Play-companies and the value of a hard day's work  JUN 11 2013

James Somers, writer and web developer, ponders the value of the work that he does.

I have a friend who's a mechanical engineer. He used to build airplane engines for General Electric, and now he's trying to develop a smarter pill bottle to improve compliance for AIDS and cancer patients. He works out of a start-up 'incubator', in an office space shared with dozens of web companies. He doesn't have a lot of patience for them. 'I'm fucking sick of it,' he told me, 'all they talk about is colours.'

Web start-up companies are like play-companies. They stand in relation to real companies the way those cute little make-believe baking stations stand in relation to kitchens.

Take Doormates, a failed start-up founded in 2011 by two recent graduates from Columbia University whose mission was to allow users 'to join or create private networks for buildings with access restricted to only building residents'. For that they, too, raised $350,000. You wonder whether anyone asked: 'Do strangers living in the same building actually want to commune? Might this problem not be better solved by a plate of sandwiches?' (The founders have since moved on to 'Mommy Nearest', an iPhone app that points out mom-friendly locations around New York.)

A lot of the stuff going on just isn't very ambitious. 'The thing about the advertising model is that it gets people thinking small, lean,' wrote Alexis Madrigal in an essay about start-ups in The Atlantic last year. 'Get four college kids in a room, fuel them with pizza, and see what thing they can crank out that their friends might like. Yay! Great! But you know what? They keep tossing out products that look pretty much like what you'd get if you took a homogenous group of young guys in any other endeavour: Cheap, fun, and about as worldchanging as creating a new variation on beer pong.'

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