Silicon Valley’s Meh Middle

We miss out when we ignore the companies that are neither clear winners nor flat-out disasters.,

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.

The Silicon Valley myth doesn’t leave much room for companies that are neither raging successes nor spectacular flameouts. But to fully understand the tech industry and ensure that its goals don’t go off the rails, we need to talk more about the companies that are in the meh middle.

You probably know the myth I’m referring to. There are wild stories of companies that started from almost nothing and grew up to become Apple, Facebook or Uber. Then there are the horror stories of start-ups that burned bright and spectacularly flopped like the first iteration of the office rental start-up WeWork and the blood testing company Theranos.

Those polar opposites are the start-ups that people write books and make movies about. The untouchables and the unforgivables are the images that we hold in our minds of technology companies.

But most of life isn’t success or failure, it’s the mushy in-between, and this applies to most start-ups, too. There exists a vast middle ground of overlooked young tech companies that are definitely not winners but are not losers, either.

I’m talking about companies like Dropbox, Box and Cloudera that were once hot enough to be on the covers of business magazines and have survived but hardly set the world on fire. They are not whales nor are they minnows. Dropbox, a digital file-storage service, is worth about as much as Levi Strauss.

Buying their stock didn’t make a bunch of people super rich. Cloudera, which sells software for businesses to wrangle their data, agreed on Tuesday to sell the company for a share price that was far less than what a big investor paid when Cloudera was a relatively young start-up in 2014. Dropbox and Box, also a business software company, are worth roughly the same or below what they were on the days they went public in 2018 (Dropbox) and 2015 (Box). These companies’ technologies either proved to be not super relevant or they were supplanted by something better.

There are lots of start-ups that took off during the post-financial crisis tech boom, earned oohs from techies and got tons of money thrown at them, had initial public offerings and then … eh. They’re fine. Others were sold or quietly disappeared.

(One caveat: I would have put Square in the meh middle until the past year or so, when its technology, including digital storefronts for small businesses, proved vital during the coronavirus pandemic. That shows that companies can sometimes quickly shift from meh to great, or from meh to dead.)

The problem is that people in and around technology are happy to blare about companies, THIS IS GOING TO BE HUGE, and then hardly mention them when they don’t become stars.

Ignoring the meh middle should matter to all of us for two reasons. First, it is a missed opportunity to understand what went right and what went wrong. I joked on Twitter that there should be a Midas List for meh, referring to the annual Forbes rankings of the most successful start-up investors. And why not? People and companies who didn’t live up to the hype might have lessons for us.

And second, excluding the middle distorts the picture of Silicon Valley and reflects a harmful tendency to consider anything short of a world-changing idea barely worth noticing. This creates a perverse incentive to overhype anything new and overlook start-up ideas that might result in worthy but unspectacular companies.

I wish that just OK received more attention. Shooting for the moon in Silicon Valley can lead to Google and Facebook. It can also lead to WeWork and Theranos. I don’t want meh to be the goal, but I also wish that the in-between weren’t so invisible.

Before we go …

From Public Enemy No. 1 to enlightened tech patron: Entrepreneurs once called the Chinese internet giant Tencent a brazen copycat. But the company behind the do-everything WeChat app revamped its image by “throwing money at the little guys and buying off competitors rather than driving them out of business,” my colleague Li Yuan writes. Winning friends with its checkbook has helped Tencent, for now, avoid the worst of the Chinese government’s crackdown on powerful tech companies.

Hacking meat: Another cyberattack hobbled the world’s largest meat processor, JBS, and forced nine U.S. beef plants to close. The company said that the majority of its plants would reopen on Wednesday. Also, the attack meant that America briefly didn’t know how much meat cost.

The best stupid internet videos: Here’s a list of 25 videos that Polygon said “stand the test of time and show us the internet’s bizarre and limitless ability to make us live in new and completely confounding ways.”

Hugs to this

Yes, this microscopic image of a blade of grass does look like it’s covered in smiley faces. (The faces are called vascular bundles, and there is more information in this Twitter thread.)

We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at ontech@nytimes.com.

If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here. You can also read past On Tech columns.

Leave a Reply