If you want to become the new Brad Pitt, you try your luck in Hollywood. You wait tables and take work doing commercials until you get your big break. If you want to become the new Mark Zuckerberg, you try your luck in Silicon Valley, burrowing into some startup or incubator. Right now, during this latest boom, it seems there are more talented people in Silicon Valley and neighboring San Francisco than ever.
I came to San Francisco in spring 2011 and know quite a few people that came to town around the same time. We like to joke that we are the Greater Silicon Valley Class of 2011. But is our talented class living up to its potential? Or are we doomed to just bus tables forever, waiting for a big break?
I recently met a fellow entrepreneur at an event and asked what she was working on. She told me that the company she works for helps people find friends through friends on Facebook. When she returned the question, I told her what we were working on. Her response was telling. "Wow, you're actually solving a real problem!" Well, yes. That's sort of the point, isn't it?
Silicon Valley has the most tech talent in the world. The area is bursting with potential, full of people who grew up with the Internet, understand social dynamics, and are willing to take risks. There are great developers, salespeople, and marketers with access to major money and unprecedented knowledge. Yet the majority of projects founded by Silicon Valley talent that could be instrumental in changing the world are social, real-time, location-based iPhone apps or services. They might add a new flavor to our life, but often only for a moment.
During an interview recently, I was asked what my favorite apps of the year were. I looked at the ones on my home screen on my iPhone and realized that none of them were created this year. They were all services helping me accomplish something. Maybe I’m just old school and not following the beat, but how many apps on your phone do you actually (still) use?
Kara Swisher from AllThingsD framed it in another way in a Gavin Newsom show from earlier this year: "There are a lot of big minds chasing small ideas in Silicon Valley."
And we have lots of problems worth tackling and solving. In the States, there is an outdated banking system where checks are still the dominant solution for large-sum money transfers. (Coming from Europe, where we automated this stuff long ago, I had to learn to write a check for the first time. How quaint.) We consume much too much energy and many resources. The healthcare system is a wreck. We’re running out of parking spots, hotel rooms, and affordable housing. Even in the cash-flush Valley, homelessness is rampant.
Some of these issues have been tackled in recent years, with the advent of the sharing economy and fundraising platforms where everyday individuals can fund brilliant projects. Yet the majority persist. There are more than enough pressing problems out there for Silicon Valley’s best minds to start solving, even without going far away. We don’t need another website to crowdsource restaurant reviews and an app to add more filters to our photos. We need to harness the talent making those services to create meaningful projects that actually help someone.
Most people that go to Hollywood to be the next Brad Pitt end up waiting tables until they’re old or give up. And most of the people attempting to be the next Mark Zuckerberg--a different sort of celebrity--will fall flat as well. Why not dream bigger than you already are? You are the first and only you. Maybe you don’t have Pitt’s face or Zuck’s hacker skills. But you can create your own legacy by building something that really matters.
[Image: Flickr user Marc Dalmulder]