Why Maximizing the Efficiency of the Startup Ecosystem Is Essential for Society’s Transition to an Information Economy

This post is a revision of http://maxmarmer.com/2010/02/maximizing-startup-ecosystem-efficiency/ written for emergent fool.

Right now the tech industry is the most innovative industry on the planet. Its success is in large part due to it being the first information age innovation ecosystem, which has implications for the future of the world, as we transition to an information economy.

This emerging information age is just the latest epochal shift of organized society as we have already progressed through tribal, agrarian and industrial societies. Now, on the cusp of this transition, the tech industry is pioneering the movement forward. (For more on this transition see Arthur Brock’s fantastic Prezi). Many of the methodologies and organizational structures that enhance a startup’s success will be relevant not just for startups but universal to the entire information age, because much of what works for tech startups will apply to emerging industries in the information economy. This is because innovation ecosystems that operate in the information age, are likely to operate in very similar ways, regardless of sector. The tech industry is just the first to inhabit space in the information economy and therefore is a harbinger for future industries.

The startup ecosystem is now creating the blueprint for the future of the information economy because much of the startup ecosystem replicated across emerging industries in sectors diverse as social change, health, biotech, molecular manufacturing and government, as soon as these industries begin their transition into the information age. Since the startup ecosystem will be replicated, it’s important to begin focusing on maximizing the efficiency now, both to increase the output of startups today, and to figure out how a more complete system works, so that we transfer a more stable, well-understood system. And since efficiencies realized in the tech ecosystem now will cascade over into the emerging industries, every further increase in efficiency will be amplified enormously and echo for generations, as it affects not just current startups, but all future copies of information age innovation ecosystems. The cheapest and therefore by definition, best place to experiment with improving innovation ecosystems for the entire information age is right here, right now in startup world. We must attempt to make our information age innovation ecosystems as robust as possible, because they represent the foundation of the future of the world’s economy.

If companies in these emerging industries want to maximize the scalability and impact of their solutions they will not only to need imitate the structure of the startup ecosystem but they will also need to draw heavily on the rules of the information economy that startups have begun to uncover. Their war chest will need to include tools and methods such as: social networks, crowdsourcing, the cloud, virtual collaboration, lean methodology, metrics and conversion funnels, customer development, rapid iteration, handling uncertainty and many other ideas now fundamental to a startup’s success.

You can already see some early signals of people and organizations in other sectors achieving great success by cross fertilizing principles and methdology from the startup world.

The Obama campaign changed political campaigns forever with their revolutionary level of citizen engagement. This was achieved by drawing heavily on Silicon Valley credo, with the campaign spearheaded by Chris Hughes, one of the co-founders of Facebook.

Kiva brought microfinance to the masses and has raised and distributed in an unprecedented amount of money by bridging the social sector with the operating principles of a Silicon Valley startup.

Government 2.0 is essentially an experiment asking the question, what happens if we mix Sillicon Valley with Government on a larger scale than campaigns, and use the power of data, transparency and API’s to increase the effectiveness of government? Health Care, Biotech and a slew of other industries are asking similar questions.

Hello Health is attempting to turn one aspect of the health care industry upside down by cutting insurance companies out of the doctor-patient relationship, simply by applying a few Silicon Valley startup principles to health care.

The tech industry has already changed the world, but as new industries adopt similar organizational principles society will experience multiplicative networks effects that will be utterly mind blowing. When people talk about accelerating change and the singularity and you don’t know what to expect, this it: when Silicon Valley leaves the valley and sweeps across the other industries of the world and transforms them into information age innovation ecosystems.

Information Age Innovation Ecosystems

If you look at the startup ecosystem’s output compared to all other industries over the last 30 years, you might dismiss it as an anomaly that will fade with time. But the industry’s incredibly fast wealth creation is not hype that will peter out, it’s a sign of what’s to come. The tech industry is just is the first of many information age innovation ecosystems, that will also be able to create a flurry of progress at an exponential rate.

The first requirement for an innovation ecosystem is that the core practice of an industry becomes an information technology. This is key because its information technology’s inherent scalability and replicability that enables exponential progress. The second critical requirement for an industry to become an innovation ecosystems is a large number of people freely experimenting. In the startup ecosystem, this was triggered by the personal computer and the mass amateurization of computing it allowed. When using a computer was incredibly complex and expensive the industry had a huge bottle neck. When that barrier was broken down and costs fell far enough that anyone could experiment in their bedroom or garage, the creativity of the masses was unleashed and amazing breakthroughs began to happen. That was the birth of the startup ecosystem.

I believe the birth of future innovation ecosystems, will occur the moment information technology can be used in the garage. Currently the startup ecosystem is the only scalable garage industry around, but imagine the creativity that will be unleashed as the costs fall far enough to allow other industries to enter garage territory. As soon as the garage threshold for biotech is crossed, an ecosystem similar to the startup ecosystem will begin to emerge. There will be firms dedicated to investing capital at various stages of the lifecycle of the company, communities of practice will emerge, formal conferences and informal meetups will spring up everywhere, databases of knowledge will be abundant, and open source infrastructure will be created that gives people even more leverage. Imagine people playing with atoms just as easily as they play with bits. Imagine biotech companies being born out of bedrooms and garages. The moment biotech becomes a fully functioning garage industry, with an efficient supporting ecosystem, the world is in for a crazy ride.

Again, this evolutionary process will apply not just to biotech but every industry with potential in an information economy. The 4 pillars of any innovation ecosystem I believe are Capital, Community, Information, and Tools.