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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