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Why Hollow Innovations Don't Succeed

Silicon Valley has a problem with reinventing the wheel

19Oct

In April, one of Silicon Valley's most backed startups of the last year was Juicero Inc. The San Francisco company's single-serving juice machine caught the imagination of investors, thanks in part to its internet connection and its healthy output, drawing in no less than $120 million from Google's venture capital arm among others. The single-serving packs would be delivered weekly to users at a cost, and the machine itself would have set you back $400.

After the initial hype, excitement in the product not so much faded as completely burned out. When Bloomberg discovered that human hands could squeeze the packets of juice with equal or better efficiency than the expensive machine, the fundamental function of a $400 product didn't stand up to questioning. What Juicero had 'invented,' in essence, was a juice pouch. And, just 16 months after launching, the startup is shutting down. Just as soon as people saw the lack of real innovation on show, they rejected the product outright.

Uber-competitor Lyft has taken similar flack for its Shuttle service, which was revealed in the summer. Essentially, the service picks users up from designated pick up spots and, for a relatively small fee, takes them along a designated route and drops everyone off at the same stop. If it sounds familiar, that's because it is - Lyft has reinvented the bus. The criticism goes deeper than this, though. Some have criticized Lyft for de facto privatizing public transport systems that are often public or in some way government run. Others have complained that what Lyft's shuttle system represents, in many ways, is public transport without those too poor to afford a smartphone. It's an ugly criticism, and Lyft would point to the fact that far too many bus routes are underfunded and overcrowded, but it's one that Silicon Valley would do well to take on board.

Another 'innovation' that has been widely ridiculed on social media is the Pause Pod. Billed as 'the world's first private pop up space suitable for ALL your relaxation needs,' the Pod is a portable enclosed space intended to be used in the home, the office, and outdoors. The Kickstarter campaign was fully funded in 30 minutes, with the project sitting at over $117,000 from an initial ask of just under $13,000. The Pod comes fitted with additions like a reading light, a compartment for your legs so that users can lay down, and a screen, and the retail price was in the region of $200. Ultimately, though, it's a tent. An 'innovative' startup has reinvented the tent and Twitter has not let it get off lightly. It remains to be seen whether or not the Pause Pod will be a success as it ships this month, and the 830 backers clearly hope it will be.

And, finally, Airbnb is reportedly partnering with a real estate developer to build its own branded apartments. A building, full of Airbnb properties that guests can rent out in city centers, which sounds awfully similar to a hotel. This is one that clearly fits with the brand's long-term strategy - to dominate the hospitality industry. It's also an example that you can quite easily see working, but it has not been without its criticism, with the company subjected to ridicule for repackaging a product, that already clearly exists, under the umbrella of an innovative startup.

Silicon Valley has a habit of putting out a product very similar to one that already exists and claiming that it has discovered fire. On the occasions where the product being offered is arguably superior - as in the case of Lyft or Airbnb's core products - the updated service can be called properly innovative. For this to be the case, though, the product needs to solve a genuine problem that many people find themselves with, for example hailing a taxi wherever they are or finding temporary lodging in a city centre that isn't a hotel. Attempting to reinvent the tent or the juicing machine (at great expense) solves no burning societal issues, and is therefore met with ridicule, particularly when the product is considerably more expensive than the existing alternative. Startups both inside and outside of Silicon Valley can be cauldrons of innovation, and should be celebrated as such. All too often, though, they can exist within a bubble that can get all too wrapped up in believing its own hype.

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