The view from Silicon Valley

Pets.com, and its infamous advertising sock puppet, are the poster children of the dot.com bust. People in Silicon Valley still snicker about the $400m failure whose demise infamously landed its chief backer on a magazine cover with the legend: "World's Worst Venture Capitalist?"

But the other day, I remembered what a marvel Pets.com had been. It had gone from an idea to a 400-person, fully functioning company in less than a year. Logistics alone were a daunting task, especially in the overblown markets for people, space and technological infrastructure. In a way that makes sense only in the rarefied, topsy-turvy world of venture capital, where failure is the norm, Pets.com did what it was supposed to do. It discovered that animal fanciers didn't think petfood-by-mail was a good idea. So Pets.com went belly up.

But the idea had merit. Sales of pet items are huge in the US. Giant discount stores and mail-order services slug it out to attract the custom of tens of millions of pet-owners. A website that gave free advice from experts (instead of the clueless, underpaid clerks in most discount stores), a wide selection, low prices and doorstep delivery really wasn't that bad an idea. But it failed. Miserably. Spectacularly. Why?

My theory is that it is nearly impossible to build a winner from scratch all in one go. Evolution or, more precisely, the Darwinian theory of evolution provides the clue. When a new niche opens up in a natural system, a large number of critters may attempt to occupy it. Over time, however, it a single species will nearly always come to dominate the niche, with perhaps a small number of rivals that manage to hang on. It can be demonstrated that the winner isn't necessarily the best equipped; but it is the one that has endured and adapted to all the twists and turns the world has launched at it over thousands or millions of years, some of which have nothing to do with its core abilities.

Thus, small, scurrying mammals ultimately trumped huge and formidable dinosaurs. Successful start-ups have likewise scraped and clawed their way from inception to real businesses. They often succeed in ways not envisioned by their founders. Intel once made memory chips and almost crashed; Hewlett-Packard started out (with $583 in capital) making audio oscillators (it sold eight, to Disney, for the film Fantasia) long before practical computers were invented.

It seems that some principle says you have to put in the hard time. Real companies have done the excruciating and gritty work of adapting themselves to what real people will actually pay for. And that takes time, patience and an unrelenting effort.

If nature could have built an ultimate winner in one shot, it would have: it's the nature of nature to be efficient. But where nature cannot go, it seems, neither can nature's spawn, including venture capitalists. So adieu, Pets.com, dodo of dot.coms. We'll wait to see which companies are really the mammals among the feet of today's dinosaurs.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manager - (communications, testing, DM)

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manage...

Guru Careers: Finance Account Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Finance Account Manager with...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Direct Marketing Manager - B2C, Financial Services - Slough

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity h...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum