Fail fast, fail often. Fail forwards. Fail inwards. Never stop never failing. Whatever twist on the mantra you've heard, you've probably heard it. In Silicon Valley, failure is seen as an inevitable stop on the path to success; if you haven't passed it yet, you need to keep going.
But the game has changed. The big companies only accrue more power, and while it's perhaps easier than ever to form a startup, it's also harder than ever to succeed as one.
Read this: Best hearables 2017
As we saw again this week, even a great idea brimming with potential is no guarantee of success. This game is tough.
Oh God, who's died now?
Doppler Labs (RIP). The hearable startup announced this week that it's closing shop after four years, and we're a bit sad about it. We had a chat with CEO Noah Kraft about what went wrong and what could have been – check it out here.
Startups fail all the time. Is this any different?
It is and it isn't. Doppler undoubtedly had problems, with the Here One beset by production delays, battery life and, ultimately, low sales. But Doppler also had some genuinely impressive and unique tech, a crack squad, and an idea that nobody else was doing in quite the same way.
Hearables? Everyone's doing them!
Yes but they're all a bit different. Doppler carved out a niche focused on augmented reality hearing, letting you choose what comes in and out from the outside world while also streaming your music. Bragi meanwhile is more focused on fitness and other computer-in-the-ear features, while Apple's AirPods are, well, just headphones really. Doppler's bionic ear was on a path to good things, with live translation just around the corner. But it also had big potential in hearing health, with plans to market the Here Two as a hearing aid alternative.
Well if it was that good, it wouldn't have failed
Maybe, but things are tougher now. The problem wasn't just that Doppler didn't sell enough devices, but when it came to raising capital and, eventually, looking to sell the company, it hit a wall. These big companies often buy up the little ones, but they can also just build things themselves. It's a problem of entrenchment: the giants swell and further embed themselves, making it harder and harder for startups to raise capital – or even get acquired.
So who else ya got?
Snap Inc (no longer a startup, granted) is a particularly telling case study right now, as it continues to fight Facebook (which also owns Instagram) almost feature for feature. Meanwhile its experiment with Snap Specs was apparently not much of a success, with reports of hundreds of thousands of unsold units and a poor retention rate.
And let's not forget Pebble, which closed its doors in December last year. It couldn't raise the money to sustain itself and ended up stripping off some software and selling it to Fitbit, leaving the rest on the scrap heap. Like Doppler, it deserved better. Then there's Jawbone, though that's a different study in over-evaluation.
So what's going on?
You'll get different answers depending on who you ask, but there's no doubt that the 'Big Five' – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook – are making it harder and harder for smaller startups to scale without being bought – or folding. These giants are becoming more able at doing things themselves, building things they once relied on others for. And as these companies have turned their attention to wearables, hearables, smart home and VR, the smaller companies have suffered for it.
And what's the solution?
Maybe there isn't one. Some will argue the growing dominance of the big five is a bad thing; others will convince you of the opposite. But there's no doubting that many wearable tech and smart home companies are feeling the burn as Facebook doubles down on VR, Apple leans into wearables and Amazon leads Alexa's home invasion. Casualties are an inevitability – apparently failure is a good thing, remember? – but as the Goliaths of this world only get stronger, it's getting harder and harder to root for David.
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