For Startups, Is Friction Always Bad?

There’s probably nary a Web entrepreneur who hasn’t had a forehead-slapping “Why didn’t I build Groupon?” moment at some point in 2010. Well, I had an experience like that this week, reading Devin Friedman’s superb article “The Viral Me” in the December issue of GQ. It’s all about the Y Combinator venture incubator in Mountain View, CA, and the peculiar species of brash, young, hyper-optimistic entrepreneurs who build companies there. Given that I know most of the startup founders Friedman talked with—heck, I’ve profiled a bunch of their companies—I’d like to think I could have written a piece that good.

I urge you to read it for yourself. But it’s even longer than most of my articles, so I’ll summarize the point that I thought was most perceptive. It was about friction. The entrepreneurs Friedman hung out with, such as DailyBooth CEO Brian Pokorny, talked about how they strive to build Web services that are frictionless—that is, very easy to join and use—or that even have a kind of negative friction, so that it becomes harder to not use them than to just give in (e.g. Facebook).

Friedman dutifully lists the merits of frictionlessness, but toward the end of the piece he cleverly turns the idea around. He suggests that most young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs seem so happy about what they’re doing precisely because of friction: they’ve been given the resources to build stuff, “and the act of creation is maybe the most frictive thing going.” From this point of view, you need a certain amount of difficulty to keep life interesting; otherwise, nothing would be a challenge.

(As a quick side point, there may actually be a benefit to preserving friction on the Web, too. Andres Glusman, vice president of strategy at New York-based Meetup, told me recently that his company actually saw an increase in usage after it added a checkbox to its group creation page saying “I pledge to create real, face-to-face community.” The added step seemed to cause users to slow down and think about why they really wanted to use Meetup in the first place.)

Now, what happens if you take this idea of friction up one level, from the things technology entrepreneurs build to the environments they’re building in? I’ve asserted in this column before that the geography isn’t such a big issue anymore for startups, since cash, talent, and the other resources fueling innovation are increasingly liquid. And I still think that’s the direction things are going. But by my argument, you’d be able to build a tech startup in Fargo, ND, just as easily as you can in Mountain View—which clearly isn’t yet the case.

From Friedman’s point of view, the only way to make Fargo as attractive as Mountain View—the only way to massively scale up Silicon Valley, in other words—would be to remove all friction from entrepreneurship. But not only is this impossible, it would defeat the whole point of being an entrepreneur. You need some friction to keep things interesting, and to weed out the bad ideas. The question is how much.

And that’s the point I want to riff on today. Because Xconomy observes key innovation hubs so closely, we’ve got a fair amount of data, at least of an anecdotal sort, about what’s working for technology entrepreneurs and what isn’t. My own sense is that in New England, where Xconomy was born, startup founders encounter too much friction. In Silicon Valley, by contrast, they probably encounter too little.

Let me expand on both points. I spent three years covering the innovation scene in Boston before moving to San Francisco last summer. So I know there’s an ongoing discussion among entrepreneurs, investors, and government officials about how to strengthen the ecosystem supporting Massachusetts technology startups and how to keep young entrepreneurs from fleeing to Silicon Valley. There have been positive developments—for example, the MassChallenge startup competition, the opening of Kendall Square’s Venture Cafe as a community hub, and the Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week effort (which actually spread across most of October). But these changes haven’t plugged the startup leak.

The latest case is RelayRides, a car-sharing service that was born earlier this year in Cambridge, MA, and won the $50,000 grand prize in the MassChallenge competition in October. The startup revealed this week that it’s moving to San Francisco, having secured an undisclosed amount of … Next Page »

Single PageCurrently on Page: 1 2 3

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

Trending on Xconomy