Published May 5th, 2017
by Steven Clark

There are a vast number of sickeningly saccharine articles fetishising startups and celebrating those that found them. Writers gush over a potential product’s perceived disruptive capabilities while detailing the habits of its sweaty (typically white male) creators with anthropological curiosity. It’s as if through young Silicon Valley nerds journalists think they’ve discovered the next step in human evolution, when really it’s just a whole community of trend-following weirdos exhibiting borderline spectrum behaviour. Luckily the media is fickle, and if there’s one thing they enjoy more than lavishing people and orgs with undue praise and attention, it’s exposing said people and orgs for not being worthy of the attention they themselves once willingly granted.

Thanks to an increasingly desperate “fail fast, fail often” culture, there’s a high chance your funded startup or product idea is a huge waste of time and effort, unlikely to appeal to the average person or scale as projected. That said, there is one thing this glut of gimmicky startups do better than anything else in history: waste the money of the affluent and wealthy morons who back these businesses and buy their products.

Burning money
Invest in pumpkins

Starting with the low-hanging fruit – pun intended, fuck you – Juicero is a $400 – $1,200 wifi-enabled juice press machine and monthly subscription service backed by Alphabet Inc, Google’s venture capital firm, and many others. After purchasing Juicero’s absurdly expensive proprietary machine, you can pay a $30 or so weekly subscription to receive flavour packs in the mail that can be used in the machine to dispense juice (which for that price can presumably cure cancer, like juice once did for Steve Jobs). The geniuses at Bloomberg then discovered that more or less the same amount of juice can be squeezed from the bags by hand, meaning that millions of dollars have been sunk into the development of an expensive machine that opens a bag.

Shortly after this we saw the launch of Fyre Festival, a luxury festival experience in The Bahamas with tickets ranging in price from just $450 to attend to $12,000 for flights, VIP treatment and sea view luxury accommodation. The festival was promoted by definitely-still-relevant rapper Ja Rule and well-known “influencers” for hire like Kendall “Pepsi Protest” Jenner and the most famous of the topless models in the Blurred Lines video. As Motherboard reported, the festival was planned in part to promote an upcoming talent booking app to the young, wealthy, easily led, instagram filtered target audience the festival would inevitably attract. Unfortunately, the festival was nothing more than cheese sandwiches and refugee tents and necessitated the involvement of the local US embassy to evacuate festival-goers from the luxury conditions. This has meant significant negative publicity for the VC backed startup producing the app and CEO Billy McFarland, even if they had plenty already. Understandably, almost killing their target audience with a music festival cum prison camp has led to some probing questions regarding the company’s competency and future.

I’m not some kind of turn of the century luddite that would argue that “everything that could be invented has been invented” but people are clearly losing their ability to discern the genuinely useful and impressive from red hot garbage. Each of these laughable non products accrued significant VC backing and the core audience for both is wealthy millennials. The rich now appear to be funding luxury novelties purely for themselves and their spoiled children. This inadvertently turns the worst quality of these products into their best – even if they’re largely overpriced trash no normal person would be interested in, they’ve managed to expertly waste large amounts of stupid wealthy people’s money both during development and in sales.

More locally, RBS’s Entrepreneurial Spark receives government backing and taxpayer money to fund what Sturgeon considers “great businesses”. These local Scottish startups are smaller in scope than anything with venture capitalist backing born out of Silicon Valley but are evaluated in a similar way, looking at investment, turnover and job growth to figure out if a business, product or idea has a viable long term future. As this excellent (Medium) post by Andrew Mitchell details, the average eSpark business requires around £90k of investment to create a £100k turnover and not quite 2 jobs. These numbers are fairly normal for new businesses, including those not backed by eSpark, which somewhat contradicts the idea that they have a “proven model for accelerating business from start-up to scale-up” and that “the combination of the bank’s networks and connections and Entrepreneurial Spark’s know-how is a powerful mix”. In our efforts to catch up to an industry now producing for profit temporary dog prisons with private money, we’re inflating the potential importance and influence of startups and eSpark’s ability to scale them in order to justify a public expenditure. We’re doing the opposite of wasting rich people’s money on shit no one needs, we’re wasting our own money instead.

Some may say this is a necessary sacrifice to allow for innovation – not every new idea will disrupt, after all. If we’re going to smugly posit “Who could be the next Scottish tech unicorns?”, it’s only fair that these products come under heavy scrutiny when Scottish tech is funded through significant public investment instead of purely private. You could also argue that taxpayer money guarantees that some products will be financed with the public interest in mind but as long as these incubators are controlled largely by huge banks and private orgs that seems unnecessarily optimistic.

Unicorn murder
Tech unicorn eviscerating a business rival

On an international level, the bubble seems close to bursting. The more you hear about Internet of Things hilarious security issues and stupid apps and gadgets backed by millions of dollars of funding, the less stable and laudable a world full of Silicon Valley style startups becomes. If taxpayer money has to be used to fund startups at all, I guess all I’m saying is I won’t be happy until it’s paying for more pseudo gulags for smug rich millennials.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Habanero Digital blog meaning certain parts are probably weirdly self referential or talk about ongoing feuds that probably exist almost exclusively in the mind of the author.

Business Innovation Product Design

by Steven Clark

Steven is a designer/developer and wannabe intellectual with an obsessive personality and too much spare time. Don’t follow him on Twitter.

< Browse posts