Life is not as hard as it seems.
And nothing is as real as we believe.
Are you too busy living, to realize you're living the dream.
I know, I'm gold.
These lyrics, appropriately taken from Leticia Wolf's "I'm Gold," winner of PledgeMusic's and Givit's SXSW Showcase, are nothing if not a perfect reflection of our times. When things are manageable, when time moves slowly, and when we are given ample opportunity to cultivate thoughts and evolve at a pace aligned with our intrinsic human capacity, we don't talk about "life being hard," "things being real" and "being too busy."
After a week and a half of recovery from the SXSW chaos (exhilarating and exhausting all at once) and after spending the time to replay conversations, reproduce moments of peak interest, and review my notes, one outstanding theme came to light: it's time to focus on making complex things simple.
Real problems are complex, but real people want simplicity.
Setting the stage: a simple framework for understanding the startup landscape
When the economy cracked wide open in 2008, two things happened: companies disappeared into the abyss along with jobs and old modes of thought, and opportunities for innovation and new modes of thought began to shift the tides of change.
But change requires mutual understanding, a viable framework, and leadership. In terms of the startup landscape, we now have the "connective tissue" required to truly give entrepreneurs -- game changing entrepreneurs -- the foundation they need.
This is due, in part, to an open dialogue happening between the public and private sectors, as well as government-backed initiatives like the Startup America Partnership. What started as a short-term mandate to provide support to U.S. startups has turned into a long-term, fundamental resource for the entrepreneurial-minded in 32 regional markets across the country. More than 12,000 startups have been born, bringing in more than $6 billion in annual revenue, creating more than 100,000 jobs.
When I sat down with Scott Case, CEO of Startup America, during SXSW to pick his brain, one thing he said stood out -- because it's the most important aspect of widespread change and upward movement:
"As a national community we are starting to have a common language that resonates across regions and markets. As an entrepreneur getting advice from a variety of sources, I need to have consistent feedback. More startups from around the country are getting higher quality feedback and are forced to step up their game. The fact that we have more assets helps improve the quality of companies."
After the storm comes the calm. So how do we use this framework to uncomplicate things?
No. 1: Streamlined communications
Already a complex organism, communications is perhaps the most obvious sufferer when we think about areas of innovation where simplicity is required. Before one-to-many technologies came into play, the channels by which we communicated were fairly straightforward. They required patience, coordination, and accountability -- whereas today we are conditioned to move at a moment's notice -- and the modes were relatively simple. Fax. Phone. Email.
The convergence of mobile and social, along with the hardware required for full integration, is the exact point at which complexity began to mount. Not because the technologies were complicated, but because we (as humans) were not yet equipped to field and filter the firehouse of information coming our way.
Now the challenge (and opportunity) is two-fold. First, from a human communications standpoint, building platforms that enable one-to-one communication for specific human needs, cutting out the layers of superfluous information and crap that has piled up on the Internet (think TaskRabbit, The One-Page Company, and yes... I'm going to say it... Match.com) which makes it nearly impossible to make an informed decision.
Second, from a telecommunications perspective, reducing the complexity that comes from multiple carriers, WiFi, name-your-number "G" network, combined with various hardware, software, and cloud solutions. The best example I can cite to date is Voxer, which is essentially taking "push-to-talk" to a whole new level because of two main differentiators: it is country and platform agnostic.
No. 2: Simple products
From all the noise at SXSW, came one quote from Leap Motion's Michael Buckwald that I've stated over and over in the past two weeks, and I'm sure will obsessively continue to state because it's just so darn accurate.
"Technology's job is to make complex things simple, not to add complexity to simple tasks. In the future, people shouldn't feel like they're using a computer."
In other words, when applied correctly, innovative technologies reduce friction, provide immersion, and aren't cumbersome to our natural, always evolving human behavior.
Greg Kostello, CEO and founder of Givit, a recently launched platform for video editing (I have donned it the "Final Cut Pro for dummies," which means even I can use it) understands the challenges around creating products that have simplicity at the core:
"First, you must understand the ultimate goal of the end user. To make it truly easy for the average individual, you must forget how it has been done before. You must throw out everything you've known before, start fresh, and shift your mindset and think: 'what does the user want to achieve, and what is the simplest most engaging way to make it happen?' Some people think it's about limiting features and restricting controls, but that isn't the solution -- the real key to simplicity is providing functionality that is intuitively learned, easily accessible and results in a delightful experience."
No. 3: Using apps where they are best suited
While the consensus at SXSW was "no clear winner in the app category," it is for good reason. Apps have reached a saturation point in terms of primary innovation and have gracefully slid into utility and ubiquity. The complexity of our "app-verse" has somewhat subsided as users, marketers, and developers seem to finally understand how to best apply their capabilities.
Austin-based Q Manning, whose Rocksauce Studios has been building apps for big brands and developers alike over the past several years, has watched how apps have single-handedly fulfilled this need for simplicity:
"Apps are our ultimate achievement in simplifying the complexities of life. Twitter simplifies communication down to 140 characters. Mailbox simplifies the complexity of dealing with massive amounts of email. Clear makes to-do lists about as simple as they can get -- with a tap to create and a swipe to remove.
The bite-sized nature of mobile software, coupled with the ability to naturally swipe, spin, twist, pinch or tap a mobile interface, has allowed us to take complex ideas which used to live in spreadsheet columns and rows, and make them easier to digest or interact with."
The opportunity for app developers here is apparent: don't build another dating app. Please. Take a complex problem and build an app that feels like a natural solution for a human being who is now adept at using apps to organize their life, source information, and grow a business.
Beyond just lip service
This idea of simplicity and focus has always been the battle cry of experienced and well-intentioned entrepreneurs; but with the accessibility and affordability of technology combined with low barriers to entry, abundant resources, and (frankly) the necessity of starting up new businesses, our collective propensity to pile "shit on top of shit" is evident.
I'm not suggesting that we slow the rampant tide of innovation or discourage entrepreneurs from experimenting, building, and testing their ideas. But what I am saying is that bringing home tech gold requires the entrepreneur to solve real problems for real people.
We now have the framework, the language, the connective tissue, and the collective need. There is no excuse for building more complexity into our already over-indulgent, saturated lives. So, let's get to it.