I had two interesting conversations this week with super smart technology execs, and found myself uttering the same phrase to them, in different yet related contexts. The phrase was “…and it made me feel a million years old”. The context in both conversations was remarking on how long it takes for real, pervasive technology innovations to take root and how you reconcile that with early stage investing.
And I can’t really explain it to myself. I spent a 15 year phase of my career at companies transforming the entertainment and communications sectors, totally in the thick of the “next big thing”, and felt so urgently and palpably that we were shaping and enabling the next “normal”.
At one of those companies, C-Cube, we were making the foundational video technology that enabled the whole transformation to digital cable, satellite and DVDs. I spent countless hours with executives in these industries while we figured out how this would all work, and around 1994 I heard them tell us all that “500 channel cable” would be here, the coming year, maybe the year after that. Right around the corner.
Except it wasn’t. It only took about another 15 years.
But it never would have happened if we all hadn’t been working away, really hard and for a long time, acting, believing that “right around the corner” was really true.
I felt like I was a little smarter when I was at RealNetworks in 1999, and I heard many of these same executives talk about how by using the internet over cable (or telephone lines) they could deliver movies and 500 channels of TV the next year. Maybe the year after that.
And I remember leaving some of these meetings and telling my colleagues I’d heard this before, and it wasn’t going to work out that way, that they were “breathing their own exhaust fumes”. But I still worked really hard, and for a long time, trying to make that “right around the corner” become true too.
So here we are, in 2009, and I can order a movie from Amazon over the internet and have it delivered to my Tivo. Just ten years later, or 15 depending on whose vision of the future is the reference point.
And it struck me in the conversations I was having with the execs, that perhaps it’s not so much feeling a million years old, it’s realizing that early stage investing and startup companies places you in this strange place, where you straddle two worlds. The world “inside” the vision, where the idea is bold and the future seems right in front of you, and the world “outside” where you can look at these companies and understand it will take a decade, maybe more, for that reality to be commonplace and accepted.
There’s a semi-derogatory name for this inside world, and it’s “the echo chamber”. Most of the time it’s focused at Silicon Valley, but I actually think it’s not geographically constrained. The boundaries are more around the locus of a really big idea and a group of people who can pull it off. They get a bunch of other people to believe them, to buy into the vision – customers, partners, press, analysts – and now there’s a cohort that reinforces the belief system.
You can see this playing out, right now, with all the convulsing about Twitter. It’s been ascribed to being useful just to folks in the valley, just the people whose whole focus in life is in the development and consumption of technology most of “the rest of us” will never need or see the use in.
Kara Swisher of the Wall Street Journal wrote about Twitter in this context a year ago. And I read her column at the time and my reaction was “I’m glad she called this one out, it’s ridiculous how much hyperventilating goes on in the valley about stuff like this – it really is an echo chamber”.
But there’s nothing wrong with this, in fact it’s exactly how we ended up with Tivos at home and can’t imagine life without them, how we watch Susan Boyle shatter our expectations and assumptions about image and substance, and how a billion apps can be downloaded onto iPhones in nine months. And how we will all be tweeting and wonder how we ever communicated without it. In about ten years.