Twitter @ 5 – so what will be the next big thing?

21 Mar 2011

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In his look back on the week, Siliconrepublic.com editor John Kennedy points out that as microblogging site Twitter hits five years old today and Facebook embarks on the next heave to hit 1bn users, it’s time start-ups avoid trying to be the next Facebook or Twitter.

Who owns an idea? Where does a stellar idea come from? And when should businesses consider looking within themselves for the next big thing?

Anyone who saw The Social Network would realise that as well as being a 21st-century take on any of Shakespeare’s classics – choose MacBeth or Hamlet, if you’d like – its telling of the story of Facebook was really about who owned the original idea and that all too human situation that success has many fathers. Whether the film was just fiction or fact, Facebook was nevertheless an incredible idea executed at the perfect time. Pure and simple. It is approaching 600m users and is hurtling inexorably towards 1bn. Let’s hope reaching the first 1bn milestone will be less traumatic for CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Co than the first 1m.

Today, another web phenomena, microblogging site Twitter, marks five years. Its story, too, if ever told by Hollywood, would be really about the genesis of an idea. A podcasting company called Odeo was struggling, was at a crossroads and needed to do something radical to survive. And so on 21 March 2006 one of its employees, Jack Dorsey, sends the first tweet: “just setting up my twittr.”

Today, some 460,000 Twitter accounts are opened daily and it has 200m users. Some 140m tweets – messages consisting of 140 characters maximum – are sent daily. Odeo, now known as Twitter, has grown from eight employees to 400 and is valued at US$4.5bn. Across Europe, national capitals are battling for the honour of hosting Twitter’s first European HQ.

Indeed the story of Google is an endearing one. The web phenomena that has succeeded in reinventing advertising, media, e-commerce, communication and many other things, began with two friends on a campus at Stanford University maxing credit cards buying servers to test out a new library system for managing information. Today, it employs 25,000 people worldwide and has revenues of US$30bn a year.

Apple’s origins go back to Steve Jobs, Ronald Wayne and Steve Wozniak meeting at a Homebrew Computer Club, buying parts, including that of a typewriter, and putting together the Macintosh I and selling it in a local computer shop. Today, Apple has almost 50,000 employees and is worth US$200bn.

The stories of Google, Twitter, Apple and Facebook are atypical. Yet everyone seems to be looking to find the next Twitter, the next Google, the next Facebook, the next Apple.

When people talk about a potential bubble akin to the dot.com implosion of 2000, including myself, often those who may know better say the difference between these companies and the companies of 2000 is Apple, Zynga, Groupon, Facebook, et al, are all making money.

So what will be the next big thing?

What will be the next big thing? Nobody saw Facebook coming. Nobody saw Twitter coming and neither the computer industry or the mobile phone industry realised at first that their very salvation is owed to the uncompromising design ethic and timing of Jobs’ Apple.

Timing is everything. Ten years ago, Jobs correctly guessed the nexus point between broadband, digital music and MP3 players and brought out the iPod. He repeated this feat with the iPhone and tablet computer, effectively reinventing mobile phones and personal computing. Facebook’s Zuckerberg correctly reasoned that everybody wants to know everyone else’s relationship status. At Twitter, Dorsey realised a more efficient way of sending messages to computers and phones.

There are many exciting things happening in mobile, in TV, in web, in cars, in green tech. The people who will identify the next big thing will be the people who intuitively realise what people actually want. Perhaps the seed or the germ of the answer to this question could be gotten by asking the man on the street. Groupon intuitively realised that in a recession-weary world people had less money, saw nobility in thrift and saw no reason to stop enjoying the fine things in life.

Don’t forget the maxim – necessity is the mother of all invention!

Where will the next big thing come from?

My gut: everywhere and anywhere!

The difference between the Twitter, Google, Facebook and Apple fraternity is that the world has really awoken to the promise of what technology and innovation can – and should – do. The next level of innovation can come from everywhere.

Last September, I met Chris Dark and Mattias Ljungman of Atomico, a US$165m London-based venture capital firm founded by Skype founders Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, and they politely explained that while nowhere else exists like Silicon Valley, some of the most exciting places on earth for new technology ventures are Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Ljungman pointed out that Japanese firms are buying Brazilian firms and vice versa.

Reports from Silicon Valley hint at a tiring of the me-too nature of ideas emanating from there. Venture capitalists are backing ideas on the basis of this being the next Facebook or that being the next Twitter. This does not mean that Silicon Valley is losing any of its bling – on the contrary, nowhere else on earth exists with such a concentration of innovation and cash – but it does leave the door wide open to other people in other countries to develop the next big thing.

At the recent Web Summit in Dublin there were two meetings I had that gave me great encouragement for what indeed could come out of Ireland, for example.

First, I met 17-year-old James Whelton, who gained notoriety for being the first person in the world to hack the latest generation of iPad Nano music players. Before our interview, Whelton told me how there is an appetite among kids today to learn more about computer programming, how to hack things and figure out how they work. Encouraged by a supportive headmaster, Whelton and his classmates hold programming classes. But get this: Whelton is determined to pursue his own start-up company and if it doesn’t work the first time he’ll try again and again. This is a welcome attitude and we need more people to think this way.

My next meeting was with Jerry Kennelly, who sold his first company Stockbyte to Getty Images for €135m in 2006. Since then, Kennelly has been a driving force behind the Endeavour Programme, which is powering numerous start-ups, and he has fostered a culture of entrepreneurialism in Kerry that extends down to eight-year-olds. Kennelly’s latest venture, Tweak.com, provides businesses around the world with high-end design resources.

In Kennelly’s view, there is no place on Earth like Ireland for starting up companies, because there is no where on Earth that provides the same level of support start-ups get here. To be honest, I was surprised at this at first but have come to realise there is a different attitude in the minds of Irish entrepreneurs today. They are non-compromising, have a diverse set of ideas and have a confidence I hadn’t seen in a long time, if ever.

With kids like Whelton who are fascinated by programming and entrepreneurs like Kennelly providing the backbone of a whole new generation of confident and courageous start-ups, the future is indeed bright.

The next big thing has its root in diversity – diverse ideas, diverse cultures, different attitudes. As Twitter celebrates its fifth birthday, Facebook hurtles towards an IPO and the world oohs and ahs at the next “magical” device to come from Apple, my guess is the next big thing will come from individuals who dare to be different and avoid me-too ventures.

Don’t be the next anything! Go with your gut and build something the world has never seen before.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com