Meanwhile, just East of Silicon Valley, in Tupelo Mississippi...

I did an unvacation in Tupelo, Mississippi this past week.  An unvacation is my new M.O., in which I travel to someplace fun but don't take significant time off while there.  My old friends Henderson and Rebecca live  in Tupelo, and it was a really special opportunity to spend some time with them.  One of the many great benefits of doing startups is that it's not that difficult to work from anywhere.  So for the last few days, I've been working out of cafes in downtown Tupelo, enjoying the warm Southern hospitality.

I love working from other places because it helps me leave the echo chamber of Silicon Valley.  Within the U.S., Tupelo, Mississippi is about the farthest one can possibly be from Silicon Valley.  My friends Henderson and Rebecca met at Ole Miss (Hotty Totty!).  They've been married for 4 years now and have made Tupelo their home.  Henderson is practicing law and Rebecca is teaching high school, while also working on her masters.  They have rabbits in their backyard, and they look forward to starting a family together. And just like everyone in Tupelo, they think about money.  They save every chance they get.  And while they're not poor, they can't afford to waste.  Henderson and Rebecca are good people, working incredibly hard to build their lives together.  I'm so proud of them.

After 4 days, I'm now heading back to San Francisco.  With a bit of perspective, I've been thinking a lot about what we're all doing here in StartupLand.  Specifically, I'm thinking about our startups and how they are affecting life for Henderson and Rebecca in Tupelo.  There is one moment from this trip that has randomly become stuck in my mind

Before I left Tupelo, we asked a passerby to take pictures of us.  We each handed her our own camera for the picture.  She took the pictures and handed our cameras back to us.  

So I know this is nuts, but whatever, I'm a startup guy.  I immediately thought of photosharing services, of course.  We were using separate cameras!  I thought of all the entrepreneurs I know that are working their asses off to be involved in that exact moment.  Instagram, Facebook, LiveShare, Color, Path, TwitPic, Posterous, and on and on and on...

It makes me just a bit sad.  Henderson and Rebecca asked me all weekend to tell them about what goes on in Silicon Valley.  They felt like I was a window into this world where the future was being written one line of code at a time.  I wanted to tell them about all the incredible innovations that are occurring in startups right now.  Cool, new technologies that will make their lives better in incredible ways.  I wanted to demonstrate something awesome that would immediately play a role in their lives.  And while I did tell them about a lot of cool stuff.  I left feeling like it was unsubstantial.  


Is it just me?  Does anyone else feel this way??

How many of us are solving real problems?  How many of us are doing something that is going to improve the lives of Henderson and Rebecca in Tupelo, Mississippi?  How many of us are making something that is going to help them save money or help them make money or help them increase their quality of life?  

It's been 3.5 years since Tim O'Reilly told us all to stop throwing sheep and do something worthy.  He told us that day, "You have to ask yourself, are we working on the right things?"



I'm glad we've moved past throwing sheep at each other on Facebook.  I'm glad we've moved past acquiring users by downloading someone's contact list and spamming their friends.  The startup ecosystem is much healthier than it was in 2008.  But still, I'm concerned.  As a fellow geek and early adopter, I'm psyched for one of the photo-sharing concepts to really take off.  I think it'll be sweet to instantly share pictures with my friends in cool new ways.  But I know it's not a huge problem for Henderson and Rebecca.  It's just not an issue that affects them.  I'm concerned about how many of us are working on problems that just don't matter all that much to the rest of the world.

This is just a reminder for all of us, myself included, to stay focused on solving problems.  Real problems, not just the ones that ride the current popularity wave.  Build something people want because it makes their lives better.  When we all stay grounded in this focus, we as an entrepreneurial community do great work.  I know it's possible to make money with fads and flips, but the real value for us all is in solving real problems.  

I apologize for being melodramatic, but fuck it, this is how I feel.  Henderson and Rebecca in Tupelo, Mississippi are counting on us to do meaningful work.  I want to make them proud.



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I'm Jason Freedman.  I co-founded FlightCaster.  
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27 responses

I just wanted to say thank you for an amazing article. I'm not an entrepreneur nor do I hope to become one (a hopeful academic here) but I find your posts thoughtful, interesting and relevant.

Keep up the good work!

What makes you think the sheep aren't still flying. Did you sit down with your friends and ask them what would help make their life easier---and then either point them at things that would help or make notes about future projects that you could be working on? You've identified the problem, but stopped a bit short of even a minimal start on the solution...
After reading all that I was glad to click thru and see you were working for a startup that is at least, manifestly, actually trying to help people.

One of the reasons our startup is not located in silicon valley is the strong push-- from investors, et. al. to follow the "social BS" wave.

The startup ecosystem and the world will be a better place if people stop making silicon valley the center of the startup scene, and everyone goes out and spends more time with "real people" in the real world.

Gee, finally someone talking about it.

99% the f* pitches I see out there are solving stupid things.

Hypotesis: the problem starts in making winner pitches. To make today a winner pitch you need to maximize the chances of being selected among most of the investors. And a winner pitch is something investors can understand in 60 seconds and the world has lots of important problems that you can't describe in 60 seconds (not with most of the investors education anyway)

What kind of problems are you trying to solve, ones that people know they have or ones they don't know they have, yet?
Facebook and Twitter would have all fallen in your throwing sheep category in the their beginning stages. Who would have thought a college bulletin board for 'friends' would have become such a marketing boon.

Solving life's problems doesn't typically happen in one single solution, it's a gradual path of smaller solutions that are built upon.

