This past week I took the trip of a lifetime and drove across the country with a friend. We went from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles in just about 10 days, camping out in state and national parks the whole time. We stopped in Chicago, Omaha, the Badlands of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, Boulder, Denver (and the first ever Chipotle!), the Rockies, Arches national park in Utah, and hiked the Grand Canyon on the last day. I’ve never appreciated this country as much as during this trip. I hadn’t realized before just how massive and how beautiful America is. As lame as it sounds, it also opened my eyes to parts of the country that I had no idea existed.
Random stops in places like Lusk, Wyoming – a town of less than 2000 people – were experiences I’d never had before. Seeing the massive tracts of farmland in the Midwest and small towns dotting the South Dakota and Iowa countryside were things I’d heard about but never experienced – experiencing it gave me a whole different appreciation for where I live and where I’ve grown up.
Being in these places also made me think about what I’m doing career-wise and the current state of startups in general. Outside of startup land, there are people who experience very real problems. Many of the people I met didn’t have tons of money, were overweight, and many didn’t seem happy (as subjective as that is). Not to say that people in cities or in startups don’t suffer from the same problems, but I definitely felt like I was outside of my standard well-educated, dynamic bubble of startup people.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of the people I met. Most of them were exceedingly nice and friendly, and happy to talk to someone who was driving through the country. This experience just got me thinking about the types of problems startups are trying to solve right now – sharing photos, mobile advertising, gaming, etc. These aren’t issues that normal people struggle with, and don’t have a powerful impact on the lives of individuals. And yet, this is where many startups are focusing these days.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to make money by doing a startup – in fact, it’s one of the main reasons I started Roommatefit. I have nothing against anyone trying to do one of these startups (unless you’re trying to do another deals site, then I get annoyed), but there are much more real problems that companies could address. If you think you have the power to make an impact, doing a meaningless startup is an opportunity cost and a chance wasted. Education is broken. Healthcare and nutrition are broken. The employment and job markets are broken. In a very real way, finance (and how people manage their money) is broken. People have addictions, are unhappy, struggle emotionally, and waste much of their time on unproductive activities. There are hundreds and thousands of potential companies that could address any of these real issues, and have a meaningful impact on the lives of millions of individuals. Google is a great example – in a way, they have been one of the main educators in my life. They have made massive amounts of information available to anyone online, for free. Amazon, PayPal and Apple have all had tremendous positive impacts on my life. I wish there were more companies aiming to do the same.
With all we know about human behavior and psychology, and with a device (the phone) that everyone has on them at all times, it surprises me that more companies aren’t aiming at improving the emotional part of one’s life. I think this is one of the great unexplored areas of the web. So far, the focus has been on improving certain small tasks (online calendar scheduling, social networking, online payments, etc.), but that’s starting to shift a bit. I think the next wave of startups will become a deeper part of people’s lives and work to improve their emotional lives. I think we’ll see companies that address addictions, health, parenting, personal development, etc. I hope to see more companies solving real problems, and am working to be one of those founders doing so.