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Startup cynicism and Substack, or Clubhouse, or Miami or …

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Image Credits: John Coletti (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

If you build it, they will come, but they sure as hell are going to complain about everything until they do.

There were millions of bets made in the tech industry last year. Some of those bets involved actual venture capital dollars. Others involved individual decisions on where to live: Do you bet on the future of San Francisco or do you want to partake in the growth of some other startup hub? Are you going to launch this new feature in your product or improve one of your existing ones? Do you switch jobs or stay and double down?

Yet, for all those bets, just three seem to have achieved a collective and hysterical frenzy in the industry as we close out this year: a bet on the future of media, a bet on the future of (audio) media and a bet on the future of one of America’s greatest cities.

Substack, Clubhouse and Miami as a major tech hub are compelling bets. They are early bets, in the sense that most of the work to actually realize each of their dreams remains to be done. All three are bets of optimism: Substack believes it can rebuild journalism. Clubhouse believes it can reinvent radio with the right interactivity and build a unique social platform. And Miami is a bet that you can take a top global city without a massive startup ecosystem and agglomerate the talent necessary to compete with San Francisco, New York and Boston.

Yet, that optimism is not broadly endorsed by the tech commentariat, who see threats, failures and barriers from every angle.

I wish I could say it’s just the ennui of an industry in flux given the pandemic and constant cavalcade of chaos and bad news that’s hit us this year. That cynicism, though, has gotten deeper and more entrenched over the past few years even before coronavirus was a trending topic, even as more startups than ever are getting funding (and at better valuations!), even as more startups than ever are exiting, and those exits are collectively larger than ever as we saw earlier this month.

Insecurity is the fabric that runs through most of these bleak analyses. That’s particularly prominent with Substack, which sits at the nexus of insecurity in tech and insecurity in media. The criticism from tech folks seems to basically boil down to “it’s just an email service!” Its simplicity is threatening, since it seems to intimate that anyone could have built a Substack, really anytime in the last decade.

Indeed, they could. Substack is simple in its original product conception, which is a DNA it happens to share with a lot of other successful consumer startups. It is (or perhaps better to say now, was) just email. It’s Stripe + a CMS editor + an email delivery service. A janky version could be written in a day by most competent engineers. And yet. No one else built Substack, and that’s where the insecurity starts in the startup world.

From the media perspective, it’s of course been brutal the last few years in newsrooms and across publishing, so understandably, the level of cynicism in the press is already high (and journalists aren’t exactly optimistic types to begin with). Yet, most of the criticism here basically boils down to, “Why hasn’t Substack completely stopped the bloodletting of my industry in the short few years it’s been around?”

Maybe they will, but give the folks some goddamn time to build. The fact that a young startup is even considered to have the potential to completely rebuild an industry is precisely what makes Substack (and other adjacent startups in its space) such a compelling bet. Substack, today, cannot reemploy tens of thousands of laid-off journalists, or fix the inequality in news coverage or industry demographics, or end the plight of “fake news.” But what about a decade from now if they keep growing on this trajectory and stay focused on building?

The cynicism of immediate perfection is one of the strange dynamics of startups in 2020. There is this expectation that a startup, with one or a few founders and a couple of employees, is somehow going to build a perfect product on day one that mitigates any potential problem even before it becomes one. Maybe these startups are just getting popularized too early, and the people who understand early product are getting subsumed by the wider masses who don’t understand the evolution of products?

This pattern is obvious in the case of Clubhouse, the drama aspects we have mostly managed to avoid at TechCrunch. It’s a new social platform, with new social dynamics. No one understands what it’s going to become in the next few years. Not Paul Davison (who might, even so, have a dream of where he wants to take it), not Clubhouse’s investors, and certainly not its users. This past week, a live “Lion King” musical event with thousands of participants was performed through Clubhouse. Who had that on their bingo board?

Are there problems with Substack and Clubhouse? For sure. But as early companies, they have the obligation to explore the terrain of what they are building, find the key features that compel users to these platforms, and ultimately find their growth formula. There will be problems — trust and safety chief among them, particularly given the nature of user-contributed content. No startup has ever been founded, however, that didn’t uncover problems along its journey. The key question we must ask is whether these companies have the leadership to fix them as they continue building. My sense — and hypothetical bet — is yes.

Talking about leadership, that leads us to Francis Suarez, the mayor of Miami, whose single tweet offering to help has sparked the most absurd kerfuffle of San Francisco lovers and vitriolic pessimists the world over right now.

Keith Rabois and a few other VCs and founders are blazing a trail from San Francisco to Miami, linking up with the local industry to try to build something new and better than what existed before. It’s a bet on a place — an optimistic one — that the power of startups and tech can migrate outside of its central hubs.

What’s strange is that the cynicism around Miami here seems even less warranted than it did a decade ago. While San Francisco and distantly New York and Boston remain the clear hubs of tech startups in the U.S., cities like Salt Lake, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Austin, Denver, Philadelphia and more have started to score some serious points. Is it really so hard to believe that Miami, a metro region of 5.5 million and one of the largest regional economies in the United States, might actually succeed as well? Maybe it literally just required a few major VCs to show up to catalyze the revolution.

Nothing got built by cynicism. “You can’t do it!” has never created a company, except perhaps to trigger a founder to start something in revolt at the fusillade of negativity.

It takes time though to build. It takes time to take an early product and grow it. It takes time to build a startup ecosystem and expand it into something self-sustaining. Perhaps most importantly, it takes extraordinary effort and hard work, and not just from singular individuals but a whole team and community of people to succeed. The future is malleable — and bets do pay off. So we all need to stop asking what’s the problem and pointing out flaws, and perhaps ask, what future are we building toward? What’s the bet I’m willing to back?

Substack explains its ‘hands-off’ approach to content moderation

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