In Startup World, Fat Is the New Lean


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For a decade, the concept of the “lean startup” ruled in tech. Under the gospel according to Eric Ries, you would spend modest sums to bring customers a “minimum viable product” — typically, one made out of software — as fast as possible, exposing your idea to market forces and feedback to avoid costly early-cycle mistakes.

Lean startups taught us plenty of lessons, but the times are changing, writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times, and now we’re entering the era of the “fat startup.” A fat startup is one that’s tackling a real-world challenge that demands major resources from the very beginning. Manjoo’s model example is a firm called Opendoor that makes offers to buy homes sight unseen, makes purchases with fast deal closings and then resells the homes itself. Opendoor aims to add liquidity to the real estate market and certainty and convenience for homeowners who need to sell.

Getting this kind of business up and running involves a lot more than pushing some code out the door. Opendoor now operates in Phoenix, Dallas, and Las Vegas; it has raised $300 million in equity and taken on another $500 million in debt. It’s seeing a steadily growing business in turning over properties, but it’s also facing lots of competition.

“Fat startups” can tackle imposing challenges that less ambitious efforts can’t. But they also risk introducing exactly the kinds of waste and hubris that the lean startup model aimed to avoid. Case in point: It took Juicero $120 million to get its much-ridiculed, overpriced, internet-connected juicer out the door (Gizmodo).

There’s so much cash sloshing around tech investors’ pockets today that some of this excess may be inevitable. But the moment a chill breeze hits the market, don’t be shocked if lean comes back into fashion.

Mossberg on the Computer’s Disappearing Act

Walt Mossberg redefined technology journalism from his perch at The Wall Street Journal, where, beginning in 1991, he lambasted the computer industry for making products that were too hard to use. In his writing and, later, in the conferences he hosted with Kara Swisher, he held the executives he covered accountable while still persuading them to answer his questions.

In his last column for Recode before hanging up his hat, Mossberg argues that we’re experiencing a lull or pause today in the cycle of tech innovation: The smartphone has become the new PC and conquered the world, but what’s next? It may not be a single device, Mossberg notes, but instead a kind of disappearing act, in which the gadgets we know and love/hate disappear into the fabric of our lives and environments. Computing will be everywhere, while computers will be nowhere.

As all that happens, our failure to solve the social problems of the smartphone age will only become more alarming. Mossberg: “If we are really going to turn over our homes, our cars, our health and more to private tech companies, on a scale never imagined, we need much, much stronger standards for security and privacy than now exist…And, if ambient technology is to become as integrated into our lives as previous technological revolutions like wood joists, steel beams and engine blocks, we need to subject it to the digital equivalent of enforceable building codes and auto safety standards.”

Can Life Without Work Be Happy?

Are there jobs in Eden? Does paradise equal idleness, or do we need meaningful labor in order to thrive? No one’s going to answer such a question without doing a lot of thinking and research. That’s what anthropologist David McDermott Hughes decided to do, using a rapidly changing region of Spain as his lab (The Boston Review).

The people in this part of Andalusia, on Spain’s southwest Atlantic coast, used to do backbreaking farm work growing beets and grapes. Now the fields are filled with wind turbines. That’s great for reducing greenhouse gases, but the windmills run themselves, leaving the locals to collect government checks.

Is utopia possible without work? For the answer to be “yes,” we’d all have to alter the mental maps we steer by and give up our attachment to the Protestant work ethic. Hughes seems to think that’s a good direction to move in — and one that climate change makes imperative. “Perhaps,” he writes, “in order to relinquish fossil fuels, we need to learn to forgive ourselves and others for not working.”

Don’t Let an AI Name Your Next Child

Artificial intelligence keeps getting smarter, but Janelle Shane found one application where the powers of neural networks still fall laughably short. She fed her AI a database of paint color names and RGB values (which numerically encode hues) and tried to get it to generate attractive new names.

As Annalee Newitz chronicles in Ars Technica, Shane learned that “1. The neural network really likes brown, beige, and grey; 2. The neural network has really, really bad ideas for paint names.” Names like Clardic Fug, Snowbonk, Ronching Blue, and Dorkwood.

Go read the whole list right now. If nothing else, it’ll give you some fine ideas for the name of your next band.

Happy Memorial Day weekend! We’ll see you again on Wednesday, May 31.

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