Theranos, well, it doesn’t always work out as planned, and the company crashed hard.

The Grand Central Tech piece that we cited last week notes that “The gulf between the corporate world and the startup world is shrinking from both sides… Much was made of a “funding slow down in 2016”, but from our view, more than any slow down, the rules changed. For startups, successfully raising a Series A now increasingly requires not just growth statistics (i.e. users), but revenue growth and the existence of large, scaled customers.” Which, in case no one ever mentioned it, is the basic foundation for building a business.

New York is not Silicon Valley and never will be. New York is anything but a monoculture. Nor is there an investor on every street corner – or a Buck’s, which is a short drive from Sand Hill Road and Investor Central. But what New York does have is multiple industries and many corporate headquarters, and those corporates seem to be paying closer attention to startups and developing an appetite for buying, rather than building, new business lines/revenue streams. Which is why we’re now seeing unicorns emerging outside of Silicon Valley.  Lest we forget, while Jet.com was not yet profitable, it was a potential solution to a problem – WalMart’s. And isn’t that what the startup world is all about, at the end of the day: solving someone’s problem?

Yes, we do know that Jet.com is based in New Jersey. Close enough.

There is a lot more money in Silicon Valley, no doubt. But is anyone keeping track of the monumental flame-outs in Silicon Valley v NY? Just asking. Or investor dollars lost on the West Coast as opposed to the East Coast? Wouldn’t that be an interesting read. Remember: Go big, and potentially crash big, too.

Speaking of which, Vanity Fair published an interesting piece on How Elizabeth Holmes’s House of Cards Came Tumbling Down, noting that “In Silicon Valley, every company has an origin story—a fable, often slightly embellished, that humanizes its mission for the purpose of winning over investors, the press, and, if it ever gets to that point, customers, too…(but) while Silicon Valley is responsible for some truly astounding companies, its business dealings can also replicate one big confidence game in which entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and the tech media pretend to vet one another while, in reality, functioning as cogs in a machine that is designed to not question anything—and buoy one another all along the way.” Elizabeth Holmes, according to the piece, patterned herself on her idol, Steve Jobs, down to the ubiquitous black turtleneck and the secrecy around her product. Maybe it’s time she took another page from his history and go off for a few years to learn how to run a business. Affectation will get you just so far, and in her case, it took her from a net worth of from $4.5+ billion to zero. It also took a New York-based Wall Street Journal reporter to sort through the hype and take a closer look.

As much as anything, Theranos is a Silicon Valley parable/cautionary tale.

Bottom line: There’s only one Silicon Valley and there’s only one New York. We know that it is more difficult to find funding in NYC than it is in the Valley, because if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, New Yorkers know that that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s Steve Jobs incarnate and let’s face it: had Elizabeth Holmes launched in New York, there might never have been a Theranos to speak of because at the end of the day, it would never have passed the sniff test. Onward and forward.