I recently did a 9 month RV trip around the US visiting all sorts of friends and seeing all types of people. You hit this spot on.
I think the sticking point is that "real problems" are much harder to solve than the problems faced by a rich white guy. 90% of the problems that 90% of the population are facing comes down to "jobs". Either they've got no job or the job they have doesn't pay enough or doesn't have any health insurance or not enough hours or too many hours or no potential for advancement or just plain sucks.

If you can write a piece of software that reduces unemployment below 4%, more power to you.

You have to do more than talk about solving problems Jason, you have to identify and have the courage to promote solutions to them. Its easy to talk about solving 'real' problems, its hard to come up with real software-based solutions to them. Mostly everyone just focuses on fixing boredom.

more on that from the front page yesterday:

I whole-heartedly agree. It seems to me that you could visualize types of companies as a spectrum. On one end you have concepts that are cool but ultimately add limited value to society (Live-video-blogging for pets!), and on the other you have money makers that suck value from society (another juice has been discovered deep in the rainforest, and we need you to tell 20 of your friends!). In the middle there's a range of sweet spots that could produce enormous value for the world if more us applied our considerable collective intellect to solving (how do we better educate out kids? how do we connect people with the right jobs? how can we help local commerce thrive?)

Thanks for this article.

We are trying to solve real problems, maybe the largest problem in the world today, energy disconnect. Just wrote a blog post about how we are doing it. (

The question is, as a startup that makes a real positive impact on the real world, how do we compete with live-video-blogging for pets?

Great post!

This really hits home; we're still looking for strong user traction, but we're intently trying to really solve something. It feels GREAT to talk about our vision, and it feels great to do so in Chicago, Denver, Connecticut, and elsewhere. We're focused on food, which is a universally challenging and social experience, and a 'problem' of such magnitude that it will take some of the greatest minds in our generation to make read headway.

Those are the problems I want to spend my life working on.

Excellent. How many cute liitle .ly social apps are being whipped out that no one will care about in 5 years?
My homepage is a series of rss feeds that cover many subjects(that`s why I like it). I saw the keyphrase -Tupelo, Mississippi and read the post. Amory,Mississippi is about 12 miles away and all/most of my relatives are from there. I also live in a large metro city and entrepreneurial. In today`s tech world of the " unvacation" you could access anything on everything if you were motivated. ps: my blatant motivation - a startup of niche RE
I agree with your frustration. I don't think making virtual farms, photo sharing apps or vampire bites are helping society much. But I think there's another side to the coin.

The whole point of technology is to make things cheaper, better and faster. I remember when I was a kid, to take pictures, you had to go to the store to buy film, manually forward the film after a shot, finish the spool, take it to get developed and pick it up. It used to take up a lot of time.

Instagram and other photo sharing websites aren't technically that interesting, but they do save people time sharing photos. This can make a big difference to somebody's life. The washing machine liberated the homemaker. It's not the same magnitude, but freeing up an hour per month over a lifetime (for photo creation and sharing) can make an appreciable difference.

In my opinion, if you want to provide real value to the Henderson and Rebecca's of the world, I would propose modelling their lives. Make a list of everything they spend their money and time on. Money: clothes, travel, housing, education, entertainment, health care, gifts, etc. Time: Finding entertainment, paying bills, cooking, commuting, shopping, working, etc. Then, think about creating products and services that can save them money, time or both.

Great Post. I'm actually going back for my masters in computer science to try to solve problems that will really matter. Also, I live in Tupelo and this post really has convinced me that I'm focusing on the right things. So thank you!!!
Awesome post- I couldn't agree more. I get really sick of the "startups" that get all the press for whipping out some bullshit app that nobody needs. Probably a product of software tools and ecosystem being so cheap and easy to access and boring, old-fashioned innovation requiring real, hard work and slow, steady growth.

It's that systemic Silicon Valley thinking that has the caused me to build my startup in Tennessee. Like Warren Buffett once said- with a million dollars and enough Wall St. advice, in one year anybody can go broke. I think the same applies to SV. A few very innovative companies make a good name for thousands of software developers with no real work ethic.

My wife and I run our own company. We do this all the time, we call them 'workations'

We are based in Canada and have 'workationed' in Bali, India, and now in San Francisco. We will be doing this all summer, never stepping into the office until Sept 1.

It works great and gives a new vibrancy to life.


Jason you bring up some great points. Sometimes its simple things that really impact people like Henderson and Rebecca. How come it seems like SV is always trying to solve the big problems and not many are focusing on the small ones?
I hear what you're saying, Jason. I think it's partly to do with tunnel vision... If your face is inside a startup for long extended periods of time, it's easy to lose perspective. And suddenly you look up when you're in Tupelo and note, geez... I'm really not making that big a difference. But you are... just maybe not as quickly and as largely as you'd hope. Technology is impermanent like anything else in life and hard as it is to imagine, some things we think are really big now will just one day go away because there is something better or there's a tech. bubble burst or whatever... fill in the blank. As long as you're a humbled MBA, you're on the right track :-).
Very interesting. Not all meaningful tech comes out of SV. And not all startups try to build sheep throwing apps hoping to sell it to the highest bidder and exit.
I'm un-vacationing in Saigon this week. So far from Silicon Valley that facebook is blocked (though not twitter). Agree in spirit, though I think if the entrepreneur is truly passionate about building something, it's often hard to say ahead of time what will be valuable in society.
Hi Jason,

I was heavily inspired by your post exactly 6 month ago.
Exactly 6 month ago I set to create mobile app which would really help people keep up relationships with friends and family they don't see as often as they want.

Today RadioSnap shipped to iOS appstore. It lets people tell their own story with picture in their own voice and their friends and family can communicate via voice comments.

It helps me (living in silicon valley) and my family (all of whom live in Russia) stay in touch.

I'd appreciate if you could try our app and maybe spread the word.
Is is called RadioSnap and is available here:


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