BuzzFeed, and 4 More Bad Startup Ideas that Look Like Good Ideas

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unveiled in mid-2012. “If you have thoughts to share that you want to impact or influence people with—beyond just your friends and beyond 140 characters—we want to provide the tools and the place,” Williams wrote in one post. Does that mean it’s supposed to be a magazine killer, as The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal speculates?

In support of that notion, Medium does pay some of its writers. There’s also a group editing function that lets members gather feedback from each other before they publish. And there’s a curation system, partly algorithmic and partly editorial, that determines what shows up on the front page. But there doesn’t seem to be any unifying point of view, which, to me, is a key hallmark of a magazine. And the quality of the content varies wildly. I wholeheartedly agree with Williams that “words (still) matter”—but so do structure, voice, mission, and standards, and those things are missing from Medium right now.

What it does have, though, is a really nice what-you-see-is-what-you-get composing interface. Perhaps the project’s real point is to disrupt a market dominated by an older generation of content management systems like WordPress. It’s difficult to tell.

See also: Svbtle.

4. Snapchat

Snapchat may be all about impermanence and the right to forget (the photos and short videos its users send to each other self-delete after 24 hours), but the Stanford-born, Los Angeles-based startup is building up a very large and permanent obligation to its investors—IVP, Benchmark, Lightspeed, General Catalyst, and SV Angel put $60 million into its Series B round this summer, on a reported valuation of $800 million. Perceptions that the app is primarily about sexting are probably misguided; according to one informal survey of Stanford students who use the app, most “snaps” are simply funny faces or doodles meant to evoke a quick laugh from friends, as a way of staying in touch. The messages aren’t serious in the first place, so it’s fine when they disappear.

But while that kind of ephemerality may click with college students, my question is whether the app has wider appeal, and whether its first-generation users will have any reason to keep using Snapchat once they age out of the college population. This doesn’t feel at all like a repeat of the Facebook story, where a photo-sharing service born on an elite college campus spreads like wildfire to the rest of the country, and then the world. Yet its investors are betting it will be even bigger. (When Facebook was Snapchat’s age, it had raised about $40 million, on a valuation of $500 million.)

See also: Vine, Video on Instagram.

5. Google Glass

Glass isn’t yet a business—it’s a project of Google X, the innovation lab overseen by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. But it represents Google’s bet that in the future, wearable devices will supplement or replace smartphones, feeding us news and messages and helping us query, sense, or record our environments in unobtrusive ways. Smartwatch makers think the same thing, but want to colonize our wrists rather than our direct visual fields.

I am not convinced by any of it. The fundamental problem is that a useful computer needs a rich, two-way interface. Smartphones and tablets are wonderful because they have big multitouch screens. The input modalities for Glass, by contrast, are incredibly narrow. The device understands a handful of spoken commands, and if you want to look like someone trying to wave away a mosquito, you can swipe forward and backward on the temple-mounted touchpad. That’s it. The tiny screens of today’s smart watches are no better. Short of huge improvements in speech recognition and natural-language processing technology, I’m not sure there’s any answer to the input problem, given the lack of available real estate.

At best, you could say that wearables are at the stage tablet computers were at in 2002: clunky, expensive, geeky, not all that useful, and desperately awaiting their iPad moment. Which is not to say that I expect Apple to come up with some kind of miracle wearable device—the iWatch remains a rumor precisely because Apple understands what it’s up against.

See also: Samsung Galaxy Gear, Pebble Smartwatch, Fitbit Force, Nike Fuelband, Misfit Shine.

So, that’s today’s list. I could be wrong—and obviously it’s far easier to criticize than to build. I don’t mean to question the commitment or creativity of the people behind these technologies, or the acumen of their financial backers. Still, it will surprise me if any of these products achieve success, as measured by mass adoption or consistent profitability. Some of the organizations behind them may achieve exits that enrich the founders and investors, but that’s not the same as true product success, in my book.

At some point, good ideas that look like bad ideas have to start looking good to average consumers, or they’re just bad. And these five technologies aren’t there yet.

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7 responses to “BuzzFeed, and 4 More Bad Startup Ideas that Look Like Good Ideas”

  1. rob says:

    Good article. You could do a weekly or monthly of that kind of article: Pick the top trendy/sexy start ups and put in your thoughts.

  2. Brenda Patterson says:

    Agreed — I really like this piece and your perspective and would love to see this on a regular basis. Also a “look back” over time on where things netted out a year from now, for instance.

  3. estimatorinmind says:

    Google glass is marketing towards the wrong demographic. If it went towards the construction industry, towards users that need and can use real time data to better prepare construction bids, interact with foreman and other field personal (estimators, project managers, etc..) these are the people that need to be sold on its, picture taking and streaming video application.

  4. claymation says:

    Medium, sure, but what about Twitter? The company bleeds money and remains largely an echo chamber for the technoelite. Why it is a publicly traded company baffles me.

  5. Kelsoh says:

    Uber’s at a $18 billion valuation now — who’s laughing now?

    The problem with this article is that the mindset of it is too negative. To successfully pursue a concept to its fruition you need the ability to take a leap of faith to commit 100% to executing on the product successfuly. Few can do that. If you naysay and nitpick at every idea, you will never end up pulling the trigger on an idea at all.

    • Kelsoh says:

      2 months later, Uber’s now at a $40 billion valuation.

      Whoever wrote this article is about to become the laughing stock of internet history for being so wrong.

  6. Kelsoh says:

    Quite possibly the worst article written in business prediction history. Four out of these five projects have become highly (read: extremely) successful.