Invest Broad and Shallow, Not Narrow and Deep

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Scobot showing his work, VR Painting No. 001, at the meetup.

Last week’s Seattle’s VR/AR meetup was an opportunity to reflect on how the community is doing as a whole. I always look forward to seeing familiar faces at these meetups and enjoy catching up with people like Andrew Mitrak, Eva Hoerth, Jordan Kellog, Trond Nilsen, Bridget Swirksi, and many others. The same core of people continues to show up while new folks are being welcomed into the fold. I talked to Joshua Jonas about his successful time in China and with Dave Huber about his audio collaborations in Amsterdam and Berlin. There are new demos, reports of breakthroughs, and sneak peeks at mind-blowing experiences to come. All in all, everyone seems to be making progress.

But I also detected a sense of sober uncertainty. The meetup happened on the night that Altspace VR announced its plan to shut down. Reaction to that news was rueful but not shocked. Tellingly, no one deemed the demise of much-admired Altspace a failure, but rather a necessary step in the evolution of social VR. I keep thinking about how the people who built Altspace will now take their knowledge to other companies and other ventures, and how, in the long run, this will greatly benefit the industry as a whole.

I’m fascinated by the process by which we apply knowledge in one area to a new area. For instance, as we try to figure out storytelling in VR, we refer to lessons we learned in older media like movies, games, and literature. The challenge is to listen to the new medium and be receptive to the ways in which it wants to diverge from the structures of previous media.

While talking to Joshua Jonas, who has been neck deep in the investment process as Inverse Studios’s CEO, it occurred to me that the investment community is also applying what it learned from previous industries. For starters, it seems that VCs are focused on finding the one company that will break out and deliver VR’s killer app, driving higher adoption. If your primary goal is to make money and you’re investing in a new industry, then it’s inevitable that a gambling mentality can take hold. So when a company like Altspace VR goes under, it’s interpreted as a sign that somebody didn’t bet on the right horse.

Instead of thinking about the VR industry as a collection of companies that are each competing to be the Twitter or Google of VR, we can think much more holistically. There is a difference between investing in a company and investing in a entire creative economy. The trouble is, the channels of investment are securely established toward individual companies, not ecosystems. As I looked around the room last week, I wondered what would happen if every person in attendance was given $10,000 to work on something related to VR. My suspicion is that the 100 or so people would form interesting partnerships and alliances and pool their resources into creating experiences that any single company wouldn’t be capable of creating.

The VR creators I know who are heavily engaged in the investment process all seem to be playing someone else’s game, a game designed by Silicon Valley’s startup culture to maximize the possibility of a breakout company. The problem isn’t that VR companies like Altspace aren’t succeeding in this model—the problem is the model.

Ideas have more impact the more surface area they’re allowed to cover. They cover more surface area by being shared. Creative communities operate as idea distribution platforms that also encourage ideas to combine, mutate, and give birth to other ideas. If you’re intent upon a return on your investment, you’re more inclined to storehouse and hide ideas. This is the primary tension at play in the VR industry today. On one side are communities of independent creators motivated to spread ideas around, and on the other are people who want to make money by hoarding and claiming as many good ideas as possible.

A truly visionary investor would create a community slush fund that would give out a lot of modest grants to, for instance, allow hackathon teams to invest in better gear. My hunch is that giving out a little money to a lot of people is better than giving out a lot of money to a few people. The point shouldn’t be to go all-in with a group of ten developers working in secret in a garage. It should be to help as many VR creators as possible pay the rent for the next three months, freeing them up to collaborate and discover the unexpected ideas that arise when they have more territory in which to grow.

There are examples of these sorts of small investments paying off in a big way. Stockholm, Sweden, today has one of the biggest music production scenes in part because in the 1970s, the government gave micro-grants that helped musicians buy musical instruments. This alleviated some of the economic pressure at the grassroots level, allowing for artists to develop without having to worry so much about paying the bills. Imagine what would happen in Seattle if the 100 or so people at last week’s meetup were given Vives.

Status thinking prevents us from seeing how effective a strategy of wide and shallow investment could be. To horribly mix a metaphor, we’re all hoping to lasso the big enchillada, when we’ll all rise together if our personal ambitions take a back seat to our community ambitions. Imagine the power in not just striving for your own company’s success, but being equally invested in the success of three or four other companies. This is what I mean when I talk about competing like artists instead of athletes. When you compete like an artist, you depend upon your competition for inspiration. And in Seattle’s VR community, there is plenty of inspiration to go around.

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