What the Heck Happened to Creativity in Silicon Valley



Everyday I see the same things:

The same startup names that take a perfectly normal word and change it by adding a “-ly” to the end; the same generic websites with screenshots of the startups app on an oversized iPhone; the same startups who proclaim they are the next “Uber” or “Airbnb” of this and that. And then there are the same cliched terms like “disruption” and “scaling” being thrown around incessantly.

So now I have a question: what the heck happened to creativity in Silicon Valley?

In the valley, engineers and coders are the heroes. Even designers are getting more street cred now. But there’s always been something about this status quo that has bothered me: these same people don’t seem care about creativity anymore.

Our obsession with “coding”,”growth hacking” and “scaling” has turned us into a singular mind hive that I like to call the “Silicon Valley Blob”. Anything tech related gets sucked into the blob and everything else gets rejected.

Take for example Box and Dropbox – I can’t for the life of me see the difference between the two besides pricing and the logos. For someone of my basic cloud storage needs, which one should I pick? I can’t decide.

But let’s look at another example, this time between Lyft and Uber.

Although I am well aware of the key difference between the two, they offer essentially the same service. But without any hesitation, I picked Lyft. Why?

It’s simple really: Lyft just has more creativity. Their trademark pink mustache and fist bump was not only marketing gold, but a hit with users.

If you were one of the first investors being pitched Lyft and the co-founders told you that they planned on putting a big pink mustache on customers cars, you would have thought the idea was stupid. And then you would have started asking questions like “But what’s your scaling strategy? Revenue projections? Burn rate?”

But when was the last time a venture capitalist asked, “what’s your creativity strategy?”

In the past, a good tech startup could get by on their technical prowess and create awesome services like HootSuite but with increased competition, that is no longer the case. I get dozens of pitches from startups with identical products so deciding who to invest in has become an impossible task.

The truth is, any nitwit can get technical knowledge – all you have to do is go to school for that. Good engineers and coders are a dime a dozen nowadays. Even supermodels can learn how to code now. But the one thing you can’t learn is creativity – it’s something that you have to develop and nurture.

So why are startups afraid of being ridiculous and outrageous? What happened to creativity and truly outside the box thinking? Why are there so few startups with their own version of Lyft’s pink mustache?

The Sparks of Creativity

I want to demonstrate my point by using a hypothetical example, this time between car parking startups SpotHero and ParkWhiz.

If you look at both services, they are virtually same. But imagine if SpotHero took advantage of their name and actually became a parking hero. With that in mind, I came up with this idea:

Imagine a team of “SpotHeroes” who go around downtown wearing capes and refilling expired parking meters thus saving drivers from getting parking tickets. How cool would that be?

You could leave flyers on people’s car telling them what you had done. Think about all the goodwill and buzz you would get. Imagine the reactions of people when they see a bunch of caped crusaders saving people from those pesky parking tickets. Imagine all the free press, the mention on the 6 p.m. news.

Who do you think will get more business in the end?

Now let’s use the office furniture startup Poppin as our next example.

What if Poppin created a “destroy your boring cubicle contest”?

Get office workers to take videos of themselves destroying their cubicle in the most creative way and the best one will win a Poppin office makeover.

Imagine all those videos of office workers gutting, mutilating, burning and blowing up their cubicles. Imagine how viral this would become.

The Creativity Conundrum

The problem with Silicon Valley is that we’ve over-emphasized technical ability and trained people to think in terms of 1’s and 0’s. And now we’ve ended up with a creativity deficit.

We are so creatively deficient that we we can’t even come up with good startup names. What does that say about Silicon Valley when we fail at something this simple?

If you look at my contact page, you will notice an odd question that I ask founders: what’s your purple cow?

There are two reasons why I ask this question: 1. To test the founders level of creativity 2. To see if you have what it really takes to differentiate your startup from others.

Like I said above, anyone can be a tech genius but very few possess truly creative minds. When you have dozens of competitors breathing down your neck, creativity might be your last line of defense.

Another sign of this lack of creativity can be found in startup job postings for marketers. I always get a good laugh because they usually read like this: “must have marketing degree and know SEO”. It’s like they are treating one of the most underrated and creatively demanding jobs as an aberration and saying, “Let’s just hire a guy who knows SEO and get back to coding!”

All of this is indicative of the huge disconnect between startups and genuine creativity.

I’m not saying that coders and engineers are useless – they are crucial to any startup. But creativity is not something you can learn or put in a bottle and it’s certainly not something that exists in a line of code.

Simply building a great product just isn’t good enough anymore because the next guy is already doing the same thing.

We need to start appreciating the one thing that could completely alter the course of a startup and change it in ways no line of code could. Just imagine where Lyft would be if they didn’t put pink mustaches on their cars or if Zappos didn’t have their quirky corporate culture. History will always remember those who were bold enough to do something different and unique.

Reprinted by permission

Image credit: CC by Revol Web

About the author: Jay Deng

Jay Deng is an angel investor and venture capitalist. He invested in two companies whose exits topped $800 million. He is also the CEO and founder of Diva For Less.

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