Listening to 92 pitches taught me the frustrating truth about Silicon Valley 'innovation'

Silicon Valley is a place that prides itself on innovation.

Yet, somehow in the Valley’s pursuit of shiny new tech, it has decided that being “innovative” is the same thing as being “totally original.”

Copying another startup’s idea is seen as an inferior, unoriginal get-rich quick play. Acknowledging that you used a competitor’s idea is unheard of.

Take for example the reaction when Instagram’s CEO Kevin Systrom deigned to admit that he’d taken an idea from Snapchat and put a different spin on it. TechCrunch wrote an entire story around the moment, declaring him the “one honest person in tech.”

Yet, last week, I spent two afternoons listening to 92 startup pitches from the graduating class of Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s premier startup school that churns out a class of companies twice a year.

Each startup only has a few minutes to run through the highlights of why their idea is a billion-dollar idea and laced throughout these presentations is a common phrasing, “we’re the X for Y.”

For instance:

  • Squire is the OpenTable for barbershops.
  • JustRide is the GetAround for India.
  • SimpleCitizen is the TurboTax for immigration.
  • Flutterwave is the Stripe for Africa.

At first, it’s easy to dismiss these as a herd of copycats, doomed to fail because they are not the Uber or the OpenTable or the Stripe. I know it’s easy to dismiss. I’m often one to roll my eyes whenever I hear any startup describe itself as the “Uber for X.” I’m not alone. I’ve heard countless investors complain about the lack of original thoughts or new ideas among entrepreneurs.

However, listening to the 92 pitches I realised that just because Valley insiders conflate “innovation” with a “totally original” such thinking only benefits Silicon Valley — and that’s starting to change.

Applying Silicon Valley outside of Silicon Valley

Of the startups that presented at Demo Day, 30% of companies, or around 31, had been formed outside the US in 16 different countries, a new record for a Y Combinator batch.

Kevin systromReuters Pictures/Lucas JacksonInstagram CEO Kevin Systrom

Take Innov8, a co-working startup based in India.

During its presentation, it went through the business opportunities in India for co-working, and then finally got to the kicker of what sets it apart: Design. It would have been easy enough to swap the name “WeWork” in for Innov8 throughout the presentation — and one investor I spoke to chided the company for not innovating on the idea more.

While it’s simple to dismiss the idea as belonging to another company, it’s harder to appreciate why it might work in a different country or different sector as a new successful business.

Innov8, for example, already has its coworking spaces up and running — and now Y Combinator is partnering with them on conferences to attract more Indian entrepreneurs.

Squire, the OpenTable for barbershops, may sound like another reservation system on the surface, but it’s actually replacing barbershops’ dependency on Square and other payment processors, making it a one-stop shop. A company like Square doesn’t have the resources to focus on building tailored software for niche verticals, whereas a company like Squire can own the whole market by filling pain points in just the one industry.

Comparing your idea to a well-known one doesn’t cheapen the idea, but can enrich it. As the Atlantic once explained, Disney creators didn’t understand the plot of the “Lion King” until its writers called it the Hamlet for lions. They certainly didn’t start out to make a Shakespearean adaption with zoo animals.

Unique ideas

Listening to the 92 pitches, I realised how easy it was to cast-off the copycats without taking the time to realise the unique idea behind each one.

Quero is taking the Expedia model and applying it to Brazilian universities, making it easier for students to find a college they can afford and receive a higher level of education. There’s nothing cheap behind it.

Going back to Instagram’s CEO who admitted the company copied an idea from Snapchat, Systrom was adamant that you can’t just recreate another product, but you can apply what’s awesome about it to your own business and move the idea forward from there.

An “Uber for X” startup may be a bad copycat attempt, but it could also be a billion-dollar business if the entrepreneur picks the right “X” and can build a company out of it.

“Gmail was not the first email client. Google Maps was certainly not the first map. The iPhone was definitely not the first phone,” Systrom told TechCrunch. “The question is what do you do with that format? What do you do with that idea? Do you build on it? Do you add new things? Are you trying to bring it in a new direction?”

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