the problem with having something to protect

Deep in the depths of the dot-com bust, when I was lucky enough to have work of any kind (in my case it was commuting 200 miles each day contracting for Cisco), the people I worked with were fatalistic about the future of the work we did. Many people thought the money had been drained out of the exploratory culture of the boom, and that we were in a very conservative time.

The truth was the opposite in fact; much of the boom was spent doing variations on e-commerce ventures and content sites, with the idea that each vertical or market segment would need it’s own one of those. Counter also to the conventional wisdom, these sites were not created because their entrepreneurs thought that business logic had been suspended, but instead because the tiny community of venture capitalists were funding only specific things. The ‘bust’ came not out of the sites’ lack of income (it was no secret that very few ever had enough business to survive), but in the withdrawal of venture funds.

After the bust, many people left the business for school, or other jobs. A few people (who couldn’t do anything else) kept creating new things however, and many of them were more creative than anything that came before (and set the stage for the current boom). Google, Blogger, Napster, and Friendster (a non-semantic search engine, easy blogging tool, media sharing tool, and social network, the hallmarks of today’s Web) were all created in 1999 or 2000 in the shade of obscurity. The examplars of the successful social media Web were born in 2001 and 2002, when little venture capital flowed: Wikipedia, Flickr,, and Facebook.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that it’s more possible (though harder of course) to create something new when no one is watching and no one cares, out of shear love of an idea. But it’s not something that many seem to remember these days. Instead, it feels like 1999 all over again, with companies launching sites with the same functionality and ideas, venture-funded start-ups doing variations on social media ventures and aggregation sites, with the idea that each vertical or market segment will need it’s own one of them. In fact, I can’t think of a single company that’s launched since 2002 that isn’t a derivative of one of the bust’s labors of love.

The complete lack of creativity and new ideas is typical today. I guess we all have something to protect: the market funding, the high-paying jobs, the advertising revenue. The more to protect, the more conservative it gets. I hope that someone, or some company, somewhere, will think back to the first boom and remember what happened. The business cycle will happen, the money will evaporate, and only those that have made something truly new will survive that.

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