Opportunity — in America, and especially in Silicon Valley, the word carries almost magical connotations. There is a belief that you can never have too much of it. We’re told that if we give people the opportunity to succeed, then extraordinary things will happen. And yet, despite thousands of people moving to the Bay Area every year looking to take advantage of the nearly limitless opportunities in the tech industry, we mostly end up with throwaway endeavors.
At its most basic, opportunity means access to resources. If you have access to water, it gives you the opportunity to drink and bathe. If you have access to food, it gives you the opportunity to eat and survive. And if you have access to talent and funding, it gives you the opportunity to start a company.
Similar to the way we think about access to clean water and food, we think of entrepreneurial opportunities as something that we can never have too much of. But an overabundance of resources makes people wasteful, and being disconnected from the consequences of their waste allows them to be destructive.
Think about how much food we throw away. In America, food is plentiful and most of us are detached from what is required to produce it. Fertilizer run off in the Mississippi river is depleting oxygen and killing sea life in the Gulf of Mexico, livestock requires an enormous amount of water to grow, and crop production puts tons of pesticides into our environment, but we still waste 40% of our food without a second thought because we have so much of it.
If you’re on the West Coast, think about all the people who still run the tap while brushing their teeth or all the golf courses still being watered without any regard to California’s historical drought. As long as water still flows from the faucets and is essentially free, few people think about where it comes from or how little of it we have in reserve.
Now think about how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs waste opportunity the same way we waste food and water. Instead of picking one thing off the menu and knowing that’s the only thing they’ll have to eat, or in their case, the one opportunity they can pursue, Valley entreprepreneurs do the equivalent of ordering a bunch of different things and throwing most of it away.
While I understand the need for experimentation in order to figure out what works, we seem to have entered a period in the Valley where opportunity is so abundant that nobody thinks about whether or not they really want to pursue something because they know they’ll have a second chance, and a third chance, and a fourth chance, and so on.
Imagine if everyone was told they only had one chance to be an entrepreneur. Do you think anyone would use that opportunity to mail underwear? Or copy the startup that mails underwear? Right now we have entrepreneurs doing exactly this, and this is the unintended consequence of too much opportunity. Too many entrepreneurs pursuing ridiculous things because they don’t feel any need or pressure to choose carefully. If it doesn’t work out, they just throw it away like an extra plate of food and call it “failing fast.” There’s always another incubator or angel willing to make another seed investment, and nobody has to think too much about where the money came from. It’s just always there and plentiful.
I’m not actually advocating for a single opportunity system — the free market doesn’t work that way anyway — but think about what Silicon Valley entrepreneurs would do if they knew they only had one shot. In all of the discussions about how the Valley has lost its appetite for big ideas, nobody ever questions the possibility that we have become a victim of our own success. Like wealthy trust fund kids spoiled by their access to resources, our blessing has become our curse. Instead of viewing opportunity as precious, we assume, as we do with our water and food, that there will always be more. Its abundance has stripped us of our need to consider our choices carefully and allowed us to pursue the frivolous over the significant.