Snapchat vs. SpaceX: Battle of the Imitators and Innovators

Because original thought can change the world, and a Facebook clone can’t...

December 1, 2015

When I look at the tech startup industry, I see a chasm between two distinct types of companies. Companies that want to change the world and companies who just want to make money.

Also known as:

  • The Greedy versus the Innovative.
  • The PiggyBackers versus the Creatives.

The companies I find objectionable are the ones who want to capitalize on something that has already been done. They create a slightly tweaked clone. Think Lyft (it’s an Uber clone), Sprig (a Munchery clone), and Cleanly (a clone of Washio and Rinse).

Their apps are not revolutionary and they do not innovate. Their sole purpose is profit, not adding value to our world.

Apps like Snapchat might be hugely successful. But have they truly innovated?

Is it that impressive to build a company based on self-deleting pictures? Do they want a prize for making it easier to send dick-pics without repercussion? But why should Snapchat care about innovation? After all, they have a $12 billion valuation.

Snapchat’s valuation is largely based on their advertising potential. And advertising is pretty much the only way social media apps make money.

Facebook made $3.59 billion in advertising in Q4 2014, and Snapchat’s Discover feature is an advertising gold mine.

We need companies to start innovating instead of imitating success stories.

Advertising has its place in the tech industry – it’s a way to supplement income and keep your business running. But when the only goal of a startup is to cash in on clicks or views this cultivates a mindset that devalues innovation.

And this is big picture problematic.

We need companies to start innovating instead of imitating success stories.

Let me give you an example of why this is so important

As far as Facebook and Google are concerned, everything you post and click gets recorded as metadata. This is invaluable for advertising agencies. They use this data to target ads to specific customers.

A day after my phone got stolen, I posted a status update on Facebook to tell people why I wasn’t responding to their calls. A day later, ads about new phones sprung up around my profile.

Now, targeted ads can be a good thing (a few clicks got me a new phone). But when a company’s bottom line depends on advertising dollars, their best minds are going to be working on how to get you to click more.

This leads to the biggest companies in social tech (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest) innovating solely for clicks, instead of innovating to inspire and delight.

How do social media companies compare to an innovator like SpaceX? Tesla? Square?

These companies want to make life easier and better for people. They want to bring people to Mars, and spur scientific discovery. Or they want to make it easier for small businesses to keep up with consumer trends. They want to make huge batteries for homes and developing countries. Isn’t that more impactful – and ultimately better – than trying to figure out the best way to get people to click on ads?

It’s fair to say that Facebook created the social media industry, and connecting almost the entire world is an undeniably impressive achievement. But the market is now saturated with social media companies vying for our attention. I don’t need another way to communicate. I don’t need another app to check. I don’t want another company wasting my time.

I want to see startups using technology in novel ways, instead of taking advantage of how much time we spend aimlessly browsing our phones. Below are a few companies who doing their best to take advantage of the “I’m-bored-so-I-guess-I’ll-look-on-social-media” market.


The imitators

Yik Yak

Founded: October 2013
Raised: $73.5 million
This social media app is based on location and is pseudo-anonymous. It has been banned on multiple college campuses for its role in cyber-bullying. A New Mexico high school even banned cell phones as a result of bullying on the app.

Peeple

Founded: 2014
Valuation: $7.6 million
This app is an anonymous people rater. It’s Yelp for people. Not much more needs to be said about this; you can guess why it’s probably a bad idea.

Snapchat

Founded: May 2011
Raised: $1.19 Billion
This may be a fun app, but is it necessary? Or is it just another thing to waste time on? And it’s the advertisers who will benefit. Snapchat is just another way for advertisers to push products.

The innovators

These companies are innovating to make our lives easier. Many are pushing the boundaries of science.

Venmo

Founded: 2001
Raised: $1.3 million
You got cash… no. Shit, I don’t either. Venmo? It might be annoying to hear people bugging you about getting Venmo, but it’s insanely helpful to be able to instantly pay anyone who has a smart phone. (Bonus: Venmo is now a part of PayPal).

Nest

Founded: 2011
Acquired for: $3.2 Billion in 2014
Nest is a thermostat and mobile device. Simple and easy, the company also created smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, which sends notifications to your phone. A lot more important than a subscription service that sends you cat videos, right?

Shweeb

Founded: Owned by Google
Raised: They have Google $$$
Google is working on Shweeb, which is developing a generation of small-scale monorails (or Personal Rapid Transit – RPT). Basically it’s individual, driverless, aerodynamic pods as a new method of transportation. Need I say more?

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop

Construction: alleged to start in 2016
Raised: Musk money
A futuristic tunnel that could shoot passengers over 300 miles in under 30 minutes. Way to dream big, Elon.


The innovators are great but I’m tired of Silicon Valley imitators.

Take Snapchat: It’s a cool fun idea, but at its core isn’t it just another way to “publish” ourselves online? Is this really necessary, or even good for us?

I hope Silicon Valley will create apps that help people progress, instead of ones that distract them. Sure, creating companies that are similar to ones that have proven successful is a staple of our economy. Hell, Hollywood reuses scripts all the time and rarely makes original content.

But originality is important. New ideas stimulate progress and makes America a leader in technological advancement.

Maybe social media companies like Snapchat and Facebook need to start working on things that matter, instead of their own bottom lines.

Shit, maybe I should do the same thing…


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JD MartensJD Martens // The Hustle
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