I sure hope Schroeder is right.
In many ways he clearly is.
That software has taken over and changed many aspects of the global economy in less than a decade is now clear. Companies that are descriptively software enterprises—Google, Facebook (on whose board I serve), Twitter, Airbnb, Pinterest, and many others—have opened up human connections, access to knowledge, and new business models unforeseen before they existed. Software-powered start-ups have disrupted almost every traditional consumer-facing experience from books to music to travel to video entertainment and gaming to shopping to telephony and beyond.
But this is only a part of the story. Today almost every company is, in some form, a software company. Look at the dashboard of your car and consider how today’s engines work. Think about the sophistication that allows you to safely bank online. Next time you buy a cup of coffee with a credit card, fill your car with gas, or shop at Wal-Mart, ask how remarkable innovation in software has allowed their logistics to scale. In 2011, I wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “software is eating the world,” and software’s appetite has increased dramatically since then. Traditional enterprises like Kodak and Borders that at best paid lip service to software innovation, at worst ignored it, are in an existential crisis—not in some theoretical future, but right now.
Schroeder is also right in describing the three forces that are driving tech innovation from unexpected corners of the globe and that a new generation of entrepreneurs take for granted:
- How technology offers an irreversible level of transparency, connectivity, and inexpensive access to capital and markets;
- How over two decades of experience in navigating emerging market investment has made regional and global capital more comfortable with political risk and understanding local market distinctions;
- That with rapidly increasing access to technology there are large, untapped markets of consumers and businesses seeking greater software solutions.
To his three I would add a fourth: after twenty years of hard work by many talented people, all the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale. And these are the earliest innings. I believe within a decade there will be five billion people using smartphones worldwide—the equivalent computing capacity of a supercomputer and the full power of the Internet on everyone’s person, all the time, everywhere. Schroeder notes that experts tell him to expect 50 percent penetration across the Middle East in three to five years. What this will yield in problem-solving and opportunity-building is limited only by one’s imagination.
Schroeder is provocative and likely right, that we in Silicon Valley risk being hyper focused on ourselves and our own echo chambers. There is no question that the network effect of talent—that world class entrepreneurs, engineers, and design talent want to be with and are attracted by the best—has made Silicon Valley unique in the history of global innovation. That we historically have thought of emerging growth markets as either places to sell our products and services or relatively inexpensive outsourcing opportunities is limiting. If everything I have written here is true, innovation will clearly come from surprising places when great talent has access to software. Our answer has historically been to focus on such talents when we can bring them to Silicon Valley—which is why I have been an active supporter of greater expansion of young entrepreneurs having access to the H-1B visa. At the same time, we will need to think differently if talent progressively wants to stay home and innovate.
Whether the remarkably talented entrepreneurs in the Middle East can scale and build regionally and globally competitive software at scale is still, for me, however, the central question—certainly a billion dollar question, and ultimately a trillion dollar question.
The stories of great entrepreneurs and ideas Chris describes are inspiring and potentially game changing. Middle Eastern entrepreneurs are spawning startups in education, crime-prevention, traffic-management, recycling, renewable energy, health, entertainment, education, and beyond, solving real challenges and finding new opportunities that can change societies. And they may change the world. Could, as he asks, unique experiences in the region spawn globally adopted software in spaces like mobile, social networks, and solar energy?
Culture and ecosystem, however, mean everything, and these entrepreneurs face real headwinds. There are disappointingly few Middle Eastern governments and educational institutions seriously tackling the difficult decisions required to change downward trajectories in infrastructure at scale and speed. In fact, with an increase in Internet restrictions in the region of late, Schroeder rightly points out that governments are not only hindering communication and transparency, but the very platform of economic growth that I believe will drive any successful country in the coming decades.
He raises an intriguing idea that regional entrepreneurial ecosystems are being built anyway, bottoms up, enabled by access to software. There is a line that stands in my mind from one of the leading entrepreneurs in the region: there is no “wasta”—the system of favors and “Who do you know?” that has driven so much of life from getting into a good school to finding a good job—on the Internet. A similar sentiment was expressed by the new regional head of LinkedIn, who noted that platforms like theirs emphasize transparently connecting job seekers based on their real skills and performance. Millions of people are using social networks, YouTube, and hundreds of start-ups in the region to take control of and improve their own lives. Perhaps this new generation will build new models of economic success despite the daunting challenges caused by political and institutional neglect.
The demographics of the Middle East are most telling to me—and are a double-edged sword. The vast numbers of young people coming into adulthood mean an unprecedented talent pool to create and innovate. Traditional business models simply cannot absorb them, and entrepreneurship will have to be part of the answer. If embraced by their societies, I’d rather have this challenge than countries now facing a decrease in youth. Ignored, however, the ramifications could be more generationally catastrophic. In many ways, emerging growth markets are making specific decisions about whether to embrace the new realities of the twenty-first century or hunker down in the missed opportunities often repeated in the twentieth.
I suppose if these entrepreneurs are not embraced at home, it’s good news for Silicon Valley people like me. As Schroeder notes, there has never been a time in history where talent has been more mobile. Our doors are always open to great entrepreneurs who want nothing more than to build what was not there before.
But a unique opportunity is at hand for any society that actively embraces it. Startup Rising offers a remarkable narrative most of us don’t consider when thinking about the Middle East. But it makes sense, and these courageous entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders are clearly on the right side of history